There was bound to be a play about phone hacking. But Richard Bean’s new work (like his previous hit One Man, Two Guvnors, a National Theatre transfer) takes on the holy trinity of public interest and scandal: press, police and politicians. The story is wrapped around Paige Britain (a formidable Lucy Punch), whose route to the top at a tabloid newspaper knows no moral boundaries. She serves her readers what they want – filthy stories of drunk celebrities, politicians’ egregious expenses abuse, tales of rape and murder. Each of these is but one of the many stories that unfold simultaneously.
All beg for attention, although by the end perhaps a bit too much: nearly all major British scandals and news stories in the past five years or so are covered. Great Britain does however convincingly present the fast-paced world of tabloid editing and, moreover, makes for highly entertaining viewing. The play’s witty exchanges contain a multitude of one-liners you’d want to use yourself one day. Aside from Paige Britain’s razor-sharp tongue, there are notably the prime minister (played by Rupert Vansittart) and solicitor Wendy Klinkard (Kiruna Stamell) who are in the spotlight, the latter representing a cricketer whose phone is hacked.
Giving journalist Britain a number of asides, in which she evangelises her way of working and has absolutely no remorse or reflective moments, pays off in the end: Great Britain is not about her, but about a system in which the establishment has often been caught satisfying each other’s needs, and not the public’s. It is fiercely satirical, funny and looks pleasantly disorganised as we go from the daily’s headquarters to police press conferences via The Ivy and hotel rooms. The cast is enormous, as seems to be a National Theatre tradition. The crowd scenes are correspondingly a whirlwind of people, but sometimes you do wonder if the whole thing could not have been slightly more trimmed down, both in narrative(s) and staging. Its two and a half hours are perhaps a tiny bit too much.
On the whole, for all the serious critical undertones, Great Britain is mainly played for laughs and there are lots of them. Aside from the many ludicrous newspaper headlines, the moments I love most are when police commissioner Sully Kassam (Aaron Neil) makes PR gaffe after PR gaffe in a play on straight-talking police language (to the delight of the press, of course). Immediately, YouTube videos mock the man and cut his words up into a song that goes viral.
Slightly jumbled? Maybe, but on balance Great Britain is an ambitious piece of work that raises some pertinent issues while being very funny indeed.
Great Britain plays at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 10 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal Haymarket website.
Photo by Brinkhoff-Mögenburg.