Drop The Dead Donkey: The Reawakening | Review of the newsroom satire, revived for the stage 25 years on
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Drop The Dead Donkey: The Reawakening

Review of the newsroom satire, revived for the stage 25 years on

When I check my phone during the interval of the stage revival of Drop The Dead Donkey, I learn that GB News just managed to confuse two Sikh MPs. Not the worst thing the broadcaster has ever done, but it serves as a reminder of how far ahead of its time Channel 4’s comedy was in satirising a populist news station prioritising ratings over editorial standards. 

This revival – after an incredible 25 years – might have been unexpected when it was announced last year, but it is very timely, given the increasing devaluation of truth by partisan, under-resourced media.

It would be unrealistic to expect the motley crew of characters to still be working for GlobeLink News after all these years, especially as the channel shut down in the last episode of the TV show. So in The Reawakening they have been brought back together by the slippery management shrill Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan). He was tasked with creating a new Ofcom-worrying channel, Truth News, by some shadowy backers, so turned to the old team he knows so well. Avengers Dissemble!

In this modern media landscape the shady journalists don’t just have to rely on their base instincts to misreport the news. Gus is in thrall to a murky algorithm which reveals what the audience want to hear, and artificial intelligence to help his fledgling channel say it, even if it is prone to going rogue. Nor are these themes the only topical element – true to the original, there’s the odd gag pulled from the week’s headlines, such as Rishi Sunak trying to appeal to the ‘Saga generation’ or an offhand reference to Marcus Rashford’s woes.

Writers Guy Jenkins and Andy Hamilton have tipped a good measure of proper gags into the script, from the barbed banter between the cast to some physical humour from accident-prone editor George (Jeff Rawle) even if the pace is inconsistent, with occasional lulls. Certainly, in this first-ever public performance, some of the cast’s timing was a little slack, but that will surely improve. But even with the odd real-life technical snafu dropped on top, this was nowhere near as disastrous as the launch night of Truth News. Let’s just say that a couple of national treasures do not escape unharmed, either physically or reputationally.

As well as the solid gags, the other pleasure is the cast and the dynamic between them, intact after all these decades. What’s notable is that the defining trait of almost all of their characters  – save for wet-blanket George – is their cynicism. Yet they are cynical – and selfish, and egotistical – in their own peculiar ways, 

Hardest boiled of the bunch is amoral roving reporter Damien Day (Stephen Tompkinson), the master of emotionally manipulative fake footage, now in a wheelchair after being wounded on a job, making him a little more sympathetic. Now he’s confined to the studio as anchorman, though the late David Swift’s absence as irascible Henry Davenport is keenly felt.

Vapid, snobbish and none-too-bright Sally Smedley (Victoria Wicks) becomes, under Gus’s manipulation, a Nadine Dorries-style provocateur. Feckless Dave Charnley (Neil Pearson) claims to have cleaned up his gambling, womanising ways – yet in his 60s still manages to be the office dogsbody. And assistant editor Helen Cooper (Ingrid Lacey) continues to use her cynicism for good, sniffing out dodgy reporting, remaining the newsroom's ever-lonely voice of ethics and professionalism.

The psychopathically misanthropic Joy (Susannah Doyle) has gone from production assistant to head of HR, playing lip-service to the toxicity of this workplace, which would have passed unnoticed 25 years ago. ‘This isn’t the 1990s any more’, says one character comments, and the introduction of Rita (Kerena Jagpal) a 19-year-old Asian ‘weather gi… presenter’ (as she’s always reffered to) serves to highlight how attitudes have changed – no matter how much Truth News on-screen output kicks back against wokeness.

Such themes give the show another layer of relevance beyond the clear commentary on ever-declining media morals and impoverishing the world. The audience at Richmond Theatre might have been of a similar vintage to the cast, but however good it is to see the old gang back together, there’s more to Drop The Dead Donkey: The Reawakening than simple nostalgia that should offer an appeal beyond the TV show’s existing fan base.

• Drop The Dead Donkey: The Reawakening is touring the UK until June. Dates. The original episodes are all available to stream via Channel 4.

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Review date: 31 Jan 2024
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Richmond Theatre

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