The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Review: Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening!

A last century TV hit has been resuscitated for the stage. David Whetstone joined the first night audience at the Theatre Royal
Stephen Tompkinson, Robert Duncan, Jeff Rawle, Neil Pearson and Victoria Wicks. Credit: Manuel Harlan

The world’s in a mess what with war, climate change and political upheaval, and the truth, it’s true, has taken a battering of late.

What better time then for the launch of a new TV news service, Truth News, fearless ferreter out of the facts?

Whatever the response of the fictional viewing public, there was a real and very warm reception at the Theatre Royal for the cast of this belated stage spin-off of Drop the Dead Donkey.

The sitcom was much loved in the 1990s as a sharp satire on TV journalism with its egos, rows, cock-ups and outrageous hypocrisy (none of it really true to life – surely?).

Jeff Rawle and Ingrid Lacey. Credit: Manuel Harlan

And now it’s back, the characters revived by writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin and the actors who played them on TV – all longer in the tooth, naturally, and (the characters, that is) trailing more baggage than a hen party.

On comes Jeff Rawle as George Dent, the editor who was never wholly in control, summoned mysteriously to this high rise office to be outsmarted by a coffee machine.

Then in sidles Neil Pearson’s Dave Charnley, remembered as the floppy-haired newsroom lothario and gambling addict, followed by Ingrid Lacey’s Helen Cooper, a lesbian when to be so made you a fair butt of jokes.

In rolls a wheelchair-bound (oh, yeah!) Damien Day, Stephen Tompkinson’s frontline newshound whose legendary pursuit of tear-jerking footage knew no bounds. Has maturity brought him a conscience?

Oh, God, they moan collectively, all it needs now is for news reading diva Sally Smedley (Victoria Wicks) and inaptly named Joy Merryweather from HR (Susannah Doyle) to turn up… and suddenly they do, each greeted with applause from out in the dark.

And with unsatisfactory answers to their understandable questions – “Who’s funding this?” being one – in comes Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan), shark-like corporate smile undimmed by time.

There’s a plot, with Julia Hill’s hotshot recruit Mairead (armed with an Emmy in her handbag) at the heart of it, and there’s a young person, brave Kerena Jagpal as intern Rita, introduced by Gus as “the weather girl… er, person” and told that “the algorithm” isn’t keen on her top.

It’s unspoken but something more revealing, you deduce, would do the trick.

Truth News, it’s soon pretty obvious, isn’t long for this world, which has moved on since the days when coffee machines weren’t smarter than humans and algorithms didn’t relegate editors like George to bit-part roles.

The fun partly derives from references to today’s news agenda. Rishi Sunak probably doesn’t need the royalty that he perhaps deserves.

But much more from seeing a bunch of dinosaurs negotiating a world full of technological and attitudinal strangeness. They’re all at sea and we in the audience, mostly of a similar generation, laugh in gleeful recognition.

“AI,” smarms Gus to his uncomprehending news team, “is delivering mankind from the tyranny of thinking.”

Jeff Rawle as George. Credit: Manuel Harlan

But it’s time-honoured “technical difficulties” that do for Truth News in the end. Oh, and electrocuting a national treasure live on air! 

The show ends, poignantly, with a visual tribute to the two cast members no longer with us – David Swift, who played newsreader Henry Davenport, and Haydn Gwynn who was Alex Pates, George’s deputy, in series one and two.

Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! runs until Saturday, May 25. Tickets from the Theatre Royal website.


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