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Zingers about phone-hacking

The latest Fleet Street drama comes to the West End

Robert Butler | July 1st 2014

The man in front of me, on the way in to see "Great Britain"—Richard Bean's raucous new satire about newspapers and phone-hacking—was the playwright Howard Brenton. In the mid-80s he had co-written (with David Hare) the defiant Fleet Street satire "Pravda". Following behind us was Tom Stoppard, who in the late-70s had written his own astute account of the fourth estate, "Night and Day". Last night's first night was also notable for the number of seats taken by people with a professional interest in the play. A few rows in front sat Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who had done more than anyone else to expose phone-hacking.

The National Theatre rehearsed "Great Britain" in some secrecy and only announced its opening after the News International phone-hacking trial ended. That trial had found one former Murdoch editor, Andy Coulson—later David Cameron's director of communications in Downing Street—guilty of conspiracy to intercept voicemails and another former Murdoch editor, Rebekah Brooks, innocent of charges. Who would this play focus on? "Great Britain", it turns out, follows the rise and rise of a snappy, blonde, amoral news editor, Paige Britain (Billie Piper), as she charms her boss, Paschal O'Leary, an Irish media tycoon, pornographer and ex-member of the IRA. Soon Paige is more powerful than the police commissioner and the Conservative leader. When things go well, as they often do, she does exultant little dance steps in her stillettos.

A former stand-up, and author of "One Man, Two Guvnors", Richard Bean is British theatre's current master of the one-line zinger. (The Conservative leader dreams of spending enough time in bed with Paige for it to show up as a gap in her CV.) "Great Britain" gleefully tracks the arrival of the dark art of phone-hacking and the way it became a priceless tool for invading the privacy of royals, politicians and celebrities. But it alternates this knockabout comedy with stark scenes of the way ordinary citizens are chewed up and spat out in the same process. Bean's main target is the queasily cosy relationship between press, politicians and police. What undoes this corrupt web is the tenacity of a provincial solicitor: your mistake, she tells a senior newspaper executive, is that you never left London. 

It's an evening spent looking for parallels. There's a strong dose of the Sun's former editor Kelvin MacKenzie in the foul-mouthed zestful swagger with which Robert Glenister conducts editorial conferences (he loves "scum" stories and "bollocks" stories). The tycoon O'Leary even twists Rupert Murdoch's famous line in front of the parliamentary select committee, saying "This is the hungriest day of my life". If anything, Billie Piper plays the Andy Coulson role and another editor, Jo Dockery's Virginia White, who has long frizzy hair and a bizarre sense of moral purpose, is Rebekah Brooks. She's more interested in campaigns and the big picture than traditional news, which is why her office, conveniently, is on another floor. After the paper's dirtiest deed is exposed, she enters the newsroom and plaintively asks the reporters, "What have you done?" It gets one of the biggest laughs of the night.

There are times, in Nicholas Hytner's exuberant end-of-term production, when the worlds being summoned up look perilously thin. Sliding screens create rooms within rooms and headlines and spinning front pages (from the Dependent, and the Guardener, groan) fill out the scene changes. This is a dark topical pageant with great lines that are funny and shaming at the same time. But, as a new play about the press, it had neither Brenton and Hare's rhetorical panache, nor Stoppard's exacting sense of principle. 

Great Britain National Theatre until August 23rd, transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from September 10th

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