If ever there was an award for an ironic title, this would have to be a contender. A satire on almost everything that’s wrong with the media in this country, and by extension, everything that’s wrong with the country too. From the very gifted pen of Richard Bean, this is not as laugh-out-loud funny as his One Man Two Guvnors (although few things are), nor is it as richly written as his The Big Fellah (although, again, few things are). But comparisons are odious (and no doubt I’ll make a few more odious comparisons when we see his “Pitcairn” in Chichester later in the year) and this is a very funny, very well performed but very nasty look at the reprehensible goings-on at “The Free Press”, a tabloid rag that got into phone hacking in a big way (this ringing any bells with anyone?)
Probably the most fascinating thing about the production is the secrecy with which it was prepared and rehearsed. The day after the result of the Rebekah Brooks/Andy Coulson trial the National Theatre popped up with a tweet to say that the play would have its first performance on the following Monday. That must be one of the best kept production secrets ever! No doubt, if the play had gone ahead whilst the trial was still continuing it may well have been in contempt of court. Its appearance in the schedules was so sudden that, even as at 7th July, one week after that first performance, programmes had still not been printed yet. We just had the free cast lists to take home with us.
The staging is relatively simple with the main set being the offices of the Free Press, but with screens frequently criss-crossing the stage with newspaper headlines projected on them to create other acting areas. The headlines serve to keep the story moving at a fast pace but also have a Brechtian effect of telling you what the scene would be about before it actually happened. Many of the headlines were funny – but I got the feeling that the production slightly over-relied on them. The Daily Wail (sic) “Immigrants do something detrimental to society” headlines started off as funny but went on a bit long – we got the picture. Grant Olding’s music cunningly works to increase tension and suspense in certain scenes, very much like a movie soundtrack.
Why do I describe this play as nasty? Because it’s populated with vile people who get up to vile practices to serve only themselves and the lining of their own pocket. They may hide behind a veneer of giving the public what they want, but that is a mere excuse for their behaviour. As you might guess, I’m not a friend of the tabloid press. Nothing they write can be trusted, no sneakiness is too underhand for their modus operandi, and they wield too much political power. It doesn’t matter who says what in the run-up to a general election, the winning party will always be the one that the Sun backs. And I don’t believe the editorial team at the Sun spend days analysing all the parties’ manifesti, weighing the pros and the cons, seeking out independent verification of facts and statistics, to come up with a well-balanced political verdict. No. It will be the party with the most effective mutual back-scratching potential where it comes to the newspaper “getting away with it”.
You can laugh during the show as you recognise the devious press tactics – indeed you can relate them to real-life incidents that are already well documented – but on the whole it’s the laughter of recognition, of “ah yes, that’s very clever”, rather than laughter at something that’s intrinscally funny. Personally, I didn’t and couldn’t laugh at the despicably prejudiced insults of the Finance journo Ellerington towards the solicitor Wendy Klinkard, who happens to be of restricted growth (and thus played by an actress of similar height), inventive though they were. The destruction caused by the phone hacking in the cases of Stella, the dying anorexic topless model, and Kieron Mills, accused of murdering his twin daughters, have your heart in your mouth as you watch their ghastly impact unfold. Because Richard Bean is a brilliant writer and he has a cast of amazing actors, there is certainly a lot to laugh at; and then it sticks in your throat as you realise you need a sanity check to laugh at some of that material. Alan Ayckbourn is the master of that skill – with one tiny line or little plot twist he can reveal a lifetime’s insight. But in this play you laugh, and then you just feel dirty for having done so. I’m probably coming over as too PC – too Guardian reader and not sufficiently News of the World (for yes! The Free Press is the NOTW in thin disguise) but no minority section of the community is spared from ridicule to some degree. In my head, I’ve kind of moved on from the 70s.
Maybe that makes me not the ideal person to see this play. I come with my preconceived ideas about made-up headlines and journalistic malpractice, and I see on the stage precisely what I would have expected to see. I found myself asking whether for all its biting satire this play was actually telling us anything we didn’t already know. I suspected that, alongside all its cleverness, it didn’t. We know these journos are governed by greed. We know they trample over little people in order to secure their story. We know that the truth is a side issue where it comes to writing their copy. I’d already guessed that someone like Paige Britain, the news editor at the heart of the story, would have to be personally both very charismatic and completely without scruples in order to be successful at their job.
The story certainly does have a good momentum, as error leads to tragedy and stupidity grows into evil. Structurally I felt that the play started as a fantasy on how to edit a newspaper at gutter level, but as it and its editorial team sink deeper and deeper into the mire, by the time Act Two comes along it’s no longer fantasy – it’s real. The play is a full-on parody of the News of the World’s demise, and you can recognise the real life equivalents in the fictional characters and plot development. For every “is your vicar on Gaydar” story there’s an allusion to a Milly Dowler or a Madeleine McCann which makes for uncomfortable watching that’s hard to laugh at. But the journalists are intent on their practice and so blunder on ruthlessly with their usual self-confidence. Actually there is a nice throwaway scene where one of the team suggests Jimmy Savile is a paedophile and the others all dismiss it as arrant nonsense, showing that even within a team of big-headed callous reprobates, they don’t know everything.
On the plus side, I liked how the play shows quite how cap-in-hand senior politicians – Prime Ministers even – might behave with editors and proprietors; especially if they’ve got something to hide. If the ex-IRA proprietor of the paper wants the PM to do something, he gets it. If he knows an awkward secret about him, he gets it even quicker. In this play, there’s no question as to who is the most powerful person in the country. There’s probably a lot of truth in the portrayal of a leading politician essentially being blackmailed by a paper if they’ve caught him with his pants down.
The play is at its strongest when it shows just how thoroughly useless some people at the top can be. When the editor at the Free Press is replaced with new blood in the form of Virginia White, much to the dismay of most of the staff, she proves herself to be aloof and only interested in her own pet subjects and projects. Watching this play I had absolutely no doubt at all that Virginia White/Rebekah Brooks (even the hair is the same, and she’s married to a soap star) had no idea whatsoever that phone hacking was taking place. She was too stupid to see it under her nose – or too clever to look for it; either way she’s useless. Even more of an intelligence void, Police Commissioner Sully Kassam is the most inept leader imaginable, expressing every thought so badly, and making the worst possible decision every step of the way, so much so that some gifted youtuber creates rap videos of his best gaffes. He’s also the worst cover-up merchant you could imagine, trying to claim his civil partnership with Maurice is still strong whilst loudly taking calls from his lover Bryn at the same time. He couldn’t cover up a blister with Germolene. You do hear of people being promoted beyond their sphere of ability – here’s a man to whom it has happened de luxe. When you realise that the people at the top are frequently dopes, a lot of the crap that happens underneath them makes sense.
As in “One Man Two Guvnors”, the central character constantly addresses the audience, commenting on the other characters and also confronting us with our prejudices and chucking them back in our faces. Billie Piper turns in a fantastic performance as the arch-manipulatrix Paige Britain, parking all sensibilities to one side so that she can get a scoop, not remotely concerned about the carnage in her wake, and doing it all so glamorously and provocatively, that it’s not remotely surprising she gets away with it. Personally I found the character utterly repellent, but Miss Piper carries you along with her, so that when she justifies her bad behaviour, you’re complicit in what she does. She’ll never go down without a fight, and she doesn’t care who with. Mr Bean’s vision of Great Britain is complete at the end when Paige is rewarded for her “distinguished” career by having a successful chat show on American TV. Can you think of any other tabloid editors who have enjoyed great success with a TV chat show?
The whole diverse cast give very entertaining and convincing performances. I particularly liked Robert Glenister as the offensively quick-witted and wide-boy-confident editor Wilson – Kelvin MacKenzie to a Tee. Jo Dockery is great as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Virginia White, horrified that the police are raiding the offices and shocked at her staff – rather like a posh mother dealing with the discovery her public school kids are playing truant. Her innocent cry, “what have we done?!” brings the house down. Oliver Chris is the essentially kind and no-nonsense Assistant Commissioner who gets drawn into Paige’s web beyond his ability to retain his integrity; Rupert Vansittart excellent as the flawed Tory leader with an open fly; and there’s great support from William Chubb, Kiruna Stamell and Harriet Thorpe. But the star for me was Aaron Neil as bungling Police Commissioner Kassam, who stole every scene he was in, and who created, with the help of Mr Bean’s splendid lines for him, one of the most genuinely stupid oafs I have ever seen in a play.
I liked this play – but not as much as I expected to or wanted to. It’s a very good play but it could have been a great one. Its subject matter is so grim that you feel you need to take a shower afterwards. Fortunately the cast play it with such zest and wit that it’s impossible not to enjoy to some extent – and your own acceptance of the tabloid press may well determine your own enjoyment level. Within a couple of days of tickets being on sale it had already secured its post NT run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, just like “One Man” did. With such a hot potato as its story line, I predict a great success.