*Disclaimer: Yes, my brother was in this play as a member of the ensemble. No, I didn’t get free tickets, a free drink, or anything else to influence my review!
Another trip to theatre-land for QQ this weekend, following my youngest brother as he makes his London stage debut.
The Daily Fail: The Musical was performed at Waterloo East Theatre from 15th – 20th October. A new production from The Untold Theatre Company, the musical is based on the recent hacking scandal and Leveson Inquiry, and tells the story of two Essex girls who want to become rich and famous even though they have no discernible talents.
The play has a strong cast, with standout performances from Charlotte Mitchell and Samuel Haughton. Mitchell brings a vulnerability and sweetness to Dim Trashtrashian so that you end up caring about the character, rather than simply laughing at her stupidity. She also displays excellent comic timing and her disastrous attempt to make a sex tape was, for this reviewer, the funniest scene in the play. As “fairy godmother” Rupert Murdoch, Haughton steals every scene, and cleverly suggests the true streak of malevolence and self-interest lurking below the character’s fake smiles and high-camp façade.
Mitchell and Haughton were also two of the strongest singers in a talented cast. Kate Hume was another standout singer, performing as Dim’s best friend London Clinton. The two lead actresses complemented each other well and showcased some impressive harmonies in their duets. Performing without mics, the entire cast projected their voices very well, although occasionally the backing track was simply too loud and it was difficult to hear some of the solos (this was particularly true during Stephanie Hockley’s first solo as junior writer Anna Prentice. Hockley has a sweet, appealing voice, and the lyrics in this piece [or what I could hear of them] were some of the sharpest and smartest in the play, but it was very difficult to hear her over the backing track).
Special mention has to go to Rachel Kelly’s superb choreography. This was complex, clever, and brilliantly delivered by all the cast members. The opening number – Extra, Extra – was a high point, with the cast executing with aplomb a challenging routine in a limited space.
As the character names above no doubt suggest, subtlety isn’t this play’s strong point. Characters are drawn with broad brushstrokes and generally don’t develop (the dumb blonde London Clinton, the idealistic and naïve journalist Anna Prentice, her evil, power-mad editor Rebekah Brooks [sorry, I mean “Anna Fender”], and her morally dubious colleagues Gail Force and Holly Wood).
The plot and writing starts strongly with a great opening number neatly problematising the cult of celebrity and its effects on the general public. London and Dim’s early scenes and songs also showcase writer Fiona O’Malley’s talent for lampooning the current celebrity age, when becoming famous simply for being famous appears to be a legitimate “ambition” for many people and mass-produced reality TV shows offer a fast-track route to “celebrity” status. O’Malley uses the first act to highlight the hidden dangers of the fame game, particularly in Anna Prentice’s first song, in which the lyrics deftly highlight the virgin/whore rhetoric that so often characterises that mass media’s depiction of women in general, whether famous or not.
In the second half, the plot loses its way somewhat and it’s difficult to know what message O’Malley is trying to get across. As the media turns on the manipulated London and Dim, there is an odd scene in the Daily Fail offices in which Rupert Murdoch appears to regret the part he has played in the girls’ current plight, while Anna Fender admonishes him for being weak, berating him for being afraid of his true character. What are we to make of this scene? It’s particularly confusing given the inconsistency in characterization: the Rupert Murdoch character has his name unchanged but is transformed into a magical “fairy godmother”, while Anna Fender is simply Rebekah Brooks with a different name, her character following the media’s depiction of Brooks as a hard-nosed, power-hungry media player.
Further confusion is caused by the abrupt ending. From the somewhat incoherent scene described above, we move to London receiving a visit from Anna Prentice, who tells her that Dim didn’t sell stories about London to the press, the truth was that her phone had been hacked by unscrupulous journalists. The best friends are reunited and, together with Anna Prentice, they decide to write a play about the hacking scandal. They’ll call it The Daily Fail. Cue the final number.
Now, I’m all for leaving things open-ended and letting the audience come to their own conclusions, but this takes it a little too far. What does O’Malley want to say about the press, about celebrity culture, about our role as consumers of mass media? She touches on all of these themes in the play and it would be great to see her develop them further.
Quirk-o-meter rating: ***
***** = Quintessentially Quirky
****= Really rather wonderfully quirky
*** = Quite quirky
** = Brief moments of quirkiness
* = Not very quirky at all