Arcola Theatre, London


© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

`Words have consequences. And a newspaper can be a dangerous place. Even still, in the dying days.’

Poacher turned keeper, Mark Jagasia used to be a journalist, rather a successful one if we’re to judge by gigs as a former showbiz editor for the Daily Express and staff journalist on the Evening Standard. He knows whereof he speaks even if Clarion has more than a touch of the frantic hyperboles about it that you might find after a drunken (or some other intoxicant) night of excess.

Clarion is nothing if not the darkest of satires, the dark night of a very grubby soul – the soul in question being what passes for our free tabloid press. Jagasia goes way over the top in some respects with language more offensively rancid and blue than a mouldering piece of gorgonzola and an incitement to over-excitable response such that the spectator behind me couldn’t stop himself from yelling out `yes’ as Clare Higgins’ hardened war correspondent, Verity Stokes, landed one on admittedly irritatingly bumptious work experience apprentice, Pritti Singh.

It’s that kind of evening. Provoking, pugilistic in its views and horribly funny with a sting in its tail that having set up a comic monster slips in under your radar with some worrying almost-truths.

Half-truths, half lies, you could say, sums up a lot of our current press, regulation or no regulation. Headlines scream out ever more festering examples of human greed/ugliness etc – some true, some `imaginatively’ bearing little relation to reality but happily feeding away on fear and loathing.

The Clarion is one such press organ, spewing out front pages of hatred every day of the week, the consequences of which, Jagasia suggests, can be dangerous and devastating to our body politic. Causality, in other words.

At its head is Morris Honeyspoon, an editor who keeps staff in check with a daily stream of invective, bullying and ludicrously, a Harpo Marx horn, blown whenever a journalist speaks out of turn or declares a thought unpopular to Morris’ world view which essentially boils down to, the country has gone to the dogs and it’s all the fault of liberals and immigrants.

Morris is also the proud owner of a centurion helmet, the very same that adorns the masthead of the paper. For Morris, the helmet, shiny with impressive ear flaps, symbolises his battle against the barbarian forces of contemporary society. `We’re in a war’ – in his terms, the survival of good old British values (sounding familiar?) The Methodists and Mary Whitehouse, he argues, were right. The rot set in with Elvis in Memphis and we’ve been going downhill ever since.

© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

All of which, you can imagine, makes for some swashbucklingly, rid-ticklingly, outrageously enjoyable fare in Mehmet Ergen’s loose-limbed, shrewd production. Greg Hicks’ Morris is a comic creation to treasure – blustering, absurd, puffed up with his own self-righteous indigation and foul-mouthed. Higgins too is in her element as the award-winning Verity, a veteran of war-torn hot-spots but now well past her prime.

Jagasia has great fun, too, with his minor characters – the thick-headed news editor, Albert, Josh the young `immigration’ editor and the aspiring and ignorant Pritti: `the deadliest force in Christendom’, says Verity of Pritti at one point, `is ignorance welded to self belief.’

How true! And the awful thing about Clarion is that for all its pilloried monsters and farcical exaggeration, Jagasia leavens it with just enough unpalatable insight to make you wince in recognition.

Ouch and ouch again. Not since the Brenton-Hare Pravda foreign newspaper proprietor, Le Roux, has there been such a joyously damnable comic creation. Something about the devil always having the best tunes…? Take note and beware!

Clarion is at the Arcola Theatre, to May 16, 2015

STOP PRESS: Now back at the Arcola, Oct 22-Nov 14, 2015

First published in Londongrip, April 2015