Tell It Slant – Hope Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Maev Mac Coille

Director: Erica Miller

Shows where the two leads switch roles have a habit of grabbing headlines. They also work only when they have something to say: think of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch challenging the notion of who is Mary Shelley’s hero and who the villain. Or Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in Mary Stuart, where fate (in the toss of a coin) decides who ascends and who falls from grace.

Such moves also generate good PR for their respective productions, of course. And maybe that was what was in the mind of writer Maev Mac Coille and director Erica Miller, when they decided that the two principal roles in Tell It Slant would alternate between their two leads.

Unfortunately, there is little to indicate that there is a deeper truth to be revealed by the casting trick. The general story is that Vick (Clíodha McCorley on press night) is a newspaper journalist who, in poacher-turned-gamekeeper fashion, has elected to join the government press department she once harangued daily. The department’s lead press officer Dara (Joshua Jewkes), meeting Vick face-to-face for the first time despite regular phone calls, realises that the two shared a brief liaison years ago, and the mutual attraction is still there.

As a sudden event causes the PR team to have to swing into crisis mode, the team – principally Jewkes, McCorley and a sparky Alia Sohail as a junior press officer – have no time for personal relationships.

And it is here where Tell It Slant ought to be strongest. Decisions about what to reveal and when, and how to deal with the conclusions those without the facts come to, should offer many parallels between the business world and the central pair’s personal lives. But while Coille’s script occasionally shows flashes of awareness, they are but brief. Far more attention has been given to try and make the business language of a busy press office sound authentic. And while that goal is achieved, verbal verisimilitude is no substitute for compelling drama.

The energy that both Jewkes and McCorley bring to their roles is also frustratingly underpowered. One never quite believes the magnetic chemistry between the two that the script suggests actually exists; nor that their story is as important as the crisis the team is attempting to manage, when to a playgoing audience it ought to be by far the most interesting element.

Further limited by Constance Villemot’s set, which places a large table in the centre of the Hope Theatre’s limited space and renders the cast largely static, Tell It Slant struggles to take its interesting scenario and construct much of worth.

One further wonders whether the trick of having their leads alternate roles could also be contributing to the lack of connection with the characters. If both actors had been able to concentrate on a single role and really flesh them out, one suspects we would see performances that helped to elevate a script that needs such help.

Continues until 14 March 2020.

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A PR disaster

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