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A CurtainUp London London Review
Dumb Show

If Jesus Christ were alive, you'd be going through his bins — Barry
Dumb Show
Emma Cunniffe as Liz and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Barry — (Photo: Chris Pearsall)
Dumb Show was Joe Penhall's 2004 play at the Royal Court and is now revived at The Rose in Kingston in a production by artistic director Stephen Unwin. It is a clever comedy with several twists and turns about the symbiotic relationship between celebrities and the predatory tabloid press as well as a starting point for a discussion about privacy and the public's so called right to know.

I remember some years ago going to the launch of the Old Vic Company's repertoire of plays under its philanthropic artistic director who also happened to be a Hollywood movie star. It was a couple of nights after he was involved in a mugging incident in the small hours of the morning whilst jetlagged and walking his dog in a south east London park. It was explained to the press that questions were invited about the theatre launch but the hounds of the press pack would not let go, hijacking the press conference for their sensational ends. I am probably naive but I was shocked at how badly behaved they were.

Penhall's play exposes a deliberate honey trap on the part of a pair of journalists to write a headline grabbing story. But the celebrity, a stand up comedian, Barry (Sanjeev Bhaskar) isn't an entirely innocent victim as he shows his willingness to set up tax free deals, cutting his agent and his divorcing wife out of the income. He also makes sexual advances towards the woman. The pair of unscrupulous hacks, Greg and Liz (Dexter Fletcher and Emma Cunniffe) pretend to be private bankers, John and Jane, in order to get access to the comedian. Besides being in competition with the other newspapers, Greg and Liz are also in competition with each other in this game of sleaze. They overstep the mark and Barry has the good sense to consult his lawyer and realises that in enticing him to obtain drugs for the woman while under the influence of alcohol, the journalists are implicated as agents provocateurs.

This plot device exposes the manufacture of headline grabbing stories by the industry itself. It is interesting to hear Greg saying how much he enjoys the acting element of the scam, learning his lines and playing the part. How much is it really in the public interest that the sexual foibles and private concerns of these people are laid open? I won't reveal the extra twists that Penhall has laid for us but they are unexpected and more luck than judgment but you watch and realise how the journalists can turn any developing event into a new story.

Sanjeev Bhaskar doesn't show the full charisma his character is meant to have although we hear Liz describing her own feelings of being star struck, but Barry's polished, confident quick wit and back chat is expertly delivered. I liked too Dexter Fletcher's pond life journalist, at turns slimy and ingratiating, then vicious and reptilian. As Liz, Emma Cunniffe's appearance is deceptive. Looking like a school prefect or a "nice girl", she isn't the upstanding member of society she ought to be and all the more dangerous for that.

The wide sweep of The Rose's stage seems too large and open a space for this close up comedy which needs a claustrophobic and trapped environment, the modern hotel room set being overly large. The play is still topical with the ethical issues of the press delivering copy to a celebrity hungry public no closer to being resolved than they were in 2004. And let us not forget Oscar Wilde's famous line on the complicity of the famous, "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

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Dumb Show
Written by Joe Penhall
Directed by Stephen Unwin

Starring: Sanjeev Bhaskar, Emma Cunniffe, Dexter Fletcher
Set and Costume Design: Simon Higlett
Lighting: Malcolm Rippeth
Sound: Dave Starmer
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 0871 230 1552
Booking to 17th April 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 6th April 2010 performance at the Rose Theatre, 24-26 High Street, Kingston, KT1 1HL (Rail: Kingston)

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