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Review: Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! at Liverpool Playhouse ****

Soon after I joined the Echo 20-odd years ago, its then editor asked me if I had any media role models.

I didn’t, but felt I had to say something, so offered “well, when we were at journalism college, we all admired Damien from Drop the Dead Donkey.”

I suspect I said it mostly for the reaction, because as someone who had also juggled running a newsdesk with fielding regular random phonecalls from my mum, the character I really identified with was Haydn Gwynne’s Alex.

While all workplaces have their moments, anyone who has ever spent time in a newsroom will recognise Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s sharply written storylines and lovingly crafted cast of dysfunctional characters, complete with their nose for a news angle, dodgy banter, backstabbing competitiveness, Machiavellian cunning, raging cynicism, cheerful incompetence and varying responses to moral dilemmas.

Drop the Dead Donkey blazed a witty, cynical and thought-provoking path through the 1990s and it was a sad day when GlobeLink News finally went dark.

But hallelujah, because while GlobeLink is yesterday’s news, its editorial team are very much back in this stage ‘reawakening’ penned by Hamilton and Jenkin and impressively starring practically every original cast member still with us (there’s a touching tribute at the end to Gwynne and to the late Liverpool actor David Swift, who played anchorman Henry).

Older, but not necessarily wiser, the GlobeLink team have been reunited by smooth-tongued management yes-man Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan) to launch a new station called – provocatively - Truth News.

Above: Truth News. Top: Damien (Stephen Tompkinson), Gus (Robert Duncan), George (Jeff Rawle), Dave (Neil Pearson) and Sally (Victoria Wicks). Photos by Manuel Harlan

A somewhat clunky extended expositional opening scene re-introduces what are clearly, from the cheers and applause which greets them, much-loved old friends who offer reprises of their characters’ story arcs and reveal what they have been doing in the intervening quarter of a century.

There’s a comfort and shared shorthand in reacquaintance with these familiar faces, from hapless but ever hopeful editor George (Jeff Rawle), his exasperated efficient assistant ed Helen (Ingrid Lacey) and sardonic sex, booze and gambling addict Dave (Neil Pearson) to snobbish presenter Sally (Victoria Wicks), amoral roving reporter Damien (Stephen Tompkinson) and caustic assistant now turned HR guru Joy (the seemingly ageless Susannah Doyle, in Emma Peel leathers).

But it’s also a new world out there – one where the news agenda is set by ‘the algorithm’ on Gus’s ever-present tablet and buffeted by the digital Wild West that is social media.

Joined by a sweet, unpaid intern weather presenter Rita (Riya Rageev) and an award-winning undercover reporter Mairead (Julia Mills), the team strive to get Truth News on air and working for their mystery backers – with, in the grand tradition of Drop the Dead Donkey, gloriously disastrous results.

Above: George (Jeff Rawle) and Helen (Ingrid Lacey). Photo by Manuel Harlan

The original TV series was kept bang up to date with its dialogue constantly updated and filming completed just the night before that week’s episode aired, and the stage play retains an element of these topical credentials with the Post Office scandal, Trump court cases, rogue royal princes and party-swapping Dover MP Natalie Elphicke among its references.

Expertly timed deadpan delivery of these zingers creates plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, as do the fractious and funny interactions between the broadcasting workmates.

But beneath that there’s also a study in human frailty and some profound themes at play, chiefly around journalistic integrity and the importance of truth in our seemingly post-truth world.

“The viewers don’t believe the news is true anymore,” says Gus at one point. “Isn’t it healthier to disbelieve something that’s untrue than to disbelieve something that’s true?”

And in the closing moments, Damien (of all people) delivers a rousing monologue with a hint of Henry V in which he insists: “Honest journalism has power. There are millions of lies but there’s only one truth.”

Delightfully and occasionally outrageously satirical, enjoyably near-the-knuckle, but also thought-provoking and unexpectedly poignant, this is a ‘reawakening’ that’s been long overdue.


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