Review: Great Britain, National Theatre

 “That’s what we do, we destroy lives…but it’s on your behalf, because you like to read about it”

It’s not quite Beyoncé releasing her latest album without prior notice but it’s not far off. Richard Bean’s new play for the National was something of an open secret even if its specifics were unknown but still, announcing it with five days’ notice and no previews is a pretty bold move. What Great Britain has going for it though is a right-up-to-the-minute immediacy as Bean responds with speed to the scandals that have engulfed certain sections of the tabloid media in recent times and a court case that may or may not have just reached a verdict…

We’re in a satirical, pseudo-recognisable world – a ratings-hungry red-top (called The Free Press) is owned by a foreign-born media mogul who wants to buy a television station (an Irishman called Paschal O’Leary if you will) and has a fiercely ambitious news editor at its helm (a blonde woman called Paige Britain, she didn’t say she was “vindicated” so I have no idea who she was meant to be…). Manipulating their way to a position of huge influence with both Police and Parliament under their thumb, it seems nothing could go wrong. That is, until a little thing called phone hacking breaks into the national consciousness.

As a comedy first and foremost, Great Britain dances around its subject with no little energy and a neat sense of humour. Front pages from rival newspapers such as The Guardener, The Dependent and The Daily Wail flash up on the video walls; the police are led by a particularly gaffe-prone Commissioner who becomes an unwitting YouTube hit; and some of the improbable scandals that are broken by The Free Press can’t help but raise guffaws. But Bean never lets his satire really cut that deep, there’s an affectionate feel to the unreconstructed vibe of the newsroom, a cosiness to the buffoons of the brass.

And the more sombre strand of the plot – the investigation into missing young twin girls (an amalgam of the Maddie McCann, Milly Dowler and Sarah Payne cases) – never really gels with the humour as Paige tries to balance actually solving the case with the desire to sell more papers. A number of paedophile jokes fall flat (the danger with such topicality is that one is always in danger of being overtaken by the real news, in this case Rolf Harris’ guilty verdict) and though the play stretches out to 2 hours 45 minutes, the final quarter is distinctly rushed and many of the serious issues brushed under the carpet (though this was probably under legal advice as much as anything).

So it’s not quite intelligent enough to tell us anything new about the whole affair or rather it can’t be as bluntly honest as it needs to be, nor is it really funny enough to be an out-and-out comedy (although many laughed more than me, if men in the closet are your thing…). As ever at the National, it is the performances that Nicholas Hytner’s production generates that really shine – Billie Piper’s steely-glinted gaze desperate for the top “it’s about being invited to the party…”, Robert Glenister’s salty editor “they weren’t lies, they were well researched stories that later turned out not to be true”; Oliver Chris’ too-honest policeman “he’s dead because of me”.

And I have to mention 59 Productions’ brilliant video work, which involves a list of recognisable names longer than the actual onstage cast. Snippets from news broadcasts, interviews, select committees etc play out at intervals and for an actor-junkie like me, it’s huge amounts of fun (and sometimes a little distracting) to see who is going to pop up next. Tim Hatley’s sliding panel design works well in keeping up the pace but more haste less speed might have been more usefully said to Richard Bean in order to get the more searchingly candid play this whole pernicious affair deserves.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 23rd August

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