8th July, 2017, matinee
James Graham’s play charts media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s poaching of Larry Lamb to be editor of his newspaper, and then Lamb’s stopping at nothing to beat The Mirror sales figures in a hugely enjoyable, raucously funny, visually gratifying production from Rupert Goold. Whether it offers pithy entertainment for the masses or is a huge political mouthpiece, The Sun has had a seismic cultural impact on Britain (and arguably still has even if that has diminished in recent years). Graham explores this as well as a cultural class shift and the birth of an era of selfish individualism.
I grew up in a household that probably bought The Sun newspaper nearly every day. I wasn’t that old when I realised I didn’t share my family’s fondness for it. There’s a bit in Ink when we are told the paper’s manifesto: how it is to shine light into the dark corners of the government, the establishment, and – if necessary and what the people want to read about – the public. Their maxim is to satiate the public by punching up, never down. But Graham points up the hypocrisy that the voice-of-the-people tone is a newspaper version of David Cameron saying ‘Call me Dave’. Though the newspaper may be mere fish and chip paper a few days after publication, Ink shows the pressure on journalists to deliver, the commotion of the newsroom, and the sheer physical labour that goes into the printing presses. But as one character says, in feeding the public more of what they want, they’re going to want more. I saw the third official performance of Richard Bean’s Great Britain when there was still a lot of hype around it. As entertaining as it was and as broad in scope and humour as this play, it was clearly didactic and felt painted in big brush strokes as so to facilitate an immediate staging. Ink, however, feels timeless and yet still nods to contemporary issues regarding tabloids’ questionable methods to get a scoop. This is thrillingly staged in the second act’s focus on the real-life kidnapping of a journalist’s wife. We see the original testing of an editorial team’s ethics, asking themselves how far is it right to push the story for the sake of sales figures.
As with This House and The Vote, and no less so with Ink, Graham is clever at dramatising the technicalities and intricate workings of business, politics and industry. We see the thought process behind the changes The Sun made to go from stuffy broadsheet to what it’s more like now: the layout of its front page, the font used, and its eye-catching flashiness. There are some hilarious lines which I don’t want to spoil here about the reluctance for some of this cultural shift. There’s also an entertaining segue (one of many which still make the play feel robust as it does expansive) about the manual labour and sacred ritual of the printing presses.
Bunny Christie’s set and Neil Austin’s lighting design captures the play in sepia tone, creating the murky world of Fleet Street, from the editorial hub to the basement printing presses. Towers and archways of desks, gliding ladders and projections of front pages merge with a pub to leave the impression of a seedy, male-dominated industry, where the atmosphere is more that of a knees-up than a workplace. It is an aesthetic which makes the point that the newspaper industry is as British as the coal and steel industries, and pubs. It seems ungenerous to say that it often feels like a riff on This House, but the styles of the two do overlap. This is not to undermine what Goold achieves. His production, with thanks to Adam Cork’s sound and Lynne Page’s choreography, is never stagnant. The buzzing movement and (seedy) glamour of the 60s’ newsroom is stylishly evoked: we go from restaurants to saunas, and lines from sales charts come to life that map their war with The Mirror.
Bertie Carvel plays Rupert Murdoch with a surprising dose of humanity. His clipped Australian accent suggests class issues; his theatrical hand gestures and tendency to talk in binaries suggests a fondness for the sensational; his slightly twisted arm, hunched shoulders and occasional twitch in his left hand’s fingers suggest a brooding Shakespearean despot. Richard Coyle also leads the cast and controls the arc of the play masterfully as editor Larry Lamb. Other than them, Graham peoples Ink with bold characters coming together from different newspapers to work on the rebirthed The Sun, and a memorable cast of walk-on parts. Jack Holden (saw earlier this year in What the Butler Saw) stands out as Beverley, the hapless mortician photographer turned first Page 3 snapper. He also does an impressive turn as actor Christopher Timothy, the original fast paced, whacky TV advert voiceover. I’m glad Goold has cast Sophie Stanton again, playing the bolshie Joyce Hopkirk, who knows what women want to read, shocking the office by revealing that women masturbate and losing herself in a monologue about how much she loves TV.
For the most part, I want to rave about both play and production but it comes with a hesitation. I haven’t read the playtext but I’m inferring from the projection ‘Page 3’ in the play’s second half that this end part of the play focusing on the first page 3 girl is Ink’s short third act. Although an important part of the play and The Sun’s history I’m in two minds about it. The model (Pearl Chanda) delivers a speech to Lamb asking him if he would want his daughter reading or modelling for Page 3. On one hand, in a play filled with brazen, testosterone-fuelled language, it seems apt to have her speech so to the point. On the other, it feels tacked on and a rushed compromise for the lack of female voices in the play’s most part.
Ink plays at the Almeida Theatre until 5th August. It then transfers to the Duke of York’s Theatre from September.
Of a lively audience, a moment that stood out: At one point, Lamb riffs on how he likes Ray Charles, noise and popular culture. A joyous ‘Yeah!’ came from a middle aged man behind me, as if he was punching the air.
|The cast of Ink at the Almeida. Photo: Marc Brenner|