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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  (L to R) Dermot Crowley, Robert Glenister and Billy Piper/ Ph: Johan Persson

One of the best kept theatrical secrets, certainly as far as the public was concerned, was the run-up to Richard Bean’s black (and often very blue) caricatural satire Great Britain, an enjoyably vulgar, irreverent, over-the-top riff on the recent telephone-hacking scandal that, among other repercussions, caused the demise of The News of the World.

Though the play had been in rehearsal for quite a while, information about it was kept under wraps until the completion of the ongoing trial. The day after editor Andy Coulson was found guilty of conspiracy to phone hacking, the National, without the benefit of a single public preview, did what newspapers do every day – accelerated towards a tight deadline and opened five days later. Indeed, the haste with which the show hit the boards was such that, for the first time in the National’s history, there wasn’t even time for them to produce a programme. Instead, first-nighters were just handed a cast list.
The result is a top-heavy but often hilarious in-your-face comedy of bad manners in which the 3 "P"s – press, police and politics – become the justifiable targets of Bean’s unbridled anger over the irresponsible architects of this costly scandal.
More a series of vignettes and sketches than a fully formed play with a strong narrative pulse, Great Britain places at its centre the unsubtly named Paige Britain (Billy Piper), an irredeemably insensitive news editor of a red-top tabloid called The Free Press, whose slogan is, “We go out there and destroy other people’s lives –on your behalf.”
Truth and integrity are not commodities on which The Free Press thrives, and the daily news conferences, headed by the paper’s aggressively macho, foul-mouthed editor Wilson Tikkel (Robert Glenister) is an undignified free-for-all as they pursue scurrilous gossip, character assassination, sexual revelations and gruesome murder. Paying their salaries and expenses is the paper’s mogul proprietor Paschal O’Leary (Dermot Crowley), an unscrupulous Irishman also interested in expanding his television empire.
Fact inspires playwright Bean’s fiction when news editor Britain is apprised of the sinister practice of phone hacking and its potential boon to increased sale-figures, especially where celebrities – and particularly royalty – are involved. Add to that a juicy case culminating in the murder of two missing children, and Paige finds herself in tabloid heaven as the paper’s circulation dramatically increases.
Another plot strand involves O’Leary’s friendship with a certain Virginia White (Jo Dockery, looking remarkably like Rebekah Brooks), who, to the pique of Paige Britain, is given a top executive job at The Free Press.
MPs' expenses and police corruption come under the cosh as well, the latter most notably (and hilariously) in the shape of Sully Kassam (Aaron Neil), an Asian commissioner known as the Gay Terminator, who is given to such statements as “a clue is the one thing I don’t have” every time he opens his mouth. His assistant (Oliver Chris) is having an affair with Ms Britain, to whom he passes information.
The play is bursting with easy targets – including several daily newspapers whose characteristic logos and headlines are projected onto designer Tim Hatley’s big screens with maximum (if repetitive) comic effect. 
Under the constant flow of funny one-liners, Bean’s contempt is very much in evidence. Political incorrectness abounds, including a gasp-making reference to a solicitor who happens to be a dwarf (Kiruna Stamell). 
In its present state, though, the play is too long and too unwieldy. It needs a tabloid’s economy rather than a broadsheet’s spread. Despite some sharp-edged performances from the engaging Billy Piper as the feisty, conscienceless Paige Britain, Billy Glenister as the take-no-prisoners editor, Dermot Crowley as the mogul O’Leary and, most enjoyably, Aaron Neil as Commissioner Kassam, it would seriously benefit from a sub-editor’s ruthless blue pencil.
Meantime it’s a work in progress that, under the guidance of its director, Nicholas Hytner, will improve immeasurably by the time it arrives in the West End.


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