Steve Thompson’s play Damages is so brilliantly written, complete with sharp cynicism, quick wit and contentious questioning, it’s difficult to see how a production could go wrong. Disappointingly however, this show, directed by Benet Catty and produced by Lucid Muse, falls rather short of its potential.
As relevant now as when it was first performed in 2004, the play explores the moral ambiguities of tabloid journalism as the audience observes the night shift in the newsroom of a daily paper in real time. It is here that four employees contemplate the ethical, commercial and public interest implications of exposing a television presenter in a page-three style scoop. Professional conduct unravels and tempers flair as the print deadline approaches and the play ends without its characters coming to a consensus on this tricky issue.
Thompson’s broader message is a considered analysis of the boundaries of privacy, the integrity of journalism and the capitalist, if not misogynistic exploitation of women in the public eye. As the vested interest of each character is revealed, the question put to the audience is not whether such exposés are of public value, but rather, who is manipulating whom?
The venue selected is apt for this production and the intimacy of the space adds to the ‘fly on the wall’ perspective. Yet Nicola Dobrowolski’s set reflects a somewhat dated office interior, not particularly evocative of what one would expect from the headquarters of a high circulation publication. In addition, Simon Perkin’s decision to have phones ringing persistently throughout the first act not only distracts but also adds very little to the show.
The real downfall of this production however is the casting. Both Simeon Perlin (as Bas) and Joanna Bell (as Abigail) provide a very real reminder as to why casting must remain a decision based on the capability of the actor to personify their character and not simply a divvying up of parts between company members. The lack of chemistry between Perlin and Bell denies the plausibility of their past relationship – an interaction which forms a crucial element of the storyline. It is also disappointing that Catty’s direction emphasises the portrayal of anger through raised voices alone, without exploring more subtle approaches. Whilst it is clear the cast have the potential to perform well individually it is a shame that collectively they fail to mesh, undermining what would otherwise be a very enjoyable piece of theatre.