“It’s just a bit of fun” – a phrase that almost always justifies and precedes a bad idea, a phrase that Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) exclaims in numerous ways, on various occasions during the rebirth of the trashy tabloid that is now The Sun newspaper, in James Graham’s Ink. Set in 1969, it chronicles the beginning of a new kind of print media and the lives of those involved in its conception. Then Australian sheep-farmer, now millionaire mogul super-villain, Rupert Murdoch (Doctor Foster’s Bertie Carvel), has just bought the worst selling daily paper with hopes of turning it into the best. He poaches a snubbed and unappreciated Lamb from his competitor The Daily Mirror, and together they create the Frankenstein’s monster of newspapers.

Graham dramatises Murdoch’s rise to power with subtle frightening references to the man he will become and tactfully places Lamb alongside him as he becomes the pioneer of the paper’s populist style. The set design by Bunny Christie is gorgeously complimented by lighting and sound by Neil Austin and Adam Cork, and together they create the ever grey, clunking and dusty environment of the 70’s printing press on Fleet Street. All suits, cigarette smoke, projections, spotlights and lurking in shadows, the tone of the play is permanently ominous. Even towards the end of the second act, which is much heavier than the first and lacks the same cheerfully British, rooting-for-the-underdog vibe – we get the feeling that the worst is yet to come.

Carvel and Coyle are a match made in heaven. Their performances, along with Graham’s script, make their characters difficult to pin down. It’s easy to write off people as either bad or good, but Ink reveals some grey areas. Coyle shows both the ruthlessness and regret in Lamb, specifically regarding his creation of Page 3, while Carvel gives a chillingly abrupt Murdoch.

Ink showcases The Sun’s seediness, the utter nonsensical rubbish it prints, and the way in which Lamb and Murdoch tap into the market of base human desires. Murdoch wants to create “a paper for the masses”, with sex, money and murder mystery (basically anything that sells) plastered on the front page in 144pt font, no matter the cost. In the beginning of Act 2, the calculated covers are showcased to The Pipkins’ only hit, ‘Gimme Dat Ding’, while the cast bring The Sun’s front page to life. Showered in colour and throwing around money, ridiculous headlines and special offers, they are a terrifying clown show with Tony Burrow’s dirty growl and Robert Greenaway’s nightmarish warbling for their soundtrack. It’s “just a bit of fun”, but with an ominous undertone.

Directed by Rupert Goold, this significant moment in recent history has been carefully carved into an interesting and accessible night of theatre. In the penultimate scene, Lamb says “people need stories”, and my god has Graham given us one.

Ink is playing Duke of York’s Theatre until January 6 2018.

Photo: Marc Brenner