Ben Chaplin stars in the world premiere of Nicholas Wright’s The Reporter, which opened last night (21 February 2007, previews from 14 February), at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre (See News, 2 Nov 2006).
Based on the life of BBC correspondent James Mossman during his last years (1963-1971), the play searches for the truth behind his suicide. It’s directed by former NT artistic director Richard Eyre, who also directed Wright’s multi award-winning Vincent in Brixton at the National, in the West End and on Broadway. Chaplin is joined in the cast by Paul Ritter and Angela Thorne.
Overnight critics unanimously enjoyed Eyre’s fast-paced production and Wright’s witty script, as well as the performances of the supporting cast. However, while some thought Chaplin’s performance was top-notch, others were left feeling emotionally uninvolved.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “James Mossman, a brilliant foreign reporter and presenter… committed suicide in 1971, leaving a note in his Norfolk cottage: ‘I can’t bear it any longer, though I don’t know what ‘it’ is.’ Nicholas Wright’s new play, directed by former NT boss Richard Eyre, attempts to define what the ‘it’ was in the form of a wide-ranging investigation presented by the dead reporter himself. Although Mossman, charismatically played by Ben Chaplin, emerges as an interesting, conflicted character… there are no final answers to the question. That knotty ambiguity in the play is both its unusual strength and its slight weakness as theatre…. Chaplin looks nothing like (Mossman) yet catches him exactly, especially in his dryness, watchfulness and emotional integrity. Rob Howell’s design recreates the grey television studio where Robin Day (a brilliant impersonation by Paul Ritter)… has replaced the Churchillian gravitas of a sick Richard Dimbleby…. There are many… good jokes in an evening that may not pack a final punch but which clearly offers the best new play of the year so far.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – “Anyone who remembers James Mossman as a star BBC reporter will be intrigued by Wright's exploration of his baffling suicide. Others, to whom Mossman is an unknown name, may be puzzled as to the play's larger metaphorical meaning…. A famous Panorama interview, where he was deemed to have harassed Harold Wilson over Vietnam, saw Mossman's BBC star decline to the point where he fronted arts programmes. But it was the death of Louis, as much as anything, that led to the slow unravelling of Mossman's own life. To his credit, Wright avoids the romantic cliche that Mossman killed himself out of grief. He suggests that a number of factors may have contributed to Mossman's suicide…. Wright also captures precisely the internal politics of institutional existence…. The play is given a perfectly pitched production from Richard Eyre and a commanding performance from Ben Chaplin, who as Mossman exudes patrician insecurity. Paul Ritter as Robin Day, Bruce Alexander as a current affairs apparatchik, and Chris New as the erratic Louis also provide exemplary support. But, much as I enjoyed the evening, it is one that, like Mossman himself, leaves its mysteries unresolved.”
Benedict Nightingale in the Times (3 stars) – “It would have been good to see and hear more about the events that left Mossman wondering about how detached, or how involved, a reporter should be…. (Wright) doesn’t seem to give much credence to the idea that Mossman was burnt out or professionally frustrated. We see the man politely fired from Panorama, allowed to make quirky films about ordinary people, refusing to ditch a relatively unimportant interview to cover the death of Robert Kennedy, settling into the oubliette of arts TV, and rediscovering and befriending an eccentric Rosamond Lehmann; but the only event that seems greatly to disturb him is the death by overdose of his lover, a troubled erratic Canadian potter played by Chris New. Maybe that was ‘it’. Yet Richard Eyre’s pacy production and Chaplin’s fine, measured performance leave one with a portrait of a cool, confident, tough-minded man basically as hidden as one of le Carré’s spies.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “Nicholas Wright's fascinating play, witty about both BBC manners and changing Sixties morals, imagines its way into the disturbed mind of a still-surviving class of Englishman…. Ben Chaplin as Mossman gives a magnificent performance of shuttered politesse…. Yet sardonic Mossman was neither tame nor docile when up against authority. Richard Eyre's immaculate production dramatises an ancient Panorama interview led by Paul Ritter's amusing Robin Day…. Just once the mask is wrenched off and a remarkable, shattered Chaplin weeps real tears…. Wright's weakness is that the second half shows a resurgent, novel-writing Mossman, supported by Angela Thorne's imperious novelist, Rosamond Lehmann, who put her faith in spiritualism. If the suicide that Mossman plans with meticulous calm has to do with his secret, discarded career in MI6 or his abiding guilt that he did not save Louis, Wright fights shy of saying so…. I believe that a play about the suicide of a well known somebody whose friends and perhaps relations are still alive should be based on fact and not on fantasies or inventions. It would have been fairer if Mossman had been given a pseudonym and a programme note included saying the play was based on some events in his life.”
Rhoda Koenig in the Independent – “The more we learn about Mossman, the more walls we run into. Homosexual in a conservative milieu, an objective commentator, and a part-time spy, Mossman was professionally, as well as emotionally, elusive. But a slippery character can still fascinate. Unfortunately, Ben Chaplin, for most of the evening, stands with his arms folded across his chest and speaks in a guarded tone of voice. He's lovely to look at, but the lack of charm or command (at least one is a newsman's necessity) is obvious…. Mossman, however, isn't nearly so much of a pain as his lover, Louis, a young man whose disdainful, holier-than-thou pronouncements about Mossman's lack of artistic integrity are clearly motivated by envy…. Fortunately, there are plenty of other characters, and Wright seems to have had as much fun in writing them as we have in listening to them. Bruce Alexander, as Mossman's producer, deftly creates the echt BBC man, twisted into a corkscrew of embarrassment by the reporter's ‘chum’ but setting aside all squeamishness to be both kindly and practical at a time of pain and sorrow. Paul Ritter does a hilarious impersonation of Robin Day, coming across as more appealing than the real one deserves. Angela Thorne steals away with much of the show as Mossman's friend Rosamund Lehmann.”
- by Caroline Ansdell