BWW Review: INK, Almeida Theatre
James Graham's portrait of Seventies politics, This House, recently enjoyed a West End outing, and his latest epic venture into Britain's past may well follow suit. If slightly weighed down by detailed research, it's still a riveting depiction of the birth of The Sun as we know it, and the revolution it signalled in the way we tell our national story.
Rupert Goold's production initially feels powered by the fledging paper's tabloid declaration: be bold, brash, funny and loud. There's a Swinging Sixties rock n roll energy as new editor Larry Lamb, appointed by Australian proprietor Rupert Murdoch, gets his band together - a staff composed of the "undesirables" from other titles.
The ruling pair are bonded by their outsider status, shut out of the clubby Fleet Street establishment; Murdoch, too, is irked by the unions' closed shop. His aim is disruption: blowing up the whole system. Tradition, he notes, tends to be maintained by those it benefits.
The first half is a giddy origin story, from Lamb sketching out The Sun's cheeky logo with his daughter's coloured pencils to the realisation that their USP could be printing what people really want: gossip, horoscopes, TV, free stuff, sex. It's populism driven by base urges, but once created, that beast must be fed.
Graham's play, like the paper itself, is a tantalising peek behind closed doors, but the wealth of information means the drama itself is painted in broad brushstrokes. Something of a Faustian fable, Lamb - a whip-smart Yorkshire lad who came up through the unions - will inevitably exploit or betray those around him in pursuit of the all-important sales figures; if you were in any doubt, the script signposts it heavily.
There's also a tonal shift in the second half that threatens to unbalance the piece, as the paper struggles to cover the grisly kidnapping of their deputy chairman's wife. Though a true story, it almost feels too neatly configured as a moral test for The Sun's staff, and rather overshadows what follows.
Lamb's opposite is his old boss-turned-rival, Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp, who believes in the duty of newspapers to guide and educate the working class. It's two warring philosophies - holding up a mirror to who we are versus showing who we might be - and, when judged solely by the market, the former wins out. But as recent events have shown, that mercenary majority rule can be a dangerous distortion of democracy.
There's plenty more that feels resonant in 2017, from the rise of individualism to encouraging the public to create their own content, as well as distinctly murky gender politics presented as empowerment and savvy messaging aimed at those who feel forgotten or left behind.
As for Murdoch himself, Bertie Carvel provides a humane version of the divisive moderniser. He's a fascinating series of contradictions: a self-made brand, yet cripplingly shy; pugilistic in speech, but queasy when it comes to striking the killer blow - it's Lamb rather than Murdoch (at least in this telling) who's willing to go to extreme lengths to beat the Mirror, from dubious themes like Knickers Week to sensational crime coverage and Page 3 nudity.
Carvel's Murdoch is all control: humming with energy, but physically constrained, his voice - with a trace of accent - silky and seductive. Richard Coyle's Lamb, in contrast, is bluff and earthy, the general down in the trenches. When the unionised workers refuse to print an objectionable page, he does it himself, the titular ink smeared across his hands and face like blood.
Though the numerous characters are necessarily thinly sketched, there are great turns from David Schofield as the high-minded Cudlipp, Tim Steed as fastidious Bernard Shrimsley, Sophie Stanton as self-assured women's editor Joyce Hopkirk, Justin Salinger as former crime writer Brian McConnell, and Jack Holden as the photographer graduating from the mortuary (in a great gag, he notes he struggled when covering football matches and kept missing goals - corpses stay still).
One of the best scenes in a busy piece takes its time, as Lamb interviews their first Page 3 model, Stephanie Rahn. In a meditative, smoke-filled exchange, Coyle and Pearl Chanda convey the complex weight of that far-reaching decision.
Bunny Christie's dynamic set piles up desks in a wild mountain, floods front pages with ink, and - together with Adam Cork's visceral sound and Neil Austin's vivid lighting - evokes both the romance and the unwieldy complication of the hot metal printing process. It's a world soon to be sacrificed on the altar of Murdoch's iconoclastic ambition.
Slick, lively and asking serious questions about the responsibility of the press, and whether we, the public, should demand more from it, Graham proves that it's entirely possible to simultaneously inform, educate and entertain.
Ink at Almeida Theatre until 5 August
Photo credit: Marc Brenner