*Barry’s fifteen minutes of infamy are overdue, and when laughter’s your living…that’s no joke. *
Joe Penhall‘s previous plays for the Royal Court are PALE HORSE and
SOME VOICES. His other work includes BLUE/ORANGE (NT/West End -Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards), THE BULLET (Donmar Warehouse) and LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING (Bush). He has adapted THE LONG FIRM for TV and SOME VOICES and ENDURING LOVE for film.
Terry Johnson is an award-winning writer and director. He has written and directed HITCHCOCK BLONDE (Royal Court/West End), CLEO, CAMPING, EMMANUELLE AND DICK (NT) and DEAD FUNNY (Hampstead/West End) and adapted and directed THE GRADUATE (West End) and THE LONDON CUCKOLDS (NT). He also wrote INSIGNIFICANCE and HYSTERIA (Royal Court).
Design: Es Devlin, Lighting: Bruno Poet, Sound: Ian Dickinson.
Rupert Graves (THE CARETAKER – Comedy; FORSYTE SAGA; CHARLES II; ROOM WITH A VIEW)
Douglas Hodge (THE WINTER TALE RSC/Roundhouse; THE CARETAKER Comedy; BETRAYAL NT; RED CAP TV)
Anna Maxwell Martin (HIS DARK MATERIALS, THREE SISTERS, HONOUR NT; LITTLE FOXES Donmar; NORTH AND SOUTH TV; ENDURING LOVE film)
Select a Date
Dates in September
|Thu 2 Sep 2004||12:00am||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs|
Sold out Performances
Pictured (L to R): Douglas Hodge, Anna Maxwell Martin, Rupert Graves.
Photography by Ivan Kyncl
Just as you think you know what kind of play Joe Penhall’s Dumb Show is and where it is going, it wrong-foots you: hilarious comedy, no; peculiar suspense drama, no; scathing lifestyle satire, no. Is it about banking? drugs? Oh, its about Journalism.
I don’t think I would even have guessed it’s by Penhall; it seems such a break from his earlier work.
When it starts, it sounds as if it is by an English David Mamet (or Harold Pinter played at table tennis speed), at once ironic and musical in the way it catches the clumsy mini-phrases of modern speech and orders them like a chamber trio.
The mordant picture of corruption it builds up is Mamet-like, too, though catches aspects of modern Britain so acutely that the audience purred in recognition.
At every point, its sheer skill confirms how fortunate the Royal Court is (and we are) to have a playwright under 40 with such finesse, rhythm and diversity (and with more than 10 years experience).
Dumb Show’s three actors, as directed by Terry Johnson, are suberb. Rubert Graves could not be improved upon as the oily bully Greg but it is his two colleagues who make true breakthroughs in their careers. Anna Maxwell Martin, hitherto a specialist in ingenue parts, as Greg’s colleague Liz seems to be doing merely a young professional variation on her innocent-abroad act until, almost halfway through, with no change of gear, it becomes clear she is playing virtually the opposite character: the most jaded, ruthless, manipulative character on stage.
As for Douglas Hodge, as the gullible, Michael-Barrymore-like-but-ditzier Barry, he delivers a star performance. He is exhilaratingly funny, vunerable, often electrifying. He gives the stellar klutz Barry a set of vocal and physical shticks- I adored his dishevelled “ughah“s whenever he is lost for words that set the audience wide-eyed with delight.
You cannot care in depth for any of these characters the TV celeb whom these relentless journalists are snaring are as shallow as they, and Penhall’s particular achievements here is to keep the play just light, deadly, and fast enough.
While I miss the anguish and psychological darkness of such earlier Penhall ‘s plays as Some Voices and Blue/Orange, he may return to that in later plays with yet greater command. And how you laugh here! The way Barry tries to impress Liz with neophiliac talk: “outspokenness is the new” And then cannot think of a word. When after the death of his wife, Liz asks him “you feel you’ve atoned?”, he replies “I’m quite toned, yeah, I haven’t let myself go.” The man has suffered, and Penhall shows how these shark-like journalists have engineered his misery, and still he remains a fool.
Alastair Macaulay, FINANCIAL TIMES, 9 October 2004
There are moments in Joe Penhall’s superb new play that had me squirming in my seat with a mixture of embarrassment, pain and guilty recognition.
Dumb Show offers a mesmerising, utterly persuasive account of a classic tabloid sting. But, as we watch a ghastly pair of journalists going about their dark arts, I had to acknowledge that I, too, have sometimes used some of their repulsive tactics while interviewing celebrities.
Sycophantic laughter, fake sympathy, diffident impertinence these are all part of the interviewer grubby stock-in-trade in getting people to reveal more about themselves than they might mean to, and Penhall, a former journalist himself, captures these dubious techniques to perfection.
But his play is essentially a furious, black-comic satire on the bankrupt values of our tabloid culture, and a bitter cry against the corrosive voyeurism of present day Britain in which so many seem vicariously yet viciously addicted to the humiliation and misfortune of others.
Barry is a popular TV comedian, a bouncy jack-the-lad in the Michael Barrymore mould. Unlike Barrymore, he isn’t gay, but much of the character seems to have been inspired by this tragic real-life figure whose life descended into such distressing, media-fuelled soap opera.
The journalists, Greg and Liz, masquerading as private bankers, have whisked Barry off to a five-star hotel, and, as well as offering to take over his financial affairs, tempt him with a lucrative speaking engagement at the bank. Having thus won his confidence, they go to work on him, with the woman journalist in particular worming her way into the darker corners of his heart. Secrets about his unhappy marriage, his financial deviousness, his contempt for his audience and his drink and amphetamine use come tumbling out, and Barry compounds all of this by not only making advances on Liz, but also offering to score drugs for her.
Having caught all this on tape and film, the reporters reveal their true identities, insisting that destroying Barry life is in “the public interest”. “The point is you’re not who you say you are: you are a hypocrite,” Observes Greg with intolerable, finger-wagging moral censoriousness, blissfully oblivious to the fact that his words apply far more to his own behaviour.
Penhall displays a dramatic vigour in Dumb Show that often put me in mind of a modern day version of Ben Johnson great scam-fest the Alchemist. And, like Johnson, he viciously flays the vices of the age.
When Barry is impertinently asked by the reporters why they weren’t told his wife was seriously ill, he screams, “Because its private!” with electrifying intensity before laying into their “zero imagination” and dumb lack of human understanding with such vigour that you feel like cheering.
Terry Johnson directs a scorching production of a play in which the twists keep on coming until the very last line, while Douglas Hodge gives the performance of his career as the besieged Barry.
He reveals all the man’s fallibility and pain, yet somehow remains both wonderfully funny and strangely endearing. The scenes in which he is speeding along on booze and amphetamine sulphate are played with a hilarious wired energy, while the mixture of indignation, panic and despair that follows his entrapment is almost unbearable to watch.
Anna Maxwell Martin, so touching as Lyra in His Dark Materials at the National, lacks the final ounce of shop-soiled malice as a killer bimbo of Fleet street, but Rupert Graves memorably captures the heartless exhilaration of the journalistic chase, along with a terrifying sense of dead-eyed moral vacancy.
With this play about journalism, the Royal Court has a theatrical scoop on its hands, and one, moreover, that really is in the public interest.
Charles Spencer, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, 9 October 2004
Tabloid journalism is a tricky subject: it tends to invite lofty condescension. But, although Joe Penhall’s new 90-minute play largely avoids that, it lacks the moral dilemmas that make for gripping drama and that informed Steve Thompson’s recent zestier newspaper play, Damages, at the Bush.
Penhall writes well about the process of tabloid entrapment. Set in a swanky hotel, his play shows Barry, a TV comic, being lavishly courted by a pair of pseudo-bankers. The air is thick with promise of undeclared money and sex as the mini-dressed Liz and the noxious Greg nourish Barry’s post performance high. Things get even higher when Barry and Liz later meet alone and he hits the drink and drugs before making a fumbling pass.
All this is merely the prelude to the revelation that Greg is a redtop Investigations Editor and Liz his sidekick. But, having exposed the sting, Penhall settles largely for point making. Some of his points are perfectly valid: that tabloid journalists cloak themselves in moral indignation, that they get a adrenaline-rush from the impersonation and that they are part of a corrupt culture in which celebrities are first elevated and then destroyed. I don’t feel disposed to argue with this: I just wished, for the sake of drama, someone else would.
Clearly the play’s most intriguing figure is Barry whom Douglas Hodge plays superbly as a weak, biddable man whose life and career are both on the skids; merely to watch Hodge eyes flicker with greed at a notional fee for a post-prandial talk is an education in the art of acting. But, although Penhall acutely suggests there is a symbiotic relationship between the prey and the predator, he ducks the larger issues. He never explores the real conflict between necessary investigation and unwarranted intrusion. He also focuses on the journalistic piranhas without asking how much their ethical code stems from the mega-sharks who own and control the newspapers precisely the topic raised in Hare and Brenton’s Pravda.
On its own level, the play is perfectly watchable. And, even if Rupert Graves can’t do much with the vacuously reptilian Greg, Anna Maxwell Martin neatly contrasts Liz’s leg brandishing enticement with her later stern censoriousness. Terry Johnson’s production also brings out the play laconic comedy. But, having raised big ethical issues in Blue/Orange, Penhall here simply exposes the seamy side of tabloid journalism and suggests its readers are complicit in its infectious celebrity-baiting. What he never asks is who poisoned the well in the first place.
Michael Billington, THE GUARDIAN, 8 September 2004
Joe Penhall launches a funny, furious tirade against the unlovely practise of entrapment journalism and the agent provocateur journalists who do its dirty work. He is preaching to the utterly convinced. No Royal Court audience would approve of so-called investigative reporters who conceal their identities, illegitimately invade personal privacy and incite gullible TV personalities to offer them cocaine, sex or even a bleeding heart.
So, despite the laughter that Penhall inspires in this trenchantly acted comedy of cruelty, deceit and exploitation, with Douglas Hodge, Rupert Graves and Anna Maxwell Martin giving uncomfortably real performances, there is no disguising the fact that he hits easy targets.
No suggestion is offered as to how the nasty end of the newspaper market can be dissuaded from resorting to entrapment of show business personalities.
No convincing case is made for stricter privacy laws that might do the reformist trick and protect the vunerable. Instead, Penhall musters an eloquent indictment of a contemporary Britain even more obsessed than in the recent past by show-business celebrity and voyeurism, financial greed and phoney compassion.
A sumptious hotel suite, which Es Devlin conjures up in elegant white minimalism with a sky-blue back-drop, serves as the entrapment area for Grave’s ingratiating, sharply dressed “Investigative Editor” Greg and Anna Maxwell Martin as Liz, his deadpan, sexy assistant who is dressed to wound if not to kill.
Posing as executives from a private bank they pander to the financial greed and pathetically amusing vanity of Barry, a TV show comedian for whom alcohol is the best escape. Hardly has the unhappily married performer offered Liz his body and cocaine though not together than he finds the scene has been filmed. Greg, whose tabloid sanctimoniousness and relish for the “buzz” of the entrapment game Penhall conveys with implicit disgust, makes him a blackmailing offer. Hodge’s beautiful performance in Terry Johnson’s nicely gauged production captures Barry early wheedling truculence, his later rage and transformation from swaggering bravado to crumpled desolation. Graves’ Greg displays a casual childish delight in Barry downfall while Miss Maxwell Martin’s chilling Liz offers no signs of human feeling at all. They are, like psychopaths, immune to compassion.
Unfortunately, Penhall’s narrative twists and turns sentimental, unconvincing and contrived diminish the force of his impassioned salvo.
Nicholas de Jongh, EVENING STANDARD, 9 October 2004
We are living in a world of hollow laughter. Even jokes about Irishmen are passe, because the Irish are busy laughing at us. So says Barry, the comedian played by Douglas Hodge, early in Joe Penhall’s new play. And, yes, he has reason for dismay, because his TV sitcom is failing, his marriage is collapsing, his adored mum has just died, he’s trying and failing to stay off the drink, and planet Earth is planet Earth.
Hodge’s portrait of a middle-aged wreck haplessly grinning at grief and anxiety is brilliantly done; but it is his two listeners who turn what begins as a glum comedy into a purposeful drama. “Brilliant,” says Anna Maxwell Martin’s sexy Liz of Barry’s latest performance. “I laughed until I stopped,” adds Rupert Graves’ sleek Greg, rather less winningly. And who are they? Private bankers who have invited Barry to Es Devlin steel and glass hotel room to entice him to give well paid talks to their clientele. Except they aren’t. You had better shut your eyes and hum your way through the rest of this review if you don’t want to know what I must now reveal – Penhall’s big twist. Greg and Liz are actually agents provocateurs from some unnamed tabloid setting up a honey pot and other traps for this faltering celeb. And they’re successful, because Hodge’s Barry doesn’t just hit the hotel minibar but also starts snorting cocaine, ordering dope over the phone and making boozy passes that Martin’s Liz has accidentally on-purpose invited.
Penhall brings the same sharpness and wit to Dumb Show that he did to his hugely successful (mental-hospital play) Blue/Orange four years ago, but at times he pushes his satire a step too far. Should Graves’s Greg display quit so lurid a mix of hypocrisy (“people should know youe a morally bankcrupt person: its in the public interest”) and destructive glee (“this is such a buzz, I feel so purged and alive”) when his victim is desperately squirming? Or cowardice when Barry makes a perfectly foreseeable phone-call to his lawyer?
As a result, Dumb Show isn’t quite what Penhall may have wanted it to be, a serious and highly topical discussion about the extent to which public people have a right to privacy. He scores some undeniable hits “if Jesus Christ was alive today you’d be going through his bins”- and he comes up with a nice, if predictable ending. But outrage somewhat unbalances his play, though not let me add, Terry Johnson’s cast.
Graves and Martin do well enough with characters whose callousness takes them perilously near the border of caricature, but Hodge is superb. He’s doleful, mischeviously, sly, manic, as angrily baffled as a bull with spikes sticking from him, and, by the end, poleaxed, defeated and as good as dead. The performance of this underrated actor career? Maybe so.
Benedict Nightingale, THE TIMES, 9 October 2004
Right from the start, Barry, at the centre of Joe Penhall’s new play, Dumb Show, has the look of some one caught in red-faced in the middle of his life. The early diagnosis is merely that he is a has-been comedian. On the table in front of him is a prominently placed bowl of bananas, like a bunch of untold jokes. But Barry is about to slip on something far worse than any banana skin.
He has been invited to a swanky hotel by two journalists impersonating private bankers, who will stop at nothing in their pursuit of the perfect story, and trick him into revealing a drug habit. There is much to laugh at here but these corvine journalists themselves have an absolute lack of humour and imagination. It would be nice to believe that they were unconvincing.
And by the end of the play, they are. Joe Penhall’s drama is brilliantly written and shaped and unpeels with a flourish but it would have been even more interesting had he made the comedian and the journalist less polarised. If the journalists had been allowed more lapses into humanity (by my count, they had one each), the piece would have had a less crudely satirical dynamic.
But then the satire is meant to bite deep and it does. And as Barry, Douglas Hodge is fantastic. His face is a confessional even when he is not speaking. He inspires desperate sympathy on his account. And his inarticulacy is funnier than any of his weary wisecracks. After a major raid on the hotel minibar, he starts out on a sentence: outspokenness is the new…The new what? He can’t think. He has not, as yet, been forced to speak out himself. When he offers drugs to Anna Maxwell Martin Liz, it is not an exciting scoop. It is a sad, homely moment. “So go on, dig in” he says, kindly, as if offering her a helping of shepherd’s pie.
Anna Maxwell Martin’s skinny, Mephistophelean Liz is a marvel of bathos, gormlessness and calculation. She is at her best when her character is at its worst, exhibiting a thrill at the wicked spin she is hoping to put on Barry story. Rupert Graves, as her cohort Greg, is as ghastly as he needs to be, a nightmare, hectoring from his bogus moral high ground.
The swish set (designer’s Es Devlin) employs minimalism to maximum effect. This is a glassy hotel in which no one need feel inhibited about throwing stones. And through its shining doors a series of false horizons may be glimpsed. Terry Johnson’s production is taut, elegant and properly unrelenting. Joe Penhall, who is a very funny writer, makes us think hard about what constitutes a good joke, what makes a good storyp(=reviewer-name). Kate Kellaway, OBSERVER, 12 September 2004
In Joe Penhall’s Dumb Show, Barry, a stand up comedian, meets John and Jane, pinstriped private bankers, in a hotel room. Without giving anything away, the themes of Penhall cleverly crafted play are the public thirst for the private lives of celebrities; the moral bankruptcy of some journalists who force confessions from their prey and the bizarre need some celebs have to prove that they have feelings, too. This show has transfer written all over it.
Penhalls hits the bulls-eye of his targets time after time, and director Terry Johnson draws superbly judged performances from Rupert Graves, so shallow he’s evaporating (to nick one of Penhall jokes), a chillingly conscienceless Anaa Maxwell Martin and, best of all, Douglas (Red Cap) Hodge, funny and moving as the drunk comedian whose greed gets the better of him.
The result is an alternately hilarious and horrifying spectacle of worms forever wriggling out of uncomfortable situations or turning them to their advantage. Sick-making in more ways than one.
Georgina Brown, THE MAIL ON SUNDAY, 12 September 2004
Let’s hear it for the resurgence of political theatre and all the amassing plays that wont let Bush and Blair conveniently forget about their questionable war in Iraq. It is an exciting phenomenon, drawing keen crowds with shows ranging from satires (like The Madness of George Dubya), to scrupulous verbatim docu-dramas (the Tricycle recreation of the Hutton Inquiry) to pointedly updated classics (such as Nick Hynter Henry V with CNN-style propaganda). Last week saw two big-name additions to the continuing debate.
Joe Penhall’s enthralling new play, Dumb Show, is also about pretending and public displays of repentance. If you are going and don’t want to know the plot, you better skip the next few sentences. Barry (Douglas Hodge) is a successful TV comedian, being schmoozed in a posh hotel by a couple of laughably dull private bankers (Rupert Graves and Anna Maxwell Martin). Only they are journalists chasing an expose. (Barry is not adverse to substance abuse and his marriage is rocky). This piece gets off to a slow start, and could, if insensitively directed, be reduced to a shallow tragic-comedy thriller about celebrity culture and snooping hacks. However, Terry Johnson’s superb cast steer an unnervingly fine line between the naturalistic and nightmarish and, ultimately, this is deeply unsettling about the confused morality of today media and the crushing of complicated lives into neat stories in print and on the stage.
Kate Bassett, INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY, 12 September 2004
Journalism’s seamier and more outrageous strains are the basis of two new shows this week. In Dumb Show at The Royal Court, an investigations editor and his attractive female accomplice set about framing a “Mr Saturday Night” television personality and expose him as “a randy womanising, drug-addicted bully”.
Our insatiable curiosity for celebrity lives preferably in free fall from the likes of Michael Barrymore to John Leslie makes us all complicit in this public service industry and one ime journalist turned playwright Joe Penhall takes us behind the five-star hotel room scenes to observe the prey being chased.
The result is as morbidly fascinating as it is chastening. Penhall, whose play Blue/Orange about mental illness, scooped numerous awards four years ago, has written another intricately constructed thriller about a different kind of madness the pressures of fame and those who make a living off the back of it.
In this gripping, stinging play, Douglas Hodge is heartbreakingly good as a man who is fighting for his life, wife and reputation. Rupert Graves and Anna Maxwell Martin are the couple on his case who won’t let go, as if their own lives depended on it.
Mark Shenton, SUNDAY EXPRESS, 12 September 2004
In the second scene of Joe Penhall Dumb Show, a failing television comedian, Barry (Douglas Hodge), launches into a comic riff about the difference between cats and dogs. In the world of observational comedy, this is the hoary equivalent of the mother-in-law joke, a shtick that has long since passed into the realm of clich.
Penhall certainly has an ear for the hackneyed elsewhere, journalists blithely state that “curvy is the new thin”, and are pathologically incapable of referring to celebrity as anything but “the fame game” yet by writing a play that attacks tabloid culture, he is guilty of aiming for a similar barn door. When it comes to easy targets, celebrity and popular journalism are somewhere in between estate agents and public transport, and the idea that they could lack moral fibre isn’t going to startle anyone raised outside Green Gables. The play’s title might hint at the emotional inarticulacy of the characters as well as the idiot spectacle of tabloid infamy, but it also contains a little spike of self- loathing: after all, the only thing emptier than celebrity culture is talking about how empty it is.
Penhall’s earlier acclaimed works, Some Voices and Blue/Orange, dealt with ground-level issues of mental illness and the politics of health, so the razzle-dazzle morals of the media could seem like a cheap shot. There is no doubt, however, that Dumb Show is delivered with the punch of a good headline, a toxic vignette of modern life, hot off the presses of Penhall’s indignation. The moment he appears on stage, it is clear that “Mr Saturday Night”, Barry, should lead a healthier life. He has a shiny showbiz patina, the kind of florid face seen disappearing into toilets at nightspots that often come prefixed, inaccurately, with “London fashionable”. He is meeting two private bankers in a dismally modern hotel room, designed by Es Devlin with just the right amount of flash decadence: Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) a coltish woman in a rather short business suit, and her oleaginous colleague John (Rupert Graves), the kind of man who refers to a glass of champagne as “a good drop”. Barry, clearly struggling to keep of the alcohol, agrees to give an after-dinner speech at a bank event, and meets Jane for a debriefing in the hotel room. There, emboldened by brandy and the promising connection between the, he tells her about his wife she really doesn understand him offers her “hard drugs” and begs her to touch him “I haven’t been touched by a woman since I went to the dentist.”
What he never suspects is that he is the victim of a tabloid sting, taped by a hidden camera. He is blackmailed by “Jane” (actually a reporter, Liz) and “John” (Greg the “Investigations editor”) into offering up the true-life confessions of an alcoholic drug addict who chases girls about hotel rooms like “Benny Hill”. After this twist, the play’s impetus fades after all, the audience knows how to react to tabloid journalists, and Penhall does not disappoint them.
Terry Johnson’s carefully paced production makes the playwright outrage at the tabloid practices clear while Barry might be venal, schmaltzy and weak, antennae constantly twitching for a fee, the journalists are odious, exploitative and coarse. The self-possessed Maxwell Martin conveys just the right amount of leggy guile as Liz. Calling her a “honey trap” sounds far to sweet, like calling a Bengal tiger “kitty”. Graves, meanwhile, has shed his milky Merchant Ivory complexion and portrays a horrible brand of bullying machismo, his self-righteous conviction that he is acting in the “public interest” merely a convoluted form of pub braggadocio, a beta male struggling to hit alpha level.
It is not as if Barry is particularly likeable, either. Hodge’s excellent performance reveals a man who is simultaneously seedy and vulnerable, good intentions quickly giving way to a desperate riffling through the mini bar and a grab for money. Penhall ably shows that celebrities are not so much gilded gods, fitting in some mystical realm above ordinary people, as lumbering beast swho can be easily felled with a quick blow to the knees, dinosaurs waiting for their personal meteorite drink, drugs, scandal to blast them into extinction. They are complicit not only in their own oppression (a battered Barry sits for pictures with a glass in his hand), but in perpetuating a morally bankrupt culture. “The trouble is that you have no imagination, you have zero imagination, and so humanity is a mystery to you,” spits Barry, in the play key line. It is a fine encapsulation of the prurience and salaciousness fostered by sensationalist reporting.
What is interesting, however, is that Penhall outrage at tabloids veers worryingly close to the pious disgust these stories encourage in their readers. The unconvincing final scene takes the kind of moral high ground more commonly reserved for stories about metric measures and the European parliament, desperate to prove all parties are compromised. It is an approach at odds with the deceptively nuanced performances and the abundance of good jokes about corporate banking, music journalists, hard drugs, hotel rooms, obsessive fans, nurses all of which lend Penhall writing a life beyond the stage. Yet by merely being satisfied to show the mechanics of corruption, Penhall front-page style is thrown away on a page two play.
Victoria Segal, SUNDAY TIMES, 12 September 2004
The investigators are investigated, the exposers stand exposed. Joe Penhall’s new play Dumb Show at The Royal Court, throws a hard light on tabloid journalism at its sleaziest. Two reporters, Greg and Liz, close in on their prey, a successful but troubled TV comedian called Barry. Pretending to be merchant bankers, they invite him up to a smart hotel suite and dangle golden financial prospects in front of him. Liz, left alone with him, flaunts her honeypot charms. He tanks up at the minibar, moves on to drugs, makes a fumbling pass, starts talking freely about his private life. His indiscretions, duly recorded by a hidden camera and radio mic, reveal a sorry figure; but our sense of horror is reserved for Liz and Greg.
Penhall is a clever writer, as anyone who has seen his play Blue/Orange will know, and the gutter press is rather too easy a target for him. Journalism has its higher vices as well as its lower ones: the sins of the broadsheets (or what we can still just about call the broadsheets) would have presented a more fruitful challenge. As it is, Dumb Show doesn’t teach us anything very significant that we didn’t know already. But we go to the theatre for experiences rather than lessons, and it is a thoroughly gripping play.
For one thing, it is often very funny, whether its when Greg assumes an amazing self righteousness, for instance, or when Barry tries to joke his way through his problems. Penhall’s writing also generates an attention compelling unease. There is an exquisite edginess about the apparently affable opening scenes. Later, when Greg and Liz have got Barry at their mercy and start interrogating him, we know that at one level they are only your average smut-hounds, but we feel that there is something grimmer and more Kafkaesque about them as well.
That because we understand what Barry is going through. He may often be vain, cynical and greedy but he also comes across as likeable and vulnerable enough for us to care about him. This wouldn’t be possible, of course, if Penhall hadn’t created a moderately rounded character, but still more credit goes to Hodge’s brilliant performance.
Rupert Graves as the dreadful Greg and Anna Maxwell Martin as the deadly Liz have less complicated tasks, but they both exert a basilisk fascination. Terry Johnson directs; Es Devlin’s handsome hotel room provides a gleaming contrast to the dirty deeds that take place inside it.
John Gross, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH, 12 September 2004
A flash of knickers. A line-up of miniatures from the hotel mini-bar. The promise of a fat fee. That’s all it takes for a comedian, whose career and marriage are tottering perilously on the edge, to fall into the sweet, sticky tentacles of the tabloid press. Joe Penhall, writing again for three actors, just as he did in Blue/Orange, shows how Barry (Douglas Hodge) is easy prey for Liz and Greg, two investigative journalists who pretend to be private bankers and lure him to a sleek hotel (designed by Es Devlin). Once caught, Barry can either cuddle up with his entrappers and give them the interview they demand, admitting all his peccadillos with a tear ion his eye, or he can storm out knowing that the hacks will do their worst without any mitigating comments of his own.
Bashing the tabloids is hardly cutting edge stuff and this play doesn’t have the same fascination as Blue/Orange. But Penhall explores what drives the entrappers with a lively, acerbic wit. In Terry Johnsons’ hard-nosed production, Rupert Graves’ oily, pitiless Greg confesses to getting his kicks from the drama of the deception and seeing his victim squirm. The woman’s motivation is less clear, although it is impressive to see Anna Maxwell Martin as Liz change in a flash from a sexual tease to a hypocritical upholder of family values. Above all, Penhall gives Douglas Hodge, usually very intense actor, the opportunity of a lifetime. Hodge’s crumpled face as the pumped up comedian is the perfect picture of a gullible man who has never grown up and is eager to be in the limelight. He simply can cope when adulation turns to scorn. Penhall doesn’t agree with those who say that the redtops revelations are just harmless fun. But underscoring his play is the fact that the demands of the newspapers, stars and public are all intertwined.
Jane Edwards, TIME OUT, 12 September 2004