views from the gods

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Top Story
The Old Vic Tunnels
7th January

★★★☆☆

Comparing yourself to Waiting For Godot or Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is just asking for trouble. Not only are they among our favourite plays ever (a view shared by a not insignificant proportion of the theatre-savvy public), they juggle whimsy, satire, poetry, wordplay and existentialism in such a way that true works of academia could - and have - been published on them. Stoppard and, in particular, Beckett are masters of their craft and rightly worshipped alongside Shakespeare.

While writer Sebastian Michael and director Adam Berzsenyi Bellaagh Top Story doesn't hit these dizzying heights in their 'Godot meets Rozencrantz for the Facebook generation', it is nevertheless an enjoyable piece with an upbeat and intriguing second half that more than saves a slightly lacklustre first.

In a nutshell, a meteor is hurtling to Earth, and we spend the majority of the time with two mates, Gus (Lewis Goody) and Talfryn (Ed Pinker) as they prepare for Armageddon. Intercut with this is the rolling news narrative from perky host Chrissie Craven (Josephine Kime), a whole raft of experts, commentators and correspondents portrayed by Andy Hawthorne and Richard Matthews and the musings of two angels, the young Raoul (James Messer) and older Alphon (Stephen Schreiber).

At first glance, it's less Vladimir and Estragon and more Gary and Tony from Men Behaving Badly as the pair go on booze runs, one attempts to break up with his girlfriend and their plans to thwart the end of the world dissolve into making new rules for a game of chess where everyone mates. For their part, Goody and Pinker do well with the fairly shallow pair. It seems at times that the nature of Didi and Gogo or Stoppard's pair as mutable, interchangeable and two sides of the same coin has been picked up on by Michael and warped to mean "a bit indistinguishable but fun enough". But for all that, they do have some great lines and their bromance is endearing.

Faring considerably better is Kime, whose smiley, chirpy demeanour manages to be both scarily accurate and a wonderful parody. More than anyone, the actress reacts to the anarchy and bizarreness surrounding her, batting off several lecherous would-be paramours in the shape of Hawthorne and Matthews. It helps somewhat that as well as an actress, she's a presenter, but that doesn't explain her perfect comic timing. For their part, the myriad eccentrics invited onto her couch are done real justice by Hawthorne and Matthews, the latter in particular delivering a rant that deservedly got the biggest laugh of the night.

One of the reasons Godot and Rosencrantz work is their rhythm. Their speech patterns are so perfect, so crisply defined and so naturally delivered. Who could forget the Shakespearean duo's game of questions, or Lucky's stream of consciousness monologues cleaving the banter of Beckett's protagonists? In looking at the script for Top Story, it seems Michael has attempted to do something similar, with line breaks and single words or short phrases as whole sentences in their own right. Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting turn seems to have been ignored by the director. The unpunctuated news-speak of those on the TV is no different to Gus and Talfryn's speech, despite there being a clear suggestion to make it so.

And it's a shame as Berszsenyi Bellaagh does such a good job in other places. The ever-shifting set is thoughtfully arranged not only to create and destroy barriers metaphorically, but also on a wholly practical level of what the audience can see. He creates playful interplay between the protagonists and fully exploits the ludicrousness of the downright batty, but oddly satisfying, ending which we work for.

Granted, it's not on to expect all of the answers to be given immediately, but even a hint within the first 30 minutes of the depth that eventually does come would have been welcome. As it stands, audiences leave the overwritten first half confused as to any subtext. But when the intellectual themes do arise, they do so with gusto. The aforementioned chess game comes to the fore, as an existential thought experiment and a clever reference to the angels constantly shifting the on-casters set between each scene. Saying too much more will give it away, but persevere.

It's in the second half too that the boiler-suited, nervous, insecure Raoul and caring Alphon come to the fore. Initially seeming surplus to requirements, their quiet introspection works latterly, with Messer and Schreiber at times injecting more true humanity into their 'workmen of the universe' characters than, well, the human roles have.

And it's all aided and abetted by some great lighting design by Richard Lambert, mixing the ethereal with the mundane, accompanied by sound designer Geoff Widdowson.

Maybe I'm putting too much stock in this comparison to Beckett and Stoppard, but it's a) inevitable, and b) the writer started it. If a car markets itself as "Like a Ferrari" and I end up with a reliable, nice-to-drive Toyota Yaris, I'm going to be a little disappointed. Moving away from such comparisons, though, Top Story does have laughs, a bucket-load of heart and, happily, a considered, enjoyable pay-off to the underlying ideas it doesn't fully exploit.

Top Story ran from 5th January to 2nd February 2013 at the Old Vic Tunnels.

Nearest tube station: Waterloo (Bakerloo, Northern, Jubliee)



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