Long Story Short begins its latest run at the -Charing Cross Theatre, after having moved from the Pleasance, Islington. Squint, the company behind this play, have taken the complex area of media intrusion and the brutal effect it has had on people’s lives, and provided a thoughtful play that follows the journey of sixteen year old Jamie Glover.
The production opens to the slightly unnecessary scene of three British soldiers in Afghanistan as they are kidnapped but begins in earnest with Neil, an editor for a national news programme, being lambasted by a disparate group of anonymous people. The director, Andrew Whyment, has done an excellent job of dramatising the hatred and scorn of the internet.
What follows is a narrative that confidently takes its time to set the scene and give the play context, which is exactly what Neil pleads for, when asked to defend himself. He proposes context will make his heinous actions more understandable. The tone set by the play is of stark contrasts, the intriguing story is interspersed with moments of incessant, inarticulate criticism that bombard the senses. Throughout Long Stort Short the pervading idea is that to understand the truth you must understand the whole picture, and this is not possible with the soundbite news stories that dominate the media today.
This production then takes us back to Australia in the 1960s, where we meet an uncertain but earnest character called Red, who is a thin veil for a young Rupert Murdoch. The story then switches between Jamie in contemporary Britain and Red’s purchase of the News of the World. Jamie, the younger brother of one of the kidnapped soldiers, is from the start a formidable character, intelligent and capable of making the audience laugh, but in the face of manipulative journalists starts to appear vulnerable.
There is a very real sense of danger throughout this play, the journalists appear to us as predators and the power they wield is very clear. Long Story Short does not set out to criticise all journalism, it does something far more interesting, it shows us how individual people’s judgement can fail. The chain of events which escalates into a scandal are explained both through personal error and a historical context. The young Rupert Murdoch-esque figure is pushing the boundaries of journalism in the sixties and the results are shown in the present day, through the need to find sensational stories to satisfy the twenty four hour news cycle.
There are choreographed dance pieces preceding each scene, these work best when the actor’s movements are slow and animalistic, providing a contrast as the action speeds up in the rest of the play. It can be eerie and effective but I found the scene where the cast all ran on the spot to be faintly ridiculous. The lighting and music worked fantastically however to build momentum and create a sense of the glamour of television news.
The climatic scene in which Neil puts Jamie on live national television, based on Neil’s self-interested reasons and extremely poor ethics seals his fate, but is intercut with scenes from Red’s flight to England in the 1960s. This is fantastically directed and utterly compelling. Red describes a plane crash to a fellow passenger who is scared of flying, what at first appears to be him simply tormenting another passenger, turns into an allegory for the news. The tone of this scene was pitch perfect and the momentum of the two scenes interrupting each other built the tension perfectly. As the broadcasters attempt to extricate themselves from the mess they have created, the news anchor becomes frozen on screen; it is symbolic of the rigidity of their motivations and cynicism, they have become stagnant, constantly searching for short stories that hook the attention rather than digging deeper for real meaning.
At the end we are left feeling sympathy for Neil and serious misgivings about Jamie, who is the product of the current media culture, and secretly records Neil for his own blog, as the former editor talks openly and candidly about the past. Jamie has taken power away from the established press but given it over to an even more questionable outlet, the blogging site he runs appears fuelled by insubstantial and exploitative stories. The role of victim and perpetrator change but the type of exploitation merely becomes more audacious. That is the sense that the audience is left with at the end of Long Story Short. The ‘information democracy’ Jamie heralds does not lead to an improvement in the news, only to greater opportunity to join in with the muck racking.
This is a nuanced play about a complex subject but is also riveting to watch. There are some small elements such as the need to begin scenes with dance that can become tiresome and take time away from the fascinating characters of this production. However this is a powerful work that raises many questions for the audience. It is significant that the disgraced editor Neil turns to teaching at the end, because his character reminds us we are all ultimately responsible for our own education now, and that perhaps is the scariest news of all.
Reviewed by Sean Morris
Long Story Short plays at the Charing Cross Theatre until 11 October 2014. Click here for tickets.