Review – The Reporter (National Theatre)

Wednesday 21 February 2007

The whingers lika a good mystery almost as much as they love a good whinge. So Nicholas Wright’s new play The Reporter at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe caught their attention.

Based on the remarkable life of the BBC journalist James Mossman during his last years, 1963 to 1971, The Reporter searches for the truth behind his bewildering suicide, trying to identify the nature of the “it” which Mossman’s suicide note claimed he could no longer bear.

Now as we all know, journalists are often thought of as floating around at the bottom of the food chain with lawyers and estate agents (Note to reader: Phil wrote that bit; Andrew was a journalist in a previous life) but Mossman was clearly a highly principled man whose moral outrage got him into trouble when he expressed it in an aggressive interview with the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson. In those days, political interviewees could expect a rather reverential style of questioning (none of your Paxman-style badgering). Number 10 objected and Mossman was banished to the world of arts broadcasting.

As is probably evident from the number of words we’re typing (in very much the sense of Turman Capote on Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing; That’s typing.”) all of this makes for very absorbing theatre and Wright misses no opportunity to show the parallels with more recent events — Mossman’s accusation that Wilson is a patsy to the United States over support for the Vietnam war resonates loudly. The BBC’s panic about how to handle Mossman after the Wilson debacle are redolent of the Andrew Gilligan affair.

Wright’s clever conceit is to tell the story through Mossman investigating the motivation behind his own death. If there is a flaw in this it’s that because Mossman is mysterious — former spy, largely pre-Wolfendon homosexual and to modern audiences over-English —Ben Chaplin‘s Mossman feels quite a cold narrator that we never get to  know. Not least, we never really get to understand his attraction to his bipolar and overly intense boyfriend Louis (Chris New) who is the agent of so much chaos in his life.

Despite the grim premise there is plenty of humour along the way, not least during the scenes at the BBC studio with Robin Day (an excellent Paul Ritter) and the famous interview with Wilson. There’s also something quite fascinating about Wright’s portrayal of the Auntie Beeb in an era when people really said things like “chocks away” and “chum” and had nicknames like “Mother” and “Ray Ray”.

So. Journalism? TV studios? Actors playing real-life interviewers and politicians? Sound familiar? Very Frost/Nixon. You wait years for a play on the subject to come along and two come along at once. Indeed, if the Whingers hadn’t bothered reading the programme, they’d have thought they were watching the work of prolific faction writer-du jour Peter Morgan. (Frost/Nixon, The Queen, Last King of Scotland et al)

Anyway, Nicholas Wright (whose recent work at the National includes His Dark Materials, Thérèse Raquin. and the excellent Vincent in Brixton also directed by Richard Eyre) has come up with an enthralling evening with a neat twist on the detective genre.

In fact, the Whingers carried out a bit if their own investigation and unearthed programmes at an excellent £1.50 with full cast/crew biogs and a fact-packed article about Mossman by the playwright. They also discovered that two glasses of wine cost about the same as a single glass of “full bodied” costs at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue.

One mystery that they couldn’t solve: From seats R16 and 17 (first level, stage right) mysterious mutterings and a computer mouse’s clicks could be heard from behind a black curtain throughout the play. Stage crew organising the final details of this last preview? Or were they ordering extra anchovies for their after show pizzas?

Footnote: Here’s an Interview with Nicholas Wright in The Times.

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