Arts and Culture

Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! review – bitingly sharp satire spectacularly reworked for the stage 

At the Lowry in Salford as part of a national tour, a stage version of iconic ‘90s newsroom sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey plunged its cast into the Wild West of tabloid scandal, clickbait, and unscrupulous media moguls.

The Reawakening! brings the TV show’s original cast kicking and screaming into the world of 24-hour news, social media, and AI. Written by the original award-winning team of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin and directed by Lindsay Posner, the production by Hat Trick and Simon Friend Entertainment is touring the UK 25 years after the sitcom’s close. 

Both a sharp satire on the state of modern journalism and technology, and a terrifying picture of where the industry might go next, we’ll have to hope that this stage version isn’t as ahead of its time as the sitcom was. On a happier note, it’s just as funny.  

Slimy chief exec Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan) and some mysterious corporate backers have reassembled the old GlobeLink News crew – missing late members Haydn Gwynne and David Swift, who receive an on-screen tribute –  at new outlet Truth News. The team gets one addition in the form of “weather girl” Rita (Kerena Jagpal), who immediately becomes the butt of every non-PC joke (and there are many).

Despite his employees’ protests, Gus is determined that this won’t be a professional outfit. Instead, “the algorithm” will shape what they broadcast, with viewing figures the all-important indicator of success, rather than quality journalism. Naturally, it’s doomed from the start. And that’s before we even get to the software, which of course is made by “those clever people at Fujitsu”.

The script is razor-sharp, with satire coming at everyone’s expense: left, right, old, young, woke and non-woke. Rishi Sunak, the Rwanda bill, and the Rochdale Labour Party all come in for a pasting at the Salford show, and even national treasure Sir David Attenborough isn’t safe.

Snobbish newsreader Sally Smedley (Victoria Wicks) is only too happy to oblige Gus in his push to make the show more controversial in order to drive up viewing figures, leading to fantastic lines like “Is the answer to Channel migrants trained sharks?” 

The show expertly weaves together gags about the industry, from the depressing reality for unpaid interns to issues facing older women, as well as the role of modern tech and the ethical quandaries the cast face. 

The characterisation is a triumph, with each member of the crew battling their scruples as Gus drives the show further and further into the gutter. A real ensemble production, all of the cast shine and the snappy dialogue highlights their comedic timing and individual quirks. 

Duncan is brilliant as the overbearing boss, bewildering his staff with a constant stream of management psychobabble and confident references to “Tok-Tiking” and other such wonders of technology.

Hapless editor George Dent (Jeff Rawle) is a gentle soul who can’t seem to get anything to work – whether it’s wrestling with the voice-activated coffee machine or attempting to exert any degree of editorial control over the show. 

Susannah Doyle is at once terrifying and hilarious as Joy Merryweather, whose sadistic glee in her new power as head of HR is a highlight.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum is Rita, who brings enthusiasm to a jaded newsroom and the bonus of “youthfulness and diversisity”, in Gus’ words – as well as a functioning moral compass.  

Office dogsbody Dave (Neil Pearson) provides heart at the centre of the show. Despite being a reformed character – he has given up drinking, gambling, and womanising – he still manages to make a fool of himself.  

Cool assistant editor Helen (Ingrid Lacey), wacky investigative journalist Mairead (Julia Mills), and morally questionable Damien Day (Stephen Tomkinson) round out an excellent cast. And Damien’s battered teddy bear planted at every disaster scene also makes a comeback, as the show nods playfully back to the original.

The set, by Peter McKintosh, is also a hit. Red lights illuminate the square box of the newsroom and a giant screen descends to show cleverly curated Twitter reactions and the ‘Truth News’ backdrop. Another funny touch is the inclusive toilets for all the office “genderfluids” – of which there are none, despite Gus’ insistence. 

Equal parts uproarious and more gently funny, Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! is fantastically clever and accessible to both fans of the original and total newbies to the story. Being satirical it’ll probably offend some people, but with everyone the butt of the joke, no-one really has grounds for hurt – except perhaps Prince Andrew. It’s a brilliant watch. 

Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! is at The Lowry, Salford, until Saturday 17 February and continues around the UK. Tickets available here.

Images courtesy of The Lowry. Used with permission.

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