Barbican | ***
Being close to the subject of a play doesn’t necessarily make you any better equipped to review it. A soldier may be on first name terms with the horrors of war but that doesn’t always make him the best person to appreciate the artistic merits of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Having said that, there were moments during the National Theatre of Scotland’s dissection of the post-Leveson media landscape that were such an accurate description of my time as a tabloid journalist it made my skin crawl.
I worked as a cub reporter for News International in Scotland and its Trinity Mirror rival, both of which drive Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany’s narrative. I used to hang about the offices of the Glasgow Herald, which also plays a central role, in the hope it would eventually give me a job (it never did).
I’ve shared bylines with some of the hacks the play mentions by name; I’ve been sent on dodgy door-knocks; experienced the thrill of nailing a big story that was probably going to ruin someone’s life, and subsequently justified it; felt the sharp end of a half-cut editor’s tongue, and justified that, too. To blur the lines between fiction and reality even more, my ex-girlfriend went to drama school with one of the lead actors, who is most famous for playing the singer Barney Sumner, who lived a couple of miles from where I grew up (OK, I’m pushing it now...).
It isn’t surprising Enquiry captures the spirit of a traditional newsroom so deftly – its script is made up of verbatim quotes from 43 journalists, who were interviewed by fellow hacks Paul Flynn, Deborah Orr and Ruth Wishart. The quotes are strung together (“edited”) by a script that unfurls around the audience, which is physically led through the bowels of the newspaper production world: from the catty canteen to the newsdesk itself, where old-school hacks yell racing tips at each other and everyone ignores the new recruit (the aforementioned James Anthony Pearson), who suspects this internet thing might just have legs.
What Enquirer does best is capture the conflicted nature of the tabloid newsroom; a place where tragedy sells copy, where a good day’s work can have devastating personal consequences and where (really) no evil Svengali is sitting upstairs pulling all the strings.
The industry’s musings over its achievements and its failings – from the coverage of 9/11 to the sickening attack by one newspaper on the survivors of the Dunblane shootings – is stark and at times poignant.
As the impact of the phone hacking scandal becomes clear, the main characters – a Sun editor, a former regional hack, a jaded star reporter who made the move to Fleet Street – muse on their actions and how they could affect the future of the industry. The newsroom becomes an increasingly nightmarish place, with telephones wriggling from filing cabinets and piles of newspapers stacking up like the detritus of war.
It falls down, ironically, when it tries to editorialise the quotes it is working with. Enquirer seemed to have decided that print journalism was dead before it had started, which is just the kind of journalism it is wont to criticise.