Robert Gibbs in Clarion
Greg Hicks and Clare Higgins in Clarion. Photograph: Robert Davenport

Playwright Mark Jagasia is used to seeing his work in print, although his new play Clarion, which opens this month at the Arcola, is his first.

That is because Jagasia was for years a tabloid journalist, working as a reporter for the Evening Standard, and later becoming Showbiz Editor of the Daily Express.

So what better subject for his debut play than the state of the British media, set in the office of Britain’s worst newspaper, the Daily Clarion?

“It’s about the ideologies behind the headlines and about the way newspapers are used to further political agendas that readers may not be aware of,” Jagasia explains.

As well as the press, Clarion takes aim at the rise of nationalism globally, UKIP, and the “general ominous sense that’s in the air at the moment”. It’s main weapon in doing so, however, is humour. “I was trying to write a ferocious comedy about quite a serious subject, says Jagasia. “I think the best way to tackle that is through comedy – sugaring the pill.”

For a debut play, Clarion boasts some big name actors. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Greg Hicks is monomaniacal editor Morris Honeyspoon, who rules the newsroom with an iron fist, while Olivier Award- winning actor and Dr Who star Clare Higgins plays “washed up foreign correspondent” Verity Stokes.

“It’s not based on a particular newspaper,” insists Jagasia, “but anecdotes I heard do inform the background. There are some extraordinary characters in newsrooms. And the editor is not based on one specific person but on a specific type of monster.”

Clarion took its first steps towards being staged when it was spotted by the Arcola’s Playwrought new writing festival, where new plays are premiered as rehearsed readings. For it to be picked up, then staged, is itself no mean feat, but the story of how Jagasia managed to snag two such experienced actors for his first play has even more of a fairytale ring to it.

Around 13 years ago at the Globe, Jagasia met Mark Rylance at an afterparty. Rylance advised Jagasia to leave tabloid journalism and get a job in theatre. When that finally happened, and Jagasia was struggling to find a home for Clarion, he decided to send the play to Mark Rylance.

“I didn’t know anyone in the theatre at all, so I sent it to his dressing room on spec and he really loved the play and opened a lot of doors for it,” Jagasia says.

Jagasia gave up working as a newspaper hack more than five years ago. What does he miss most, I ask.

“Probably the wild parties. I was the showbiz editor so I moved in the showbiz world,” he says, before adding: “Probably the humour actually. The gallows humour in newsrooms would be hair-raising if it was put down in black and white, but if you lived through it there was quite a camaraderie about the tabloid press that’s largely disappeared now.”

Not that Jagasia has any time to mope about the decline of Fleet Street. Although Clarion is yet to open, a follow up is already on the cards. “I’m sat with a towel around my head trying to write the next one,” he tells me, as our phone conversation draws to a close. “The moment you have any degree of success you think you’re going to bask in it but you’re not. Suddenly it’s all about the next play. So back to work basically.”

Clarion is at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL 
15 April – 16 May
arcolatheatre.com

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