Imagine a country where democracy is all important and the press is fully free.
A country where the press is free, to abuse that freedom. Where a single newspaper is free to routinely bribe and blackmail its way to the heart of a ‘public interest story’. To build up a celebrity then destroy them when they are past their sell-by date. To work its way into the upper echelons of public life so that eventually the Editor can influence political decision making to further the career of the proud proprietor. Welcome to “Great Britain”.
Following a sell-out run at the National Theatre, Richard Bean’s play has transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket where the inner shell of the tabloid press is laid bare for all to see. The main protagonist is one Paige Britain (a wonderful performance from Lucy Punch) an ambitious News Editor on “Free Press” one of the many red-tops on the market fighting for that all important ‘white van man’ loyalty.
There are no limits to the lengths Paige is prepared to go to in her pursuit of her ultimate goal, the Editor’s job. Creating fantasy out of the thinnest of stories is the start of her skills – along with a lovely ability to produce alliterative headlines – but that is not enough for the power hungry Paige, and a chance meeting with a sweet old boy from the shires, opens her eyes to the world of phone hacking and all its journalistic possibilities. We follow Paige as she uses this method of gathering ‘news’ from a small start until the final, and ultimately, destructive piece of hacking that pushes the “Free Press” over the edge of acceptability.
In many respects, the show doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Anyone who has been in the UK for the past years or even heard of the Leveson Inquiry will recognise the story. If you read Private Eye, you will definitely recognise the daily news meetings run by the Editor (Robert Glennister on fine form) – bullying, abuse, language that would shock a sailor are the norm and funnily enough, in the bar during the interval, there was a chap who worked in Fleet Street saying their meetings were exactly like this. The characters themselves were easily identifiable – though names, and occasionally nationalities have been changed for obvious reasons. Along with the proprietor, a self-made man from a former colony with no love for the English, we have a Managing Editor with long curly hair and a love of horses, a Leader of the Opposition that went to Eton, etc, etc. There is even a fake sheik continually using disguises to root out the truth or entrap his victims – you decide.
And this is the heart of the story for me. Where do you draw the line? Is it wrong to expose the hypocrisy of the elected elite and their expenses by breaking the law? We want to know the ‘truth’ about the rich and famous, do we actually care about how that information comes out? After the Death of the Princess of Wales, there was much hand wringing about the invasion of her privacy and the antics of the paparazzi, but circulation figures shot up whenever she appeared on the front page and the ‘paps’ wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a market for their product.
I enjoyed the play. The setting was highly believable and the use of moveable video walls was innovative and brilliantly executed – showing headlines from other papers, including my favourites from the Daily **** which had everyone laughing, and the truly cringe-inducing press conferences of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. If I’m honest, I though the first act was definitely better than the second and that the ending felt a little bit rushed. I also didn’t like what eventually happened to Paige – although it closely reflected occurrences in real life.
Overall, a good show, that entertains and also makes the audience think about our own interest in celebrity culture and how far we want to go to find out the Truth!
Review by Terry Eastham
Theatre Royal Haymarket
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Age Restrictions: Age 15+ – Strong language from the start
Show Opened: 9th Sep 2014
Booking Until: 10th Jan 2015