Wednesday, November 12, 2014

'Great Britain' at the Theatre Royal Haymarket,10th November 2014

The phone hacking scandal was current affairs crack cocaine.  With a toothy grin I watched as a smouldering heap of long burning suspicions sparked into a giant conflagration of corruption, incompetence and amorality.  It was top stuff; there were bombshell revelations almost every day and a sense of paranoia and panic that filled the offices of not just the Murdoch press, but the London Metropolitan Police and all the way up to Downing Street.  

Underlying all this was a wonderfully British sense of farce; hidden laptops being discovered by clueless binmen, deranged hacks appearing on the news looking like they'd spent the night under a bridge or the unexpected prominence of Raisa (a horse).  Just for a brief moment, the unholy trinity of tabloid press, police and government appeared vulnerable, and maybe, just maybe. times could be a-changin'.  But, of course, they didn't.

Richard Bean's Great Britain covers all this with the thinnest of thin allegories, drawing its power from being at the very bleeding edge of current events.  As the phone hacking trials wound up, this play was being clandestinely rehearsed, the company fearful that any promotion might prejudice the outcome of the case.  A couple of months down the line the intense 'now'-ness that suffused the material has slightly evaporated, but by any standards this remains a very contemporary piece of theatre.

At the centre of the plot is a thinly disguised News of the World, here known as The Free Press.  Nestled in that is antiheroine Paige Britain (Lucy Punch), an amoral news editor who feels less like a person and more like the slime and scum slithering around a tabloid news desk has coalesced into a human shaped blob of atrocity.  She pumps her arms in triumph as she crows about hacking answerphones, fucks her way through the corridors of power and totters around on a yacht toting a giant machine gun.  Subtlety thy name is not Great Britain.  

Paige takes us on a guided tour of this demonic (yet apparently unexaggerated) newsroom, introducing us to various thin analogues of prominent journalists.  We meet not-Andy Coulson, not-Rebekah Brooks, not-Mazher Mahmood, not-Glenn Mulcaire and not-Rupert Murdoch.  They drag us into a spiral of instantly recognisable news events of the last couple of years, touching (among others) on MP's expense claims, Milly Dowler, 'Sarah's Law', the death of Mark Duggan and the controversial takeover of BSkyB by News International.

These allusions come so thick and fast you find yourself playing 'spot-the-reference', which creates a faintly self-congratulatory tone.  Theoretically I should I have adored this; I got every single one of the jokes (even the semi-obscure ones), yet Great Britain often feels more concerned with acting as a compendium of sketches about stuff that's been in the news rather than a coherent dramatic work in its own right.  

Low points are a leaden exchange of dialogue where a journalist suggests doing an expose on Jimmy Savile, only to be shot down by an editor saying that he's changed the PIN on his phone so they can't hack his messages.  The characters all but mug at the audience, metaphorically winking as if to make sure we absolutely get it (Savile bad.  Press bad.). A similarly duff moment is the crushingly didactic exchange wherein it's revealed that The Free Press have hacked the phone of a murdered child; signified by a character baldly exclaiming something along the lines of "They've hacked the phone of a murdered child!  That's AWFUL."

The closely allegorical nature eventually begins to feel a bit cowardly - after all, if you're going to create a frizzily haired editor with a penchant for horses and social crusading why not just sod the legal risks and make her Rebekah Brooks and not a photocopied replica.  I got the impression that Great Britain would quite like to be The Thick of It (which itself successfully tackled phone hacking and press collusion with the state in its last series), but falls short, ending up more like Drop the Dead Donkey.  That's not an inherently bad result, but there's a definite datedness to the gags that rubs unpleasantly up against the ultramodern subject matter.

Granted there are genuinely funny moments throughout. The lion's share of the belly laughs arise from Aaron Neil's bumbling MET Police Commissioner who blunders through press conferences, misses the point of everything that's said to him and eventually tasers himself. The rest of the humour is scattershot; the play filled with so many gags that at least some of them must hit.  The ones that don't (and there's more than a few) are swallowed up by the quick pacing, preventing us from dwelling on the more dodgy moments in the script.

It's unfortunate that Great Britain doesn't quite work.  Everything about it looks promising, from the talented cast to the imaginative staging to the impressive timing. We itch for this to shed a new light on events, yet all it does is reiterate them in a wink wink nudge nudge comedic manner. Problem is, phone hacking was already a farce, so turning it into a comedy feels a bit redundant.  This is far from a waste of time but it doesn't probe any deeper than the absolute surface.  A missed opportunity.

Great Britain is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 10th January 2015.

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