After working for some years in Hollywood, Ron Hutchinson has popped up again with two impressive new plays: Topless Mum (first seen in an earlier version at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol), in which a badly injured soldier, returning from duty in Afghanistan, sells some pictures of abused prisoners to a tabloid newspaper; and last year’s Moonlight & Magnolias, about a day of disaster in the making of the movie Gone With the Wind (returning to the Tricycle next month).
The new title is slightly misleading, suggesting a raunchy flesh fest rather than the carefully plotted tale that transpires: making overt reference to the Daily Mirror fiasco in which the editor Piers Morgan published fake pictures of abusive incidents that never took place, Barry from Bolton’s mobile phone pix are similarly exposed to be contrived in the wake of a triumphalist media splash.
The unnamed newspaper’s tactic of “contrite” recovery is to make Barry a misunderstood hero whose wife, Tiffany, posed for “Army Wives” pin-up photos which were actually taken and sold on for publication by her own abusive uncle. This neat inversion of the cash for pictures scandal kick-starts a series of twists and turns ending in the harrowing revelation of something really awful that did happen to an Afghan prisoner.
Much of Topless recalls the explosive impact of Hutchinson’s Northern Ireland interrogation play, Rat in the Skull. Caroline Hunt’s razor sharp production on a bare grey stage (one table, two chairs, a small revolve) proceeds as a series of question and answer sessions in a pyramid of authority from Sylvestra Le Touzel’s incisively svelte military lawyer to Giles Fagan’s creepy editor to Jason Deer’s testifying soldier pal.
Emma Lowndes as the investigating journalist does a brilliant job of maintaining the balance between real concern and attention-grabbing headlines, while Alistair Wilkinson’s ironically tortured Barry and Louise Kempton’s stunningly authentic Tiffany fight back for decency when you least expect it. For all this, the play seems too pat, perhaps even too conveniently topical, despite some blistering speeches about the typical British soldier and the sordid realities of the tabloid Press.