Saturday 13th September 2014, matinée
Richard Bean’s new play ‘Great Britain’, recently transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from the National Theatre, is part of a long tradition of satire poking fun at the media, from ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’ to ‘The Thick of It’. Nearly thirty years ago Brenton and Hare’s iconic play ‘Pravda’, which portrayed a monstrous character bearing similarities to Rupert Murdoch, was premiered at the National, and it seems only fitting that the National should host this play which charts another Murdoch-like character’s downfall. Bean’s play brings us right up to date with his satirical and sharp analysis of the way that phone-hacking gave an amoral boost to the dubious privacy-invading tactics of the tabloid press before blowing up in its face. Bean doesn’t have to stretch the truth very far to make his point, and he has created a completely convincing world that seems shockingly familiar and plausible, reflecting a society which has become disturbingly de-sensitised. Throughout the play, mock headlines are displayed for the fictional paper ‘The Free Press’, and there is a glimmer of recognition that makes it impossible to say whether they have been made up or are based on real headlines.
The play centres around Paige Britain, an unashamedly ambitious news editor who discovers the ‘superpower’ of phone hacking and uses it mercilessly to seek more and more sensational stories in order to get ahead. She narrates the story of her own rise to power, and the play reveals the corruption that lies behind the claims that papers are only ‘giving the public what they want’ and upholding the ‘British way of life’. The ‘public interest’ defence gets a severe battering as we see how corrupt journalists even use criminal evidence as a bargaining chip with police in order to secure either silence or publicity, depending on the agenda of the day. Bean is a master at using humour to sugar the pill of this play’s bitter message. The morning meetings led by ‘old-school’ editor Wilson Tikkel run through all the clichés of the tabloid press – it’s all about ‘scum’, he says, but if you can get a ‘double-scum’ headline that’s even better – ‘How about an IRA cyclist?’ somebody suggests. Ferociously rejecting any stories in danger of being serious or complex, he runs his own special ‘c**t of the month’ scheme for disgraced employees, and there is no certificate – the accolade is written across the forehead of the unfortunate recipient. We have all the stock characters, such as ‘Jimmy the bins’, who touts treasure from the rubbish bags of the famous in a supermarket trolley, and there’s the journalist who specialises in ‘sting’ operations using various disguises, all of which his work-mates see through immediately. The character of the Police commissioner Sully Kassam, is a comic gem. His media gaffes become fodder for youtube mischief as his apology of police killings of ethnic minorities comes out sounding like a promise to shoot more white people; finally he is set up to have himself tasered just as news of a fatal taser incident is announced.
In a recent interview Lucy Punch produced an eye-catching headline of her own – If the character is smug, trashy, or has dubious morals, call me! In that case this is the part she was born to play, and as Paige Britain, her performance is absolutely fearless, with not a trace of vanity. Her character is utterly convinced she is right and pursues her mission without a backward glance, creating and dismissing the human misery around her. She is completely enthralling, and had us transfixed like a slow-motion car crash.
She is supported by a very large cast, who manage to evoke the hustle-bustle of the news room with great skill and energy, slipping in and out of minor characters to give the play the broad canvas it needs. As Tikkel, Robert Glenister is wonderfully bullish, never more so than when he is promoted ‘out of the way’ to a PR job, resulting in a hilariously disastrous press conference. Dermot Crowley as newspaper owner Paschal O’Leary is a charmer, brilliantly channelling the bastard love-child of Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and Rupert Murdoch. Aaron Neil ramps up the comedy as Sully Kassam with a fantastic deadpan sincerity, which makes the pain of his media disasters all the more hilarious.
We were amused to see the Theatre Royal Haymarket making a virtue of necessity by proudly announcing ‘150 seats at £15 for every performance’. Perhaps a more honest headline would have ‘Roll up roll up for the worst seats in the house’. To give them credit, our severely restricted view £15 seats have previously been on sale for a lot more in other productions at the theatre, so at least we paid a more reasonable price, and having even a large part of the stage obscured did not affect our enjoyment too much. However, one of the features of the production was made almost impossible to see, and we can’t believe it was deliberate – three very large screens displaying various video clips and headlines somehow managed to traverse the stage in such a way that we missed most of them, hearing only the laughs of the audience. The sight lines are very different from the Olivier theatre – did nobody think about this?