“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Given the at-times heart-rending revelations of the Leveson Inquiry, the new play Great Britain is the at-times comedic punchline to Karl Marx’s famous maxim.
With no previews before press night (a very rare occurrence for the NT), the National Theatre’s latest offering is something of a last minute, shotgun wedding production. Delayed a fortnight by ongoing legal proceedings against former News Of The World employees and with contempt of court rules being what they are, playwright Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors) and director Nicholas Hytner sensibly held fire before unleashing their take on the recent tabloid scandals.
If comedy is all about timing, this ultra-topical examination of recent Fleet Street shenanigans should be the funniest play in the world. But there are problems. Billie Piper may be the lead actor here, however her role as the ambitious news editor barely extends beyond crossing and un-crossing her legs, bed-hopping and breaking the fourth wall. As a result, Robert Glenister and Aaron Neil manage to steal every scene they are in. As the editor of fictional best-selling red top The Free Press, the former blasts his way through the script with relish, energy and enough four-letter words to make Malcolm Tucker blush. Neil, meanwhile, plays the Police Commissioner who redefines rank idiocy as a lifestyle choice. Seriously, no-one could be born this stupid. Fortunately, this is a fool with a Midas tongue: everything that comes out of this copper’s mouth is sheer comedy gold.
There are plenty of nudge-nudge-wink-wink gags to tickle the grey cells. Newspapers are renamed The Guardener (slogan: “we think so you don’t have to”) and The Dependent (“on Russian oil wealth”) while thinly veiled caricatures of Rupert Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Benjamin Pell, Clive Goodman, Glenn Mulcaire and David Cameron pop up throughout to keep the cognoscenti in chuckles.
This play falls down, though, in two regards: the script and the casting. Bean’s play bluntly and shamelessly accuses the press of laziness and ineptitude when his own script is a by-the-numbers join-the-headlines rehash of a sorry saga still fresh in the public memory. Voicemail interception? Check. Misguided anti-paedophile campaign? Check. Police, politicians and press colluding against the public interest? Check. Foreign owner closing the paper down as part of a quest for greater televisual power? Checkitty check check.
There are zingers by the bucketful here but their preponderance means that the plot barely dives below the murky surface of the play’s subject matter. Real insight into media machinations rarely rises above the level of Press Gang. The comedy choices raise the occasional eyebrow: one gag is practically a replica of the funniest British gag ever while a couple of others are in poorer taste than the average Katie Hopkins tweet. Towards the end, there is a gram of deference to the more serious implications of a press unfettered by morals but this is a shallow paddle through the issues rather the deep dive that Bean suggested when promoting this play. We had our fingers crossed for something along the lines of The Wire, Season 5 and instead we got Drop The Dead Donkey via The New Statesman.
The casting choices raise questions too. Who decided that the same actors should handle multiple roles? The actor playing the Brooks-a-like character exits one scene and enters another as a policewoman while the two private detectives pop in and out as a showbiz reporter and the Prime Minister respectively. Not confusing at all. Also, while some may applaud the NT for a politically correct roll-call featuring a ball-busting female lead, a gay Asian police commander and a wheelchair-driving female lawyer, that would be a bit like applauding a ten-year-old for not wearing nappies. About time, already.
Tickets for Great Britain until 23 August are on sale through the National Theatre website.