Topless Mum @ Tricycle Theatre, London

cast list
Alistair Wilkinson
Emma Lowndes
Louise Kempton
Giles Fagan
Sylvestra Le Touzel
Jason Deer

directed by
Caroline Hunt
I know its a superficial thing but I really dont like that title. I understand that its intended to sound like a tabloid headline. I get that. But its still blunt and nasty and off-putting.

Originally staged as Topless Mum In Dead Hero Shocker! at Bristols Tobacco Factory, Ron Hutchinsons play arrives in London after undergoing a number of tweaks to the writing, include that odd compaction of its title.

The play is about the casual relationship of the tabloid press with the truth, how the media manipulates both images and words. Barry has just come home from Afghanistan, his tour of duty violently curtailed by a landmine. His injuries mean it is hard to find work but Barry has a photo, a photo he thinks the world might want to see. It is a painfully familiar image: a man stands naked and bent over, his head hidden by a black hood, while tormentors in military uniform surround him. When journalist Annie sees it, her mind races, she wants the scoop, but bearing in mind Piers Morgans dismissal for using similar images that turned out to be fakes, she is also aware of the need to tread carefully.

They go ahead and publish but, despite her caution, the photo turns out not to be the real deal. The worried hacks realise that they have done a Daily Mirror, and only by twisting the story on its head can they hope to, as the editor puts it, get our bollocks off the barbed wire. So they go back to Barry and his wife Tiffany with an offer, to turn his tale in to one of heroism and protest and, as a sweetener, to publish some pictures of Tiffany with her kit off while theyre at it.

The plot continues to swoop and loop in increasingly implausible circles, doubling back on itself at least three times. This knottiness of narrative is initially appealing but it soon becomes tiresome. Hutchinsons case against the tabloid press seems rather muddled and its difficult to figure out exactly what the nature of his argument is. Tabloids are Bad that seems to be the gist of it; they will exploit people to get a good story and wont let the truth get in the way of selling papers. He even throws in a tenuously linked digression on the airbrushing of photographs as if to further illustrate his point, but, as satire goes, its as blunt as a butter knife.

Caroline Hunts production is flatly played out on a bare stage, with a back wall designed to resemble the exterior of a shipping container. It is a drab and flabby thing with an unpleasant coarseness to the writing: Barry and Tiffany are never more than social stereotypes of the Vicki Pollard level of subtlety (she wears pink tracksuit bottoms and they have an unseen kid called Britney) and the journalists dont fare much better.

The British media is not immune to satire, far from it, but anyone having a go needs to try far harder than this. Topless Mum feels dated and weary despite its attempts to be topical. Its hard to fathom how this play came from the same man who wrote the warmly reviewed Moonlight And Magnolias. That show is returning to the Tricycle next month by popular demand; youd do better to wait for that and give this a miss completely.

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