Ink (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: June 26, 2017 in Theatre

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

There are some people that we dislike instinctively, as if programmed subliminally by modern living. Take Rupert Murdoch for example, what is there to like? Bearing this in mind, perhaps the most surprising achievement of James Graham’s new play is that it makes Murdoch the credible and even amiable hero of its David versus Goliath story. Graham’s biggest success to date has been This House, which dipped into the murky waters of late 1970s British politics and here he uses the same formula that mixes historical fact with mischievous comedy, as he jumps back a further decade to recount the birth of The Sun newspaper, in the form that we have come to know it, and the first year of its life.

The Sun was launched as a broadsheet in 1964 and, five years later, now owned by IPC (also owners of the  Daily Mirror), it had the smallest circulation in Fleet Street, contrasting with the Mirror which had the largest daily circulation in the world. The play begins just after Murdoch, already owner of the News of the World, had struck a deal with IPC chairman Hugh Cudlipp to buy The Sun on the conditions that its publication would be uninterrupted and it would continue to support the Labour Party (the benefit of hindsight proves to be a useful tool for Graham in shaping the play’s ironic humour). Murdoch, portrayed as an Australian upstart intent on driving a bulldozer through the British establishment and restrictive Trade Union practices, takes the first step of appointing, as editor, former Mirror man Larry Lamb.

Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch is not everything that we expect – no raging tyrant, but a steely, determined businessman who describes himself as someone who likes to live in hotel rooms so that he can make whatever mess he wants, move on and leave others to clear it up. From what we see, he is also happy for it to be someone else who makes the mess for him, adopting a hands-off approach that allows Lamb to take the paper in any direction he chooses, so long as he achieves the seemingly unattainable target of topping the Mirror‘s circulation figures within a year. This version of Murdoch could tie in well with what we have come to know over the years.

As Lamb, Richard Coyle is quietly effective, a decent family man of working class origins who becomes obsessed with meeting Murdoch’s targets and in proving Cudlipp (David Schofield) wrong for thwarting his ambitions to edit the Mirror. He decides that his paper will become a tabloid that will give the people what they want and not what the establishment (represented by Cudlipp) decides to spoon feed them. Page one will be lurid headlines and offers of freebies, page two will feature the subject of greatest interest to Brits –  the weather and page three? The scene in which Lamb persuades Stephanie Rahn (Sophie Chanda) to be at the centre of this revamped page is one of the play’s many gems.

Bunny Christie’s imposing set design – a cross between a bustling, chaotic newsroom and a subterranean Victorian workhouse – is key to Rupert Goold’s irresistibly entertaining production which balances light and dark tones to perfection and gives clarity to the debates that have surrounded journalistic standards for decades following the events that are depicted. A scene in which Lamb recruits cynical hacks –  Tim Steed’s pernickety Deputy Editor and Sophie Stanton’s Geordie Women’s Editor stand out – is staged as if part of a musical, Goold’s mix of styles becoming as varied as the contents of a popular newspaper.

Graham was born in 1982, so he would not have had to suffer Christopher Timothy’s excruciating breakneck television advertisements for The Sun, yet they are here, together with so much other accurate detail that everything seen on stage during the play’s three hours (with interval) feels convincing. Yes, that is a bit long and Graham might have benefited from the services of a sub-editor, but he is a playwright who is elevating the art of theatre docu-drama to a higher level. Anyone coming to this expecting a character assassination of the man whose television news channel assisted in the election of Donald Trump, is likely to leave disappointed. Graham’s play may be toothless in that respect, but, far more importantly, it is, we feel, truthful. Sensationalism displaced by truth – a final irony.

Performance date: 24 June 2017

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