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Pravda - Chichester Festival 2006 (review)


Review by David Munro

Pravda was written in 1985 as a soi-disant expose of then current newspaper morality. Its authors, David Hare and Howard Brenton, both distinguished playwrights in their own right appear to have thought that a farcical comedy about a megalomaniac newspaper owner would suit an audience living under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher. It was first seen at The National Theatre and the production now at the Chichester Festival Theatre is allegedly the first revival since then .

The immediate question which springs to mind is why, if no one has seen fit to revive it for all that length of time, should it seem appropriate to exhume it now. For exhumation is I think the mot juste for this play. Although we still have all powerful newspaper proprietors, they are not of the calibre of Lambert Le Roux, the one around whom this play revolves.

Le Roux is clearly based on the terrible R. M. twosome – Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch both of whom exercised, so one is led to believe, autocratic editorial control of their journals. But both have passed from the scene and one likes to think that newspapers are now conducted with a more ethical approach to news and life.

Even so, as a period piece the play might have been worth reviving if it had anything relevant to say or was a good comedy about newspapers in its own right, as for example The Front Page which has had many revivals over the years and was even turned into a musical; but Pravda is not in that class.

It has Lambert Le Roux, a South African buying up newspapers, sacking staff and bringing his only genuine and honest editor to his knees (literally) and bending him to his will and dubious ethical behaviour.

Along the way, the authors cast a lot of jibes at what they believe is journalistic life and credos, and throw in a trendy (for the time) left wing and sincere female columnist (who is also incidentally, the upright editor’s wife); a cynical and corrupt accountant who tricks the editor into printing libellous statements about Le Roux; and a venal editor for good measure.

Mix up these ingredients and you do not get a very edible dish. The play is dated, only moderately funny and presents a caricature of what the public assume goes on behind the scenes in the gutter press’s offices.

I have never been a journalist so perhaps I can’t speak with authority on these matters but I can say that I believe that if half the mayhem and shenanigans portrayed on the stage occurred in real life, I very much doubt whether any paper would get published on time or remain in existence very long.

In short it is a not very good play which should have remained decently buried.

As always with the Chichester Festival productions, a good and competent cast has been assembled who do their best with the material they are given and as usual, they succeed admirably.

Roger Allam plays Lambert Le Roux with a wonderful display of ferocity laced with cynicism and low cunning. I remember him giving a wonderfully camp, swish performance as Captain Terri in Privates on Parade at the Donmar but there is nothing effete about his Lambert Le Roux – quite the reverse. This is the portrait of a man who knows what he wants and gets it at whatever cost to himself or anyone else.

It is a performance worthy of a better play and material. Even so he manages to distil a modicum of humanity into the character which prevents it from either going too far over the top or appearing a stereotype; in fact, by the end of the evening he was almost likeable in his awfulness. He alone makes a worthless play worth seeing.

As the honest editor Andrew, Oliver Dinsdale is a complete contrast. He is boyish, charming, straightforward and honest in how he goes about his job. His volte face at the end is therefore somewhat incredible although Mr Dinsdale tries to make it seem otherwise.

As his wife, Zoe Waites turns from a deb-like girl into a moral crusader without stretching the audience’s credulity too far but the role is really just one to enable the authors to make some not very justifiable points about journalistic morality and their attitude to greater political issues.

Alistair Petrie plays a suave M.P. turned journalist with charm and more than a little cynicism which is a reasonably amusing contrast to some of the other characters so-called moral stances; and Bruce Alexander (perhaps better known for his exasperation with David Jason’s Inspector Frost) is delightfully venal and manipulative as the sacked editor replaced by Andrew.

Most of the actors are called upon to double their roles, for example, Lynn Fairleigh turns up at the opening as a shopkeeper trying to get a retraction of a potentially damaging story about her and then again later as a drunk Royal uttering clichés and senseless remarks.

It would therefore take up too much time and space to detail all and everyone’s contribution. All the cast give good performances and do their best to paper over the cracks in the plot and to deliver their dialogue as though it meant something and are to be congratulated for bringing a modicum of pleasure to the proceedings.

Jonathan Church the director was co-director of the really magnificent Nicholas Nickelby in the earlier part of the season. He keeps things moving at a fair speed and shows as he did in N.N a flair for marshalling his cast in the most effective manner thereby getting the best out the them and the play.

I feel sorry yet again that after such a really good earlier season that the Festival should have to end on two plays which do neither the Festival directors nor their casts justice. Pravda, for all its faults, is better than The Father and has enough going for it with its cast and direction to make it acceptable to a complacent and not too critical audience. Have a good dinner and go and see Roger Allam is my advice – I will say no more.

Pravda by Howard Brenton & David Hare.

Director – Jonathan Church.

Designer – Ruan Murchison.
Lighting – Chris Ellis.
Sound – Dan Hoole.
Composer – Mathew Scott.
Choreographer – Jenny Arnold.

CAST: Zoe Waites, Oliver Dinsdale, Gwendoline Christie, Bernard Lloyd, Pip Donaghy, Lydia Griffiths, Alex McIntosh, Lynn Farleig, John Woodvine and Roger Allam.

Chichester Festival Theatre,
Oaklands Park, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 6AP.

September 8 to September 23, 2006.
Evenings: 7.30pm
Matinees: Thursdays and Saturdays at 2pm.

Box Office: 01234 781312