At the end of June, the day after a highly publicised phone hacking trial ended, the National made the surprise announcement that this new play, which depicts events not dissimilar to those which led to the trial, would take to the stage almost immediately. Only the National would have the resources to mount such an audacious venture, but, after a so-so year, Nicholas Hytner’s company has, at a stroke, justified its huge subsidy out of public funds. Written by Richard Bean (of One Man, Two Guvnors) and directed by Hytner himself, the play is a savage satire of British journalism, set mainly in the newsroom of a red top (which occasionally adapts to become The Ivy). Paige Britain (Billie Piper) is news editor, ruthlessly ambitious and prepared to use all means at her disposal to achieve her objectives; as to her political leanings, she would not even agree to have her fish and chips wrapped in The Guardian, yet she casually allows a Tory Prime Minister to be left waiting in her outer office when he calls to beg her to sleep with him again. Piper has been a big name for more than a decade, but here she shows herself to be much more than that – she is stylish, sexy and has a natural flair for comedy. Robert Glenister is also excellent as the foul mouthed, quick thinking Cockney wide boy, who is editor of the paper until being “promoted” to a sinecure in television and then to Downing Street. Dermot Crowley plays the owner, an Irish media mogul who rose to prominence in the IRA and, it is now claimed by his lawyers, has suffered from the onset of dementia since the age of six. However, Aaron Neil steals every scene in which he appears as the dimwitted, inept Sully Kassam, who is gay, Asian and, of course, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. The plot navigates the narrow straits between fiction and libel, not quite telling it as it actually happened, but getting close enough for us all to know what is being referred to. The characters too do not match exactly with people we might recognise, rather they are composites of familiar figures involved in the real life toxic tryst between the media, politicians and police. The play flounders in the brief moments when it gets serious, but, generally, the jokes, many of them very, very funny, come thick and fast and, if a few fall flat, blame can be laid on the Lyttelton’s wretched acoustics. The production may have been announced in a hurry, but it clearly took much longer than a few days to put it together; it flows slickly, with moving screens dividing the set and showing projected images and filmed sequences. At just under three hours, it is surprisingly long for a satire, but no-one seems to notice whilst having so much fun. After this run, the show is already booked into the Theatre Royal Haymarket where the more compact auditorium could suit it better and there is obvious scope for the addition of new, topical jokes, which could mean that it is even funnier by then.
Performance date: 17 July 2014