REVIEW: Five Dead No Bodies, Customs House, South Shields
Get me a murder a day!
That was the rallying cry of Daily Mail founder Lord Northcliffe, and an acceptance from the early days that hard news - and often bad news - sells papers.
But what do you do when there is no hard news? When your boss's business interests prevent you from publishing the big stories that do exist, and free pasties are the only thing which seem to be boosting your circulation?
That is the predicament in which Max, editor of the Tyneside Times, finds himself at the beginning of Five Dead No Bodies, which opened at the Customs House in South Shields last night. There is a hint to the outcome in the title of the production.
The play is co-written by former Sunderland Echo and Shields Gazette editor Rob Lawson, and Port of Tyne corporate affairs director Susan Wear, and its themes of fake news, post-truth, a struggling print media and pressures on editors and journalists, will have no doubt been influenced by the duo's real-life experiences of the media world.
Not, I have to say, that Rob was ever a "get me a murder a day-style" editor in the days I served under him at the Echo.
Max's disheveled appearance, railing against twitter and bottle of whisky in the cupboard are also not attributes you would find in the neatly presented, level-headed teetotal I once called boss.
However, the script has clearly been bathed in frustrations he kept to himself at the time - from the glitchy tendencies of editorial IT systems and cringey corporate speak, to the decrepit premises and pressures on resources.
While the character of Max was very dissimilar to Rob in many ways, the part of Chelsea - the razor-tongued council spin doctor - was much more recognisable.
I shall state simply that I served as council reporter during Susan Wear's tenure as director of communications at Sunderland City Council, and leave it at that.
While dealing with serious issues, the play is very much a comedy, full of quirky and lovable characters portrayed by a hard-working cast.
Each had their merits, but for me Andy Berriman stood out in his roles as Tom, the upstart sports specialist, Jordan, the izzy wizzy hipster from commercial, and Abi, the "widow" of one of the local notables who disappears.
The production could perhaps do with a little clipping and honing: the action appeared a little back-heavy resulting in the resolution feeling a little crammed, and while there is plenty of meat to the first half, some of the dialogue could be trimmed to give the play more polish.
Overall, though, this was another great example of the work the Customs House is doing with new writers and smaller-scale productions, and an interesting approach to some of the big issues facing our news industry which have important ramifications for society as a whole.
:: Five Dead No Bodies runs until Saturday February 18, with matinee and evening performances everyday.