National Theatre Lyttelton, London
5th July 2014 matinee
Richard Bean’s new play about the phone hacking scandal – which wasn’t announced until after the trial was over – is as bold and funny as his previous plays and allows the audience to share laughter and anger caused by the corrupt ways of tabloid newspapers.
There had been rumours about the National Theatre workshopping a play about phone hacking, but when the trial’s verdicts were announced two weeks ago the theatre launched a quick turn-around from announcing the play to opening night to almost immediately announcing a West End transfer. And Nicholas Hytner’s well-paced production lives up to its hype. The play focuses on the workings of a daily tabloid newspaper, The Free Press (although there are clear echoes to real papers and their employees). It’s a paper that has a cardboard cut-out of Terry and Tracy who represent their typical readership; the editor firmly points out that Terry is a ‘scaffolder. Into football. Cunt’. It’s the sort of paper to entice readers with ‘page 7’ nudity, cheap prices and bigot-goading, flash headlines. Bean’s brash dialogue effectively captures the hunger for the ‘double scum’ story for which the paper yearns every day.
When news editor Paige Britain (brilliantly played by Billie Piper) discovers how to hack voicemail messages to build exclusive stories, the sales of the paper go up as do their accolades. But when they use this technique to hack the phone of Keiron Mills, who they believe has kidnapped and murdered his two children, they falsely imprison him which leads to his brutal murder. The case, although fictional, clearly has similarities with the Millie Dowler murder investigation which led to the shutting-down of the News of the World and, likewise, the end of The Free Press soon escalates quickly.
What is really interesting about the play is that it hints at the reason why the press, police, politicians and even a solicitor who unearthed the hacking easily sacrifice their position of trust. Money partly comes into the ratio but it is also to do with the search for power in business: Paige Britain talks of an ‘invite to the party’ being her impetus. And so we see some of the country’s more powerful figures in each other’s pockets, palms and beds and doing deals in rooms to forge their path to the top. The satire is not only funny but it seems spot on in its depiction of a tabloid newspaper’s rule to put breaking the story before solving the crime. Likewise, we see how the paper encourages what they apparently abhor, here being an example of where darkness lies beneath the humour. In fact the fast-paced first scene which includes a story of a ‘font fiddling’ vicar is underscored by the editor coldly announcing that he’s killed himself. To the newsroom, it comes as nothing much more than a turn in the story but, with the help of Grant Olding’s effective music, it leaves the audience silent with the realisation of the paper’s dispassion. It is particularly striking, but not really surprising, when someone comments that the media run the country. In Great Britain, they certainly do until they go too far and Bean is right when it comes to the difference between celebrities’ phones being hacked and murder victims.
Billie Piper plays the abhorrent Britain with utter conviction but also allows us to warm to her through lengthy asides and a certain allure. Robert Glenister is a powerful stage presence as the hilarious Cockney editor who gets a hard-on from headline alliteration and runs ‘cunt of the month’ competitions in the office, but who also shows a hint of dissatisfaction in his promotion to TV executive. Equally funny is Aaron Neil as the incompetent police officer, willing to get tasered as part of his clueless press conferences. Through him, there is a touch of humour that reminded me of Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy’s unwitting puns. Neil also features in his own viral videos played as part of 59 Productions’ extremely impressive mid-scene VTs. Jo Dockery also pleases with her annoying Rebekah Brooks-inspired Virginia White. When the police ransack the offices, she stands amongst the panic-ridden journalists trying to smash their laptops, defensively shouting ‘what have we done?!’ Her love for horses and claims that she genuinely runs a campaigning newspaper make her look as stupid as it does innocent – a brilliant bit of satire. There is also strong work from Dermot Crowley and Oliver Chris, but the entire cast play this riotous play with the right energy. Hytner’s production excellently captures the machine-like, daily workings of the office (with characters getting to their desks before the play even starts) and Tim Hatley’s smart designs are very compelling.
It’s not perfect: the title seems a bit too obvious but does interestingly draw on ideas of nationhood that Bean’s England People Very Nice is interested. Also, as others have mentioned, the end only hints at the future for Paige Britain rather than offering a view on the future of the state of the press or the nation. However, as an overview of the corruption amongst the press, police and politicians it satisfies in entertainment value as well as exploring corrupt public figures and the public’s hunger for the titillating. Overall, Great Britain is satirical, riveting and essential theatre.