Newsroom politics dramatized in “Oh Well Never Mind Bye”

A scene from Oh Well Never Mind Bye.


Oh Well Never Mind Bye has been focused on by British reviewers as a play about the shooting by the London police of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician, on an underground train in July 2005.

De Menezes was the victim of the racially-charged hysteria that followed the killing of 52 persons by four suicide bombers on underground trains and a bus in the London rush hour on 7 July 2005, and the failure of a similar series of coordinated attacks two weeks later. A widespread public reaction immediately after his killing suggested that many people were happy to see “another possible bomber” shot dead under whatever circumstances.

But it rapidly became clear that the police had killed an innocent man, and that in an attempt to get away with this they had lied about De Menezes’s behavior in the train station in the moments leading up to the shooting.

Oh Well Never Mind Bye is set in the busy newsroom of an unnamed London-based newspaper — probably a right-wing tabloid — in the days before and after the De Menezes killing. But in a genuinely brave piece of playwriting, Steven Lally has drawn on wider themes, including the “churnalism” that has turned much of the journalistic profession into a regurgitation of celebrity press releases, the way in which Palestine and related issues are reported in the mainstream media and the influence of the Zionist lobby on news coverage.

Sitting at their desks in the newsroom are Fin (Matthew Duggan), a mouthy tabloid hack who is, apparently, content to write what he’s told; George (Charlotte Flintham), a bubbly blonde who is a recent addition to the office and Charlotte (Susanna Fiore), who from the outset appears to be a bitter, sarcastic bully. She has been relegated to the task of checking and updating the newspaper’s blog — and the reason why is one of the various elements that create and maintain tension throughout the play.

The performance handout provides the first clue to Charlotte’s anger and demotion. As well as the play’s setting in London, it also lists “Ramallah, 16-21 June 2005.” Over the course of a series of short scenes in which she appears in a blood-soaked T-shirt, desperately trying to communicate through uncooperative emails and telephone calls, it becomes apparent that Charlotte, until recently the rising star of the news team, has managed to talk her way into a placement with the paper’s Middle East correspondent in Israel and the West Bank. There, she has made an unauthorized trip to a demonstration against the destruction of olive groves in a village 10 kilometers from Ramallah which is being enclosed by Israel’s wall. And she has witnessed at close quarters the deliberate shooting of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy by an Israeli soldier.

This event has become a pivotal moment in Charlotte’s life, as the story she writes is initially barred from the print version of the newspaper and then, at the insistence of a pressure group called “Candid Reporting,” is later removed from the website. By the time she returns from the Middle East, Charlotte has been moved to a lower-status place in the office and demoted to menial tasks.

During the play, the pile of hate mail from coordinated Zionist media monitors extends up the spike on her desk, while her fiancé has ended their relationship, saying that he’s “ashamed” of her, and her colleagues taunt her as an anti-Semite. Meanwhile, the controversy over her piece provides opportunities for dialogue on the nomenclature of reporting on Palestine — the “security barrier” versus the “separation wall,” “occupied” versus “disputed” territories.

While Charlotte tries in secret to place a feature article on her experiences at the hands of Zionist media lobby groups, and fulfills her work duties by reporting on TV shows and cute animal stories, Lally’s writing maps the debates on reporting of Palestine onto the fate of Jean Charles de Menezes. The news editor imposes Israel-friendly terminology on Charlotte’s stories, while also shoehorning in phrases from the police and the newspaper’s right-wing ownership about De Menezes’ “unseasonably thick” jacket and allegations — later disproved — that he ran from the police and jumped the ticket barrier, trying to justify the shooting.

And the hysterical cranking out of spurious stories about any non-white male seen acting vaguely suspicious with a rucksack — the means used by the 7 July 2005 bombers to carry their explosives — is contrasted with the hard facts and witness statements about the Ramallah killing, which Charlotte tries in vain to get into print.

A play dealing with these weighty topics could easily be tedious, didactic and hectoring. But Lally’s great achievement in Oh Well Never Mind Bye is to write something which is also very funny — mainly thanks to its realistic, fast-paced, sarcastic, bitchy newsroom dialogue. The play is also very moving, with a set of flawed characters who all have their good and bad sides. Anyone who lived or had friends and relatives in London in July 2005 will recognize the frantic phone calls to locate loved ones and the rumors which flew thick and fast. Even the set dressing maintains this attention to detail, with George’s “good luck” cards for her new job and Fin’s hi-tech, minimal desk where he sits, miming to music when he thinks he’s alone.

Charlotte may be courageous in her quest to report the truth about the killing of the Palestinian child, but she is also a vicious bully toward her new colleague. Fin may be a lazy tabloid hack, content to report what he’s told from the safety of his desk, but when the chips are down he tries — momentarily — to help out, risking his job in the process. And George may be a ditzy girl with no journalistic ethics, but she’s also confused and backed into a corner by the vitriol she receives from Charlotte from her first morning in the office.

The three main actors, as well as their editor, James (Benjamin Peters), a cynical tabloid pro who has long abandoned any sense of worth in his profession, all deliver sharp, convincing, moving performances. The cast delivers a genuine sense of complexity and of the conflicts between job security, ambition, real fear of a repeat of the 7 July 2005 bombs — and a duty, often abdicated, to report truthfully and responsibly.

The play’s denouement pulls no punches, and a moment of warmth and solidarity between the newsroom colleagues only makes the final twist all the more painful. The political message behind the play, of the power of Zionist lobby groups and the distortion of the news according to the political whims of newspaper owners, is driven firmly home — and all the more effectively because of excellent performances which make the audience really feel for the three flawed main characters.

Sarah Irving (http://www.sarahirving.net) is a freelance writer from Manchester, UK. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-6. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine.

For more information on Oh Well Never Mind Bye see http://www.uniontheatre.biz and http://www.upstart-theatre.co.uk.