LONDON — Falling somewhere between bitingly fresh satire and opportunistic cash-in, Great Britain is an enjoyably caustic comedy about the phone-hacking scandal that has badly damaged the British wing of Rupert Murdoch‘s media empire in recent years. After weeks of secret rehearsals, this preview-free pop-up production was finally announced last week before opening at the National yesterday, barely a week after the end of the sensational trial that inspired it. Following the most expensive court case in British legal history, Prime Minister David Cameron‘s fomer press advisor Andy Coulson now faces jail time while his one-time colleague and ex-lover Rebekah Brooks was cleared on all charges.
Great Britain is the third joint venture to date between Nicholas Hytner, the National Theatre’s outgoing director, and writer Richard Bean. Their last collaboration, One Man, Two Guvnors, became an award-winning smash in both London and New York. This boisterous new farce rollicks along with a similar kind of crude, foul-mouthed, very British humor, though it feels scattershot in its targets and sometimes mistakes boorish vulgarity for daring satire. Overstuffed and uneven in tone, and peppered with cultural references that may confuse non-Brits, it nevertheless puts an agreeably lurid and highly amusing slant on current events.
Pop singer turned stage and screen star Billie Piper, best known for her sidekick role in the long-running BBC TV fantasy drama Doctor Who, plays the central role of Paige Britain, a savagely ambitious young tabloid journalist hungry for insider status among the tight clique of politicians, police chiefs and media kingmakers who rule the British Establishment. Rising smoothly through the ranks of the Free Press, a populist newspaper “full of half-naked girls and chopped-up prostitutes,” Britain’s self-promoting tactics include sleeping with both the incoming Prime Minister Jonathan Whey (Rupert Vansittart) and a principled but malleable police officer, Donald Davidson (Oliver Chris).
Elegantly staged using mobile glass walls that double as video screens, plus a smart mix of pre-filmed material, Great Britain mostly takes place inside a newspaper office in the middle of the last decade. As her name suggests, Piper’s protagonist is a state-of-the-nation symbol and plainly not modeled on the real Rebekah Brooks. A friend of David Cameron and former editor of Murdoch’s muck-raking Sunday tabloid News of the World, Brooks finds her fictionalized counterpart in Britain’s boss Virginia White (Jo Dockery). Bean and Hytner obviously kept their options open during the trial, making great sport here of White/Brooks and her professed ignorance of any phone-hacking on her watch.
Neither too broadly comic nor too malevolent, Piper’s measured performance grounds Bean’s cartoonish satire in reality. In most scenes she is flanked by an ensemble of compelling grotesques includng the Murdoch-like media tycoon Paschal O’Leary (Dermot Crowley), here transformed from wily Australian to philistine Irish porn baron who once smuggled guns for the IRA. But the real scene-stealer is Aaron Neil‘s gay London police chief Sully Kassam, whose majestically stupid press briefings provide some of the play’s most hilarious lines, especially when recycled into Youtube-style parody video clips screened on the glass walls between scenes. This is an inspired use of contemporary social media conventions to amplify comic impact.
The real phone-hacking scandal has been a long-running soap opera of sex and drugs, corruption and collusion involving showbusiness figures, politicians, sports stars, police insiders and even members of the royal family. Hytner’s visually lively production is punctuated with fake voicemail messages in both audio and text form, from fictionalized versions of David Beckham, Prince Harry and others. There is even a hacking-based joke about a young Queen Elizabeth playing drums with the Hitler Youth.
Sleazy reporters, needy celebrities, greedy politicians: easy targets all. But the long list of real phone-hacking victims also included children murdered by predatory pedophiles, and their grieving loved ones. It was this squalid revelation that finally humbled Murdoch, forcing the media mogul to make a groveling public apology, shut down his most toxic tabloid and cancel plans to buy a major TV cable network. All these elements find their parallels in Great Britain, some obvious, some subtle. A foul-mouthed parody of Murdoch’s apology fuels one of the most hilarious comic set-pieces.
Bean’s script draws on other recent real-life scandals in the British press, including damaging tabloid witch hunts against men who became suspects in high-profile murder cases, only to be found innocent. A similar case of trial by media forms the most serious thread in Great Britain, initially a fringe subplot which builds to tragedy in the second act. But another minor storyline, about a dying celebrity, feels incongruously earnest and slightly superfluous.
The final-act suicide of a suddenly remorseful key character is also a clumsy lurch into moralistic melodrama that sits ill with the play’s otherwise cheerfully sour, almost Brechtian tone. When Piper breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, she mostly does so to mock our smug hypocrisy and liberal broadsheet-reading piety. Dark and interesting asides, but Bean and Hytner only allow them a token airing between zingy one-liners.
A less superficial drama might have challenged its audience with a few more troubling questions about free speech and a free press. All the same, Great Britain has enough headline-grabbing currency and excellent jokes to excuse its lack of serious bite. While this may not be the definitive last word on the whole phone-hacking circus, it certainly provides some much-needed comic relief. Send in the clowns.
Venue: Lyttelton, National Theatre, London (runs through August 23)
Cast: Billie Piper, Dermot Crowley, Rupert Vansittart, Oliver Chris, Aaron Neil, Jo Dockery, Robert Glenister
Playwright: Richard Bean
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Set & costume designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music: Grant Olding
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Presented by The National Theatre of Great Britain