Every few years we get the journalist play. Heaven knows, given the dominance of the press and its volatile relationship with society's public and private faces, there's enough ammunition to source a dozen or more. The Grand-Daddy of them all, of course, still remains The Front Page, Hecht and MacArthur's virulently cynical expose of hacks and their values.
Steve Thompson's highly entertaining, if old fashioned first play works along similar lines, peeling back the layers to show us just how dodgy the purveyors of moral righteousness can be themselves with `Between the Lines' kind of humour.
Thompson's predators are a trio of tabloid hacks - elderly Chief Sub, Howard, self-appointed `guardian of style'; Lister, a pugilistic, chip-carrying, Scot; and Bas, a greenhorn who's managed to get himself appointed Night Editor. Enter also legal advice in the shape of Amanda Drew's sharp-tongued lawyer Abigail, on tap to weed out potential legalistic infringements.
If you wanted an acid-tongued primer in some of the supposed legalistic rules and boundaries - such as contempt of court, libel, and `qualified privilege', Damages will certainly give them to you. Thompson also adds a further twist - some topless photos of a famous children's tv presenter, scheduled for the `front page splash'. Issues of `public interest' and `invasion of privacy' start to get bandied about along with the rather seedier, more questionable aspects of individual and personal motivation that go into questions of why some stories get published and others don't.
So far so good. Roxanna Silbert's production rattles along drawing colourfully persuasive performances from Phil McKee as the disgruntled, class fixated (and adulterous) Lister, the effervescing, Drew (last seen and rightly lauded for her bravura showing in the RSC's Eastward Ho!) and a lovely, nuanced portrait from John Bett as the wise old owl, Howard whose journalistic obsessions nonetheless have resulted in a broken marriage.
Liz Cooke's chrome and minimalist set, however, gives little sense of the law of the jungle atmosphere that so pervades print journalism's landscape. Thompson also betrays his hand in his final twist - that Bas and Abigail's personal entanglement and split were due, surprise, surprise, to her `lack of commitment'. “Don't let work be the only thing that shapes you”, Howard counsels a stunned Abigail when Bas blurts out the reason why he left her. Now that is a novel idea. Get back in the kitchen, Abigail!