I was not making much headway. My subtly worded suggestion to my mother that she might, perhaps, maybe, want to accompany me to see a play about tabloid journalism and the torture of military prisoners at the Tricycle in Kilburn was met with the kind of expression that made me wonder if I’d just somehow accidentally posited the idea that I fellate the postman while she watched, instead of simply discussing a night of theatrical entertainment – though I’m not sure if it was the idea of the torture theme or of going to Kilburn that she was reacting to. I tried to tell her all about how wonderful everyone said Moonlight and Magnolias was (the playwright, Ron Hutchinson’s, previous work) and, when that failed, I tried to bribe her with gin and Superkings, but, no, once her mind is made up, that’s pretty much it.
At least, I hoped, the play would be wonderful and then I could dangle the reviews in front of her and show her what she’d missed. But it was not wonderful; it was wonder-empty. For a start, it was raining (possibly not the fault of the play, but it didn’t help matters) and I had, for some reason, decided to leave both my umbrella and my jacket in various places that were entirely unhelpful. So I arrived at the Tricycle damp and panting.
Then there’s that title: Topless Mum. OK, it’s a take on the bluntness of tabloid headline speak, but still it’s a bit off-putting. (The play was originally staged as Topless Mum In Dead Hero Shocker! at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory last year but it has undergoing a number of tweaks between then and now, including the circumcision of its original title). Oh and then there’s the play itself, an apparent satire on the tabloid press given a topical spin with reference to Afghanistan and the Daily Mirror faked photos affair that led to the ousting of Piers Morgan from the editor’s chair.
A disabled soldier and his wife attempt to sell a photo of an Afghan prisoner apparently being tortured by British soldiers, the paper decides to print it only for the image to turn out to be false. Fearing for their jobs the hacks try to spin the story out in a different light, one that paints the scamming couple as a pair of anti-war protestors – they also offer to print a set of pictures of the wife with her kit off (hence the title). There are further backflips in the plot that see it getting increasingly implausible and irritating. There is also a seemingly tacked-on digression about the perils of airbrushing images, about how you can’t believe anything you see in the papers these days.
It’s hard to fathom exactly what the point of the play is. Yes, it’s topical but that counts for nothing if you don’t have anything to say. As far as I could comprehend the main thrust of the argument is that Tabloids are Bad and that truth counts for little in the media.
This lack of coherent argument is emphasised in the programme notes, where Hutchinson makes vaguely unhappy noises about the state of the British media (whilst also pointing out that he has lived mainly in LA for the last 25 years.) As satire goes, it was blunt and lumpy and very flatly staged. Matters weren’t helped by mistimed projections of the back wall of the set and a very squeaky revolve.
The soldier Barry and his wife Tiffany were sketched with the finesse and social nuance of a Little Britain skit and the journalists didn’t do much better. Having missed Moonlight and Magnolias last time round (it’s coming back to the Tricycle next month) I had been quite keen to see this but was just left irritated that I’d trekked all the way up to Kilburn in the rain. I’m only glad my mother didn’t come in the end or I’d be hearing about it for weeks to come.