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Print Version
Photo: Paul McLaughlin
Photo: Paul McLaughlin
by Simon Cunliffe
Directed by Danny Mulheron

at Circa One, Wellington
From 13 Oct 2012 to 10 Nov 2012

Reviewed by Helen Sims, 14 Oct 2012

In Sydney an unidentified heckler calls a roomful of marketing and management ‘types' a pack of wankers during a presentation on “synergies” in modern media. Across the ditch, the newsroom of The Advocate gears up to produce another evening edition. There's some unease in the air; rumours of re-structuring are rife and a visit by the head of the organisation is imminent. Frank Stone, journalistic legend and acting Editor, returns from a period of leave, taken for unspecified reasons. He finds the newsroom changed, in a way he doesn't like.

The show is set in a split-level newsroom. Students from Whitireia's Stage and Screen programme give the office an air of ‘busy-ness'.  The busy open-plan sub-editors' area is presided over by the spacious and uncluttered manager's office. At times, there are some problems with sight lines due to poles in front of the upstairs office.  The set is otherwise well designed to reflect the hierarchy of the modern news organisation.

Whilst the supporting cast are uniformly solid, and in Brian Sergent's case excellent, the show ultimately turns on the performance of the actor playing the lead role of Frank Stone. Unfortunately on opening night Alan Lovell failed to deliver.  He stumbled over a number of lines, noticeably missed cues and his timing was generally off.

Described by the writer as a “snorting warhorse of print journalism”, Lovell's Stone seemed more like an old nag destined for the pet food factory.  I wondered if he was under rehearsed – either way I hope this is confined to opening night.  I felt a great deal of sympathy for several of the actors who were required to exchange heated dialogue with Lovell, as the energy tended to be one-sided.

The only really believable chemistry was between Stone and Sergent's character Ralph (pronounced ‘Rafe') Jones, the curmudgeonly yet poetic long-serving sub-editor. Perhaps I should also credit Jones' tortured relationship with the office photocopier, which brings some much needed comic relief.  It's brilliant seeing Sergent back on stage and he wrings every drop of humour and poignancy out of his role.   

The rest of the cast do their best with fairly thin characters.  Paul McLaughlin is believable as Bill, a reporter who worked under Stone and has since moved into management.  He manages to subtly convey both awe and respect towards his former mentor and the deep frustration of having to manage someone who won't toe the company line. 

Janine Burchett is terrifyingly accurate as marketing guru and change management expert Belinda Barnes. As someone working in an organisation undergoing a ‘change process' I can verify that both the character and every line she speaks is bang on. Her drive is to give the people what they want, which is anathema to Stone's motto of giving the people what they don't know they need yet.  She's a formidable, smart-phone-wielding opponent for the old school newsmen – and they are ultimately no match for her.

Jessica Robinson plays Sam Hunter, a talented but slightly world-weary sub-editor. She's one in a long line of bright young things with whom Stone has had a relationship. Sam has sat in Stone's chair during his absence and is spotted as management potential by Belinda and Bill, but she's torn between loyalty and ambition. Robinson suffers the most from Lovell being off key on opening night and also from a seriously under-written character. When she tells him that she just wants him to love (and have babies with) her, I couldn't for the life of me think why.

Rounding out the core cast is Acushla-Tara Sutton as Jo Pointer. Sutton turns in an energetic performance as the feisty, social-media-savvy rookie hired by Bill in Stone's absence. Her mother was previously a bright young thing at The Advocate, and Jo is motivated by something other than a love of news media to apply to work there.  Ten points if you can guess why, although it's obvious about ten minutes after she first appears on stage.  Personally, I found the relationship ‘twists' between Stone and Jo, and Stone and Sam, redundant and clichéd.

The Truth Game is long time writer and journalist Simon Cunliffe's first play. The depth of his craft as a writer is generally evident, but the plot is conventional, bordering on paint by numbers.  I could see plot developments coming a mile off and character development is almost non-existent. 

Despite the title there is very little engagement with the theme of media ethics, the troubled notion of the truth in reporting or the role of media in modern society. Rather, the play is largely a chronicle of the changes and challenges to the art of print journalism in an age of fast media and short attention spans. At points the play borders on reportage, rather than drama.   

The show is pretty classic Circa fare these days.  It might appeal to those who don't want theatre to be too challenging or complex, and who prefer to be told rather than shown.  Personally I found the show quite boring.

I'd rather watch Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom, which has multiple character and thematic parallels: it is set in a newsroom dominated by an egomaniacal news anchor who wants to convey ‘real' news, but is afraid of losing relevance. It also features a woman who is good at her job but frequently embarrasses herself professionally for romantic reasons, and a politically and financially driven female overlord.  There are a number of technologically savvy bright young things. The difference is in the actual human drama conveyed in the stories and the themes of the ethics and sustainability of the modern news media being tackled in an interesting way.
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);