Rehearsed in secret and only announced last week, within hours of initial verdicts being handed down in the Murdoch newspaper phone-hacking trial, “Great Britain,” the National Theater’s bold satire on illegal practices in the tabloid press and its scandalous links to politicians and the police, is shockingly timely. That, alas, is the extent of its shock value. Sharp-eyed and often funny though the evening is, the unsolved problem for playwright Richard Bean (“One Man, Two Guvnors”) is that the genuinely extraordinary real-life events it parallels are beyond satire.
The initially cartoon-like play, a laying-bare of debased British values, has a lynch-pin (as in lynch-mob) in the shape of viciously ambitious Paige Britain (Billie Piper). She’s the ruthless news editor of the Free Press, a daily tabloid newspaper owned by overseas media mogul Paschal O’Leary. As presented here by beady Dermot Crowley, he’s Irish. But with his numerous children in power in his worldwide business and his openly espoused aims to control all U.K. media — and which party is in government, so as to protect and develop his interests — there are no prizes for guessing who he’s based on.
When Paige discovers, nearly accidentally, how to hack into the voicemail of cellphones (an activity that requires nothing but a phone line, an easily obtainable pin number and no conscience), she instantly sees the potential. Since, as she proudly announces, “We destroy people’s lives” (so that readers can read about it), she realizes that unlimited access to people’s private lives via messages left on voicemails is going to be a bonanza.
And so it proves in the busy, lengthy first act, which is rammed with expository scenes setting up not just the paper and its nefarious workings, but also all the other elements that have been revealed in the real-life scandal.
There’s the leader of the Conservative party who, anxious to be re-elected, gets into bed metaphorically with O’Leary and literally with Paige. There’s the Metropolitan Police (London’s police body) with a ludicrously inept commissioner Sully Kassam (deadpan funny Aaron Neil), who is a wildly over-promoted Asian gay man with a unique ability to spout nonsense at (too many) times of crisis. He’s also being blackmailed by an ex-lover, and his job is coveted by his brighter, more upstanding deputy (Oliver Chris). The latter’s investigations into Paige’s activities become seriously compromised when she beds him too.
Then there’s the paper’s hacking of the phone of the father of missing, presumed-dead twins, a reference to the real-life Milly Dowler story that turned the real-life case into a bona fide world news story. And a comically exaggerated plot about the phone-hacking of the royal family, via the uncovering of a photo of the queen playing drums for the Nazi party. And then the sudden exit of the paper’s editor to run the government’s media profile (the exact same move taken by real-life Andy Coulson, just found guilty). He’s replaced by O’Leary’s favorite, a Rebekah Brooks look-alike, and the stage is set.
If that incomplete list of plot elements sounds long-winded, that’s because the play is too. As all writers of bio-dramas discover, real life almost never has dramatic shape. But in order to reflect how the rottenness of the tabloid press has infected all areas of British life and, chiefly, the most senior corridors of power, Bean has to show how they all connect.
All of this set-up allows for the slightly darker second act, in which the consequences of everyone’s actions are played out. But having to keep so many plates spinning has deadening effects on Bean’s often caustic, comically coarse writing. Firstly, with so many elements requiring representation, almost nothing gets enough detailed stage time. Secondly, because the scandal is about the illegal activity between different organizations — linked stories rather than a single driving one — the storytelling is diffuse. With few sustained highs or lows, there’s no developing tension.
Helmer Nicholas Hytner pulls out all the stops in his crisply designed, fleetly played and expertly choreographed production. The show is awash with witty cameos, not least a shrewd Kiruna Stamell as a coolly canny lawyer and Andrew Woodall’s long-suffering police PR man.
But for all the laughs of recognition and the anger clearly underpinning this expose of corruption at the highest levels of British society, there’s no escaping the fact that nothing Bean invents can match the brazen, astonishing truths revealed in the press before and during the ongoing court cases. With its similarities of crime reaching up to the highest levels of government, this affair is the closest the U.K. has got to Watergate. “Great Britain” is a laudable achievement, but it’s not “All the President’s Men.”