DROP THE DEAD DONKEY: THE REAWAKENING – Leeds Grand – April 9th 2024

DROP THE DEAD DONKEY: THE REAWAKENING – Leeds Grand – April 9th 2024

Millions regularly rocked with laughter through the 1990s when award-winning sit-com Drop the Dead Donkey thrust us into the competitive, cut-throat chaos of the fictional Globelink News. Thanks to brilliant scriptwriting, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (who also wrote the wittily observed Outnumbered) had a newsroom full of quirky, endearing characters spring vividly to life as they infused each episode (for five series) with hilarious absurdity, exhilarating, satirical comment and bang-up-to-date, topical gags.

Thirty years on, Hamilton and Jenkin breathe new life into Dead Donkey with a stage-play that features most of those same quirky, larger-than-life characters, played – oh joy! – by the original, larger-than-life cast, fine stage actors all. So how has haughty, uptight newsreader Sally Smedley fared as life moved on three decades? How has fortune shaped the foibles, flaws, obsessions, ambitions, woes, afflictions and addictions of hapless, accident-prone editor George, gambling, drinking womaniser sub-editor Dave, sensation-seeking reporter Damien (and his strategically placed teddy-bear Dimbles, ever ready to provoke tears at any disaster)? And what of efficient, organised assistant Helen, vindictive Joy and the gushing, ratings-obsessed manager Gus?

Mysteriously coming together at the birth of Truth News, which aims to deliver news with teeth and achieve ultimate Toothy Truthiness, the characters bring to the mix tales of Wandsworth and ankle tags, a wheelchair, stints (brief) of working for Liz Truss and Prince Andrew, breakdown, homelessness, isolation in the Outer Hebrides, Radio Scunthorpe and Guess My Underwear. Battered by life, older and marginally wiser (?) they are still, thankfully, very much them!

Jeff Rawle is still a warm, fluffy, loveable, gentle George, dogged by inexplicably frequent incidences of bad luck and a true pal to Neil Pearson’s amiable Dave, who has actually made great strides in curbing his addictions. Both have wonderful stage presence and rapport. Robert Duncan is still the brash, bulldozing boss, spouting managerial Malapropisms, bluster, waffle and blag, meaningless to himself let alone to anyone else (so pretty realistic, then.) But is Gus really in charge here when he doesn’t have a clue who owns Truth news, and hidden robots are the only camera operators? He insists that the algorithms must dictate the news stories and make all the editorial decisions no matter how outrageous and erroneous they may seem, for algorithms can’t be wrong. But who is it dictating what the algorithms dictate?

An aggressive dictator, perhaps? Of course, Gus is all for boobs and outrageous inaccuracies, even if they wildly denigrate the morals of David Attenborough and involve electrocuting Sir Trevor MacDonald, because boosting ratings is what truly counts. But could it be that the erstwhile callous, unethical limelight-seeking Damien is, at long, long last, seeing that the full, unvarnished truth is really all that matters? Could it? Stephen Tomkinson shows us beautifully how that pans out.

While Ingrid Lacey’s Helen is still nice, Susannah Doyle’s Joy, black-clad with skeleton motif, has progressed from being nasty to being even more sneeringly and unpleasantly nasty, and imperious Sally is played wonderfully starchy, erect and correct, as always, by Victoria Wicks, even as she delivers news concerning China’s President Eleven (Xi).

In this character-based show, the set is a bright, clean-lined, glass-walled newsroom box with classy, high-rise offices outside, neat desks inside and a big screen overhead for wildfires or for scrolling through blitzkriegs of tossed out messages. The talking, voice-activated coffee machine, though, has an erratic mind of its own. Keeping up pace, laughter and smiles, twists and turns crop up along the way, and the gags and satire, as ever, remain topical, Ruanda, Fujitsu, Post Office compensation, Lee Anderson, dick-pics, Sunak, Pope-icide, Starma and Gandhi all getting a look in. And to ensure no-one feels left out the toilets display a bewildering array of gender-fluid and/or gender-non-fluid options. What a relief! And it all comes with heaps of sparkle and nostalgia from a bunch of very fine actors into the bargain.

Eileen Caiger Gray