Asked about the nature of research for a work of fiction, novelist Rose Tremain once argued that authors should leave a long time between researching and writing: “You need to forget a lot … and then remember.” Nicholas Wright’s scrupulous new play “The Reporter” revolves around the mysterious death of BBC journalist James Mossman in 1971. Although engaging from deftly conjured moment to moment, this close-up focus on a lost life feels too tethered to its research. Cumulatively, it pulls its metaphorical punches.
Wright has used biography as a springboard before, notably in “Vincent in Brixton.” That play, was not constricted by too much known factand was therefore free to take dramatically imaginative leaps to fashion an unusual love-story. “The Reporter,” by contrast, has far more documented and contrasting realities to deal with.
Structurally, the play is an engaging puzzle, a gently paced thriller in which the perpetrator is revealed on the opening page. In this case it’s Mossman (Ben Chaplin) examining his own suicide note. The play then cuts back to unravel a search for clues as to why this highly regarded BBC journalist took his own life.
The economy of the writing is evident throughout Richard Eyre’s detailed, fluid production. Rob Howell’s neutral set is predominantly a 1960s BBC television studio. Evocative photographs and footage of strife-torn territories from where Mossman reported are projected against a white curtain cyclorama, easily transporting the cast to different locations.
Scenes from Mossman’s working life — his relationships with his favorite cameraman, the staff of Panorama (then, as now, the BBC’s flagship current affairs program) — are contrasted with his private life.
Mossman lived with young, fragile artist Louis (nervy, charged-up but controlled Chris New) in the ’60s when homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. The strain of the relationship’s illegality creates the play’s strongest sequence.
When Louis overdoses, Mossman is terrified — not only because his lover might die but because the news about Louis could force Mossman out of the closet. “Who am I,” he frets. “His uncle? His ‘room-mate’? They’ve got people in hospitals who ring the papers.”
Attempting to sort out the mess caused by Louis’ subsequent accidental death, Mossman’s long-suffering BBC mentor Ray Ray (benign, watchful Bruce Alexander) climaxes the first act with a crucial observation: “It’s in the nature of every tragedy to be ambiguous. But ambiguity is what we can’t afford.”
Although that strikes at the heart of what Wright is doing — the play attempts to show the complex nature of suicide — putting so obvious a speech into a character’s mouth is more expository than dramatic.
This self-consciousness is further underlined by the central character commenting throughout upon his own life and death. Nonetheless, a calm, collected Chaplin delivers a major performance. He embodies Mossman’s self-description: “I retained a highly trained ability to conceal. Or, as I sometimes think, an inability not to.” Far from concealing, Chaplin cunningly uses the mildly strangulated vowels and clipped consonants of the BBC English of the era to reveal.
Always strong on casting, Eyre guides a flawless company of actors. Tilly Tremayne is touching as an old-fashioned studio floor manager and amusingly brisk as a medium Mossman visits. Angela Thorne creates a varied yet wholly consistent portrait of novelist Rosamond Lehmann, the most unlikely relationship of Mossman’s life.
The temptation to push moments of BBC bureaucratic behavior toward caricature must have been high, but, mercifully, Eyre resists. Paul Ritter is amusingly puffed up as celebrated political interviewer Robin Day, but he grounds him in reality, not impersonation.
In the program note, Wright argues that “The Reporter” is “not a biography, not a history but a play.” Yet despite the pleasures of the journey, Wright’s thoughtfully answered and unanswered questions only intermittently coalesce into drama.