Daniel Dingsdale‘s debut play is populated by slick PRs, laddish presenters, vacuous reality TV stars, and hard-nosed tabloid journalists. Pretty low hanging fruit, but Dingsdale says his intention was to write "cartoons" – "heightened" versions of figures in the public eye. And many of his fame-seekers and truth-massagers have antecedents in real life, most obviously Russell Brand and the Sachsgate debacle.
Two radio DJs banter obnoxiously; one of them – Huw Parmenter in charismatic Brand mode, all long-limbed swagger and skinny jeans – reveals he had anal sex with a children’s TV presenter, who they dub Becky Bumlove. Cue press furore, and thousands of complaints from people who actively seek out the show in order to be offended – thus opening up debates around our culture of outrage. Two reptilian PRs arrange a meeting with the injured party, attended by a tabloid hack (the deliciously laconic Rebecca Brewer). They’re lopsided debates, though, for sympathies will clearly lie with the genuinely hurt Becky, played with impressive vigour by Josie Dunn, who is given speeches of the sort of articulate rage we wish we could spit when wronged.
Most of the play, directed by Adam Lenson, is set in the PR’s office; there’s Rich – such a mouthpiece of smoothie platitudes that I never really believed his emotional journey – and Max (played by the playwright), a ratty junior apparently convulsed with hatred for the very celebrity culture he props up, who bullies his most difficult clients. Clients like Gemma, a dim-witted D-lister who longs for fame for fame’s sake; this character is particularly one-dimensional, and it’s a credit to Hollyoaks star Tamaryn Payne that she breathes some warmth into her. Her opposite number seems to be Rich’s girlfriend, a washed up American movie star who holds forth earnestly about her "art".
Dark Tourism is a big first play, running at two hours twenty, and it doesn’t so much tackle big themes as bleed every drop out of them. Many of the arguments that spew – at length – from the characters’ mouths feel like the sort of tired think pieces about celebrity culture we’ve all read before. But what the play does do is bring them together in a juicy plot of scandal, rich with dramatic events and twists. If these were raced through at ninety minutes, there might also be less chance of seeing them coming. But it’s consistently entertaining – deeply cynical yet fizzing with righteous anger.
But Dingsdale’s writing shows real potential; if he needs to be much more brutal with pruning his dialectical speeches, his one-liners zing –"don’t lie there sweating like Mel Gibson at a Bar Mitzvah" – and in writing such obnoxious characters, he gets to really let rip. The result tilts at a celebrity-world The Thick of It, full of inventive insults ("you jizzmound", "you afterbirth", "you cultural fungus"; "you look like a condom filled with porridge"). Max gets most of these, and Dingsdale’s apoplectic, physically tortured rage is very funny; a performer/playwright to keep a beady eye on.
Dark Tourism runs at the Park Theatre until 24 October