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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Reporter

All tragedy is ambiguous.
---- Ray Ray
The Reporter
Ben Chaplin as James Mossman
(Photo: John Haynes)
The Reporter in question is James Mossman, a star BBC TV journalist in the 1960s. Talented, admired, and successful, nevertheless the controlled professional Mossman fumbled his career and took his own life in 1971. In this very stylish production Nicholas Wright, author of Vincent in Brixton and many other plays, asks how this could possibly have happened.

Or rather, he makes Mossman (Ben Chaplin) investigate himself to answer the question. The play unfolds chronologically from a Saigon café in 1963 to a Norfolk cottage in 1971, recreating the key events of Mossman’s life: the Vietnam war, a public confrontation with the Prime Minister, a tragic love affair, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and a late flirtation with heterosexuality in the shape of a much older woman.

Did Mossman die because he was simply a Greene-an burnt-out case, having seen too much as a foreign correspondent? Was it guilt over the death of his lover? Was it grief for a career that lost its way without actually self-destructing? Or something else altogether: the prescription drugs, the intelligence services, the denial of creativity, or existential dread that a changing world had out-grown him?

Wright candidly tells us he doesn’t know. The audience can draw its own conclusions, enjoying the spectacle along the way. But this spectacle involves the recreation of characters and events that may be very distant echoes for a modern audience. Wright has topical fun with his depiction of Harold Wilson (Patrick Brennan), the media-canny Prime Minister whose studied sincerity masks unprincipled subservience to an American President, but Paul Ritter’s achievement in a pitch-perfect reconstruction of BBC interviewer Robin Day may be underestimated by those who have never heard of the man.

Wright lovingly evokes the golden age of the 1960s BBC with its professionalism worn as lightly as a Savile Row suit, but with dark emotions lurking beneath the sardonic, Senior Common Room exteriors. This section, which is concerned with familiar issues of the reporter’s role – objectively observing or morally committed? – comes across as like a British version of "Good Night and Good Luck", where a cup of tea and a fig roll drip with menace and a man’s fate can be decided in murmurs in a corridor. Bruce Alexander as Producer Ray Ray effortlessly steals every scene in which he appears and is alone worth the price of admission.

Indeed, The Reporter is a very British play in many ways. It will appeal to lovers of the worlds of Graham Greene and John le Carre. It shrewdly depicts the refined cruelties of social class and the expertly nuanced hypocrisies of a threatened elite. But its central character remains an enigma. Mossman is shown as a man who will put his career on the line to tell off a prime minister, but who will allow his lover to die rather than face exposure. He is a sceptic who visits a clairvoyant he despises. He is also a man who reveals at the end that his proud boast that he has never told a lie is in fact a lie, thereby invalidating everything he has told us. But perhaps that is very British as well.

Impersonating Mossman is a tremendous challenge for Ben Chaplin, who is on stage throughout. He has to impersonate a man whose upbringing and profession have made him so controlled that his emotions only appear as brief flickers, tiny gestures, and inscrutable expressions: Chaplin does this very well indeed. Richard Eyre’s production is sharp and the stage-craft is consummate, as you have a right to expect. Rob Howell’s designs are triumphantly minimal, as is Richard Hartley’s subtle music.

The Reporter may lack the heart of Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton and drift a little towards the end, but it is an intelligent and engaging work. (One possible quibble: did I hear Louis say that his lover was directing Lulu in Spain in 1963? Would General Franco really have countenanced a production of Berg’s scandalous opera? I’m surprised no one’s spotted the dramatic potential of that story.) However, it does remind us of an era where a handsome ex-public school boy could break all the rules in private as long as he kept a straight face in public. That could never happen now, could it?

Written by Nicholas Wright
Directed by Richard Eyre

Starring: Ben Chaplin, Paul Ritter
With: Aleksander Mikic, Angelo Paragoso, Tilly Tremayne. Bruce Alexander, Leo Bill, John Cummins, Chris New, Gillian Raine, Patrick Brennan, Angela Thorne
Design: Rob Howell
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Sound: Rich Walsh
Music: Richard Hartley
Projection Designer: Jon Driscoll
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 2 June 2007
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 23 February 2007 performance at the Cottesloe Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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