Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening!

Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin
Hat Trick & Simon Friend Entertainment
The Lowry

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(Back) Ingrid Lacey as Helen, Neil Pearson as Dave, Susannah Doyle as Joy, Robert Duncan as Gus and (front) Jeff Rawle as George
Victoria Wicks as Sally Smedley and Stephen Tompkinson as Damien
Victoria Wicks as Sally Smedley and Julia Hills as Mairead
Neil Pearson as Dave and Julia Hills as Mairead
Jeff Rawle as George and Ingrid Lacey as Helen
Stephen Tompkinson as Damien, Robert Duncan as Gus, Jeff Rawle as George, Neil Pearson as Dave and Victoria Wicks as Sally Smedley

While stage versions of old sitcoms aren't uncommon—John Cleese has recently announced that Fawlty Towers will come to theatres later in the year, to join the likes of Porridge, Steptoe and Son, Yes, Prime Minister and several others—it is less common for almost the full original cast to be reassembled for a UK tour with a brand new script.

Drop the Dead Donkey was Jenkin and Hamilton's satire on the new rolling news channels that ran for most of the 1990s, with bang up-to-the minute references to real news events often handed to the actors just before recording. Globe Link News was run by Gus, with his constant stream of contorted corporate-speak, with hapless, accident-prone George as editor, though most of the decisions had to be taken by his deputy, originally Alex but later Helen.

On screen, the vain presenters Sally and Henry presented a dignified front but were insufferable in different ways. Reporter Dave had addictions to gambling and affairs with married women, whereas roving reporter Damien was known for faking news footage, especially in war zones. Then there was Joy, the scary runner who gave service with a sneer, if at all.

The stage version, scripted by the original writers, begins with George (Jeff Rawle) trying to operate the voice-activated coffee machine in the new Truth News studio, where he has been employed over the phone. Gradually, other members of the former Globe Link team appear, surprised and not entirely happy to see the others there ("oh fuck" is the pretty much universal response).

Initially, they all seem to have changed since they last met (at Henry, former presenter's, funeral, played on TV by the late David Swift): Dave has been 'away' and has given up drinking, gambling and affairs with married women; George has had some short-lived jobs in press offices (Liz Truss, Prince Andrew) and now has a Korean girlfriend; Joy (Susannah Doyle) has her own consultancy business, lives on a Scottish island and is there as head of HR; Damien (Stephen Tompkinson) is in a wheelchair after a genuine injury while filming on location; Sally (Victoria Wicks) has achieved fame as the host of an unsavoury sounding reality show; Helen (Ingrid Lacey) has money troubles and needs this job that they all say is very well-paid. Of course they all revert to their former characters before the end.

Gus (Robert Duncan) is as slimy as ever, interfering while telling them "I'm not here", but now ruled by 'the algorithm', which seems to be telling him what they should do through his tablet device, even if it goes way beyond the 'truth' in the channel's name—it's all about the ratings: social media responses (which scroll past on a screen between scenes) and viewing figures. But who is actually funding all of this, and who is feeding the algorithm?

There are two newcomers to the team: investigative reporter Mairead (the brilliant Julia Hills), who keeps her Emmy on her desk and won't tell anyone what she's investigating, and intern Rita (Serena Jagpal), who ticks a few boxes for Gus because she is young and non-white—Damien being disabled and Helen a lesbian also help his diversity figures. And if you think Gus can be insensitive, then Sally is downright offensive against pretty much everyone—many people would think being cancelled would be too good for her. There's even a brief appearance via the screen of Sir Trevor McDonald.

Stretching something that works as a half-hour sitcom into two hours of stage time isn't easy, and the transition isn't entirely successful here. There are quite a few lulls that could do with some tightening up from director Derek Bond and possibly in the script as well. However, there are also some hilarious moments and a great many cracking lines, and there are some of those topical references as well—the mention of the Rochdale Labour Party was a double-whammy, being both a local reference and a news story that broke only this week.

So while not perfect, when it works, it works brilliantly, with more than enough really big laughs to send everyone home happy. And of course it's great to see the original cast back together, except, of course, for Swift and for Haydn Gwynne, who gets a lovely full-page tribute in the programme.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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