Almeida Theatre, London (****)
He likes his politics and history does James Graham who has given us some cracking examples of the unholy alliances that pass for politics in this and probably every country, starting with Eden’s Empire a decade ago and leading up to the blissfully funny The Vote (Donmar) on Election Night 2015 and This House, now setting off on a national tour.
He does his homework, does Graham, who is fast turning into our most consistent and energetic political farceur. If we can’t have That Was That Was, the next best thing – apart from The News Quiz, and The Now Show on `the wireless’ – is to have a Graham political drama every few months. He’s that prolific, that’s what it feels like at present.
With Ink, he’s turned his attention to that fertile home of skulduggery and chicanery, Fleet Street, at the time of the arrival of `the Digger’ and his purchase of the tabloid, The Sun.
Graham is not the first – and certainly won’t be the last – to take a ripe look at the cynicism and barely disguised bear-pit that has been and remains the journalistic world. Hecht and MacArthur’s The Front Page (1928) set the standard with Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda (1985) probably the nearest British playwrights have come to emulating their swashbuckling energy.
Graham though runs them a near thing with this rollicking, rambunctious account of the seismic, game-changing moment when Rupert Murdoch purchased the then tottering Sun changing British journalism and influencing British public and cultural life for decades to come.
Rupert Goold typically takes Graham’s racey script, full of splenetic one-liners, an editor in Larry Lamb, who took his proprietor words `we’re here to win’ at face value and turns it into a tragi-comedy.
Lamb, notorious for introducing The Sun’s page 3, upping its circulation at a stroke, like so many drunk on power and control, ultimately found himself indirectly an accomplice to a hideous murder.
How The Sun, Lamb, the killing of the wife of Murdoch’s Deputy Chairman, and Murdoch became embroiled forms the final quarter of Graham’s otherwise seductively entertaining pageant complete with chorus line-ups and an exuberant re-enactment of the production line of a newspaper from typewriter to printing press.
Goold piles on the pleasure, Bertie Carvel as Murdoch lays on a snarling charm and Richard Coyle as Larry Lamb puts fear and loathing into the tyrannical northern boy as eager as his Murdoch master to get one back on former employer, The Daily Mirror and its editor, Hugh Cudlipp by grinding them into the dust.
He and Murdoch succeed. But at a cost.
Graham hints at the psychological drivers behind the ravening media tycoon – revenge and the eternal resentment of the outsider – shared equally by Lamb. But it’s nowhere near critical enough. Murdoch as an anti-establishment and class warrior? Well, that’s one interpretation.
More acutely, Graham does capture the turning point when the left-wing tabloid Mirror with its old-fashioned sense of collectivity and bettering the lives of its working class readers – there is a telling passage in which Cudlipp (David Schofield) describes hearing classical music for the first time – lost the argument and `individual choice’ took over.
This was 1969 it has to be remembered and change was in the air, culturally, musically, everywhere. Figures and winning were all that mattered to Murdoch – much like the current US President. Lamb had to bring those figures in by any means he could muster. `Giving the people what they want’, was the mantra. `Win’ `Free’ `Love’ Lamb’s bywords and pathway to success.
Nothing here then of breaking the unions, the outright lies and prejudices for which The Sun became notorious or cosy chats with No 10. That was all to come.
Ink remains, for all its jollity, a cautionary tale and at a time when Murdoch is aiming for even more influence through takeover of Sky, one that should be required viewing for politicians and civil servants in charge of making that decision.
But for the time being, Graham and Goold have delivered a ridiculously appealing evening to which Bunny Christie’s tumbling newspaper office set contributes much. Half an hour shaved off would help. But like the man said, it has `West End transfer’ stamped all over it.
A new play by James Graham
Gerard Croiset/TV Host/Bench Hand: Oliver Birch
Anna Murdoch/Diana/Chrissie/Apprentice: Rachel Caffrey
Rupert Murdoch: Bertie Carvel
Stephanie Rahn: Pearl Chanda
Larry Lamb: Richard Coyle
Sir Alick/Rees-Mogg/Chapel Father: Geoffrey Freshwater
Beverley/Christopher Timothy: Jack Holden
Brian McConnell: Justin Salinger
Hugh Cudlipp: David Schofield
Joyce Hopkirk/Muriel McKay: Sophie Stanton
Bernard Shrimsley/Brittenden: Tim Steed
Frank Nicklin/Hetherington: Tony Turner
Ray Mills/Lee Howard: Rene Zagger
Direction: Rupert Goold
Design: Bunny Christie
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound & Composition: Adam Cork
Projection: Jon Driscoll
Choreography & Movement Direction: Lynne Page
Casting: Anne McNulty CDG
Resident Director: Rebecca Frecknall
Associate Choreographer: Gemma Payne
Costume Supervision: Deborah Andrews
Voice & Dialect Coach: Elspeth Morrison
Video Programmer: Neville Bull
Design Assistant: Verity Sadler
Casting Consultant: Ruth O’Dowd
World premiere of Ink at Almeida Theatre, June 17, 2017. Runs to Aug 5, 2017
Review published on this website, July 1, 2017