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pravda - a fleet street comedy - birmingham repertory theatre, 03/10/2006

simon gray - 2006-10-03, 13:09:04

First written and performed in the mid-80s, Howard Brenton & David Hare's Pravda is a newsroom satire, focussing on both the journalists themselves and their newspaper proprietors; it's not hard to see at the front of the authors' minds was the still-relatively-recent takeover by Rupert Murdoch of The Times, and the concerns many had about that of whether he would send it downmarket in the direction of The Sun

The story proper opens in the editor's office at the Leicester Bystander, with the staff, in the middle of trying to put the paper to bed being sent into turmoil at the news they are about to be bought by South African media magnate Lambert LeRoux (Roger Allam). Our 'hero' Andrew May (Oliver Dimsdale) is immediately promoted to editor, and LeRoux marches onwards. 

As a journalist reviewing a satirical play, one almost feels on slightly dangerous ground when the play is a satire on journalists - especially when one of the cameo characters in the play is the drunken theatre critic who writes his review without actually seeing any of the performance! It's analogous to the situation of those who write letters to the paper prefixed with the comment "I know you won't print this but I'm sending it anyway", in order to try to shame the editor into printing it. By being critical of a play critical of journalists, you're almost inviting a response of "well you would say that, wouldn't you". 

And, I have to say, I wasn't that impressed with the play. Sure, it had its amusing moments, but the satire was no near as biting as it was in Drop The Dead Donkey (which surely must have taken some inspiration from Pravda). There were dodgy accents abound, with Michael Begley's Eaton Sylvesterbeing just about the worst attempt at Australian I can remember for a long time, and although John Woodvine demonstrated his acting skill by playing a number of small roles throughout, it did set the audience up for confusion, because we couldn't be sure when other actors appeared in a different scene whether or not they were going to be different characters - especially when their accents slipped! At times the action became confused, either because things happenned too fast or because a new character's equally speedy introduction and departure wasn't properly explained. Most surprisingly, given the impressive CVs of nearly all the cast, some of the movements were a little on the wooden side, and right from the opening scene I was reminded of the school play instructions to never turn your back on the audience. 

Perhaps that paragraph above is a little over-harsh, though maybe not as harsh as other reviewers were during its run in Cheltenham, and although I couldn't recommend it I certainly wouldn't say it's not a fun night out. My thinking is perhaps best summarised by the words of a former colleague I bumped into on the way out - "I'm not sure what I was supposed to be learning from it". 

I can't say whether I would have thought it funny or relevant had I seen it in its day, but 20 years on, I don't think it has dated particularly well.

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