Review – Great Britain by Richard Bean at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s latest offering by playwright Richard Bean (whose One Man, Two Guvnors went on to West End and Broadway success), couldn’t be more current. Deliberately timed to coincide with the outcome of the recent newspaper/hacking trials, the play opened without previews and on very short notice on 30th June (where it runs until a swift West End transfer in September). I’d heard the rumours that Mr Bean’s latest play would be a satirical look at the hacking debate starring Billie Piper and Oliver Chris and so had high hopes.

Robert Glenister and the team at The Free Press
Robert Glenister and the team at The Free Press

Set at the tabloid newspaper The Free Press, we are introduced to a motley gang of characters, none of whom are particularly likeable. The central focus is Paige Britain (Played by Piper), the news editor. She is ambitious, devious, intelligent, sexy and is biding her time before the editor’s job is hers. In the midst of searching for the next big story, it becomes clear that voicemails can be hacked – the pool of stories just became so much bigger – and it’s all for our benefit as Paige tells us in her side chats to the audience in Richard III-like fashion.

Over the course of the play a number of issues straight from the recent news are referred to. We see everything from The Free Press’s owner trying to buy a commercial TV station, expenses scandals, the racial bias of police, to the actual hacking itself, which becomes, as it did in reality, much more distasteful when the focus shifts from shallow celebrities to the phones of missing schoolchildren.

Richard Bean highlights wonderfully the question as to who is really in control of the country when the power and corruption of the political elite, press and police are so inextricably linked. It’s frightening to see how much power Paige and her boss manage to wield amongst those in roles so fundamental to the running of our nation.

Billie Piper & Oliver Chris
Billie Piper & Oliver Chris

The acting is very good indeed. Robert Glenister is wonderful as the coarse editor, who ends up at Downing Street, Aaron Neil is superb as the ridiculously hopeless Police Commissioner (whose public gaffes steal a lot of the laughs) and Oliver Chris is on fine form as usual as his frustrated deputy, who is drawn to Paige’s charms. I still think he is wasted here though, as despite a great performance, it saddens me to think he may not appear in the West End transfer of King Charles III, a play which truly allows him to shine (I am keeping my fingers crossed that this isn’t the case). It is however Billie Piper’s show – she is absolutely brilliant as Paige – utterly underhanded in her actions, but remaining an interesting character who almost wins you over with her persuasive charm.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is very well staged and fast paced. The video screens with hilarious headlines are very entertaining (with nods to The Guardener, The Dependent and The Daily Wail, the latter of which seems obsessed with immigrant scare stories) and perfectly move the action from one scene to another via the sliding  screen sets.

Aaron Neil is fab as the hopeless Police Commissioner
Aaron Neil is fab as the hopeless Police Commissioner

For me though, the play tries to do too much. Its broad plot, containing so many issues begins to feel a bit cluttered and possibly less would have been more. Also despite being rather long, the end still managed to feel rushed (perhaps due to the fast release of the play). I did also think some of the jokes were a bit too uncomfortable (as an example, as it’s set in the 90s, a reference to to likelihood of Jimmy Saville being a child abuser felt a bit too much). Then again, that is partly the point Bean is making – the sometimes uncomfortable content and actions of the media forces its audience to see its own culpability in the rise of tabloid sordidness – if the public did’t read it, it would’t be profitable and people who seemingly delight in the dirt of others would have a far dimmer spotlight in which to stand. I also found some of the obvious caricatures a little distracting (the nods to certain real life people are hard to miss) and I would have perhaps preferred less of these references.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, entertaining production – the black humour is for the most part on the money and despite its rather too broad content, the overall production is wonderfully acted. You’ll laugh, you’ll feel bad for laughing and you’ll cringe. It’s a great addition to the theatre scene in London and it’s great to see something as topical as this reaching a wider audience.

Great Britain continues its run at the National Theatre until 23rd August 2014 before transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 10th September 2014. For more information visit the National Theatre’s website at: http:www/nationaltheatre.org.uk

 

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