Wednesday 30 July 2014

Theatre review: Great Britain

Playwright Richard Bean has been off the radar a bit since the all-conquering One Man, Two Guvnors, but he's going to be cropping up regularly in London in the next few months. First up is a topical play - so topical that it had to wait for a high-profile court case to end before the National could even officially confirm it was being staged. That's because Great Britain is a fictionalised version of the recent phone-hacking scandal that's seen the press become its own biggest story. Paige Britain (Billie Piper) is the news editor of tabloid newspaper The Free Press, and expected to be its next editor. Her story-gathering methods have never been squeaky clean, but a seemingly minor story brings to her attention a crucial piece of information: Each mobile phone operator has a single default pin number across all its users. Since hardly anyone changes their pin, all you need to know is someone's phone number to be able to listen to their voicemail remotely.

Soon Paige and her team are able to run stories about sports stars' infidelities and a topless model's terminal eating disorder, breaking up families in the process and, with no obvious source for the leaks, spreading suspicion. But there's even darker steps they're willing to take.

The subject matter may be serious but Bean tackles it with broad, often very silly comedy. Few real names are bandied about but the caricatures of real figures in the scandal are usually pretty easy to spot, and the fast-talking action on stage is complemented with projections of news bulletins and comedy newspaper headlines. Meanwhile recorded performances from the likes of Lenny Henry, Jonathan Bailey, Olivia Vinall and Nigel Lindsay provide the hacked voicemail messages, the hacks listening in to everything from the banal to the absurd.

Piper relishes her viciously amoral antihero, using her sexuality to curry favour with everyone from her foul-mouthed editor (Robert Glenister) to the Prime Minister (Rupert Vansittart) she helped get into power. She's chillingly thrilled at news of disasters that will distract attention from her own illegal activities, and seems genuinely confused when she glibly tells the senior policeman she's sleeping with (Oliver Chris) that she loves him only to have him reply sincerely.

There's good support from James Harkness as a man Paige is trying to pin the disappearance of his daughters onto, while the culture of strong language and political incorrectness allows Bean to write a good supporting role for a disabled actress (Kiruna Stamell) that's well integrated into the action. But the show is regularly stolen by Aaron Neil's panic-stricken, blank stare as Sully Kassam, the chronically inept Police Commissioner with an unfailing ability to say the worst possible thing in any given situation (to cries of institutional racism he admits his force haven't killed as many white people as black people, but they're trying to do something about that; in a well-observed touch, this press conference gets turned into an Autotuned YouTube clip.)

Great Britain probably won't become a classic but it's very well-observed and topical, with Nicholas Hytner's production bringing out the best in it; although it touches on some incredibly dark undersides of the free press, its main aim is to get as many laughs as possible into its running time. And although that running time is a bit too long, it is very well-packed with jokes.

Great Britain by Richard Bean is booking until the 23rd of August at the National Theatre's Lyttelton; and from the 10th of September to the 10th of January at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Running time: 3 hours including interval.

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