As Clarion – a deeply satirical look at Britain’s press from former tabloid journalist Mark Jagasia – opens at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre, one can’t help but compare it to the successful run of Great Britain in the West End. Where the former was a showy, colourful, big-budget production, Clarion is filthy, dark, hilarious and utterly human.
The play is set in the offices of the Clarion, Britain’s worst newspaper. As the paper comes under fire for its questionable content, leaked to a rival from the inside, the barebones staff descend into hysteria. Some of theatre’s A-list take a turn on the stage here, delivering some devilishly crafted performances as typical tabloid journos.
The first half of the opening act features jarring scene changes as the fade outs slice the action. It lacks subtly – though one feels that’s more about the direction than the script. It improves massively about an hour in, however; what starts out as over-exaggerated stereotyping morphs into a scathing, witty diatribe as the first act picks up tempo and charge.
It’s probing, laden with expletives and with some cracking one-liners. Clare Higgins as long-standing columnist Verity Stokes carries the whole thing, her fading power driving her betrayal, while her editor Morris Honeyspoon, played with shocking acrimony by a remarkable Greg Hicks, is an old-school tyrant. He relentlessly picks on junior staff and vastly overestimates his own opinions, ignorance welded to self-belief.
The staging is remarkably evocative of the exact environment the dialogue musters, despite the limited space, and there’s a palpable sense of unease that only intensifies as the story breaks. It seems as though the ‘traitor in our midst’ trope is very revealing of Jagasia’s role as whistle-blower through the very staging of this production. The severity of the attack is mitigated with raucous humour; the state of Britain scene is one of the funniest in the production, rousing rowdy applause from the audience.
Clarion isn’t dislikeable because it’s a poor production, but because it’s unpleasant to watch – the characters are utterly morally and socially reprehensible, throwing out the question of how deeply we’re manipulated by our own press. Jagasia and Ergen have done a magnificent job in bringing this issue to light; it’s not just satire, it’s a damning reflection of the state of British press and politics. With such an accurate rendering of our reality, it feels wrong to laugh, but as witness to a play of this quality, you won’t be able to help it.
Clarion is at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, E8 3DL until 16 May.