Friday, 18 July 2014

Review: Great Britain

"Don't buy your drill bits from Poundland - that's suicide."

"My parents were Guardian readers, which is to say they were wrong about everything all the time."

"A clue is one thing I've not got."

Just a smattering of my favourite lines from Richard Bean's new play Great Britain which opened at very short notice at the National to a huge amount of hype.

The show - a satire on phone hacking scandal - could only be officially announced after the verdicts in the trials of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and friends were handed down. Even then the National still had to employ a team of lawyers to check the script wouldn't get them sued. There were no previews. Tickets went on sale a week before opening night. From a marketing perspective, does it get much better than that? Buzz was coming out of this show's ears.

So, does it live up? Absofuckinglutely.

If you've been following the phone hacking mess (and if you haven't, then I assume you must be my first Martian reader) then I don't need to explain the plot as the play replicates it almost to the letter - tabloid newspaper finds out how to hack the voicemail of any mobile phone, does so with gay abandon (great phrase) to celebrities, the Royal family, politicians and victims of a high profile crime, is eventually found out. The police are by turn complicit and inept and the politicians don't care because they need the paper's support and are too busy fiddling their expenses anyway.

The characters will also be very familiar: there's the ambitious, young, female news editor who's the darling of the paper's aging, foreign proprietor; the posh leader of the opposition who becomes Prime Minister with the paper's help; the unethical wide boy editor who becomes the PM's director of communications... Well, you get the picture.

Subtle this play is not. Hilarious it very much is.

As the quotes that start this post hopefully suggest, its humour is a fantastic mix of the satirical, the straightforward and the pleasingly bizarre. Basically, if you enjoy The Day Today - and if you don't then get the hell off my blog - then this show is very much for you. I laughed from start to almost finish. Properly laughed too. Like, painfully laughed.

The excellent material is played joyously straight by an excellent cast. Billie Piper is perfect as news editor Paige Britain - 100% unsympathetic as a character but depressingly believable all the same. She's in almost every scene and so has a hell of a lot of work to do but maintains a kind of manic energy right through the show. She also has a lot of soliloquys which are all delivered exceptionally well. (Also her accent is way more believable than the awful Irish she attempted in Penny Dreadful recently.)

Of the rest of the cast, the reliably great Robert Glenister (by far the superior Glenister brother for my money) is on top form as delightfully awful editor Wilson delivering bespoke swearing in a manner even Peter Capaldi would be proud of. But my personal highlight was Aaron Neil who is muffin-top-wobblingly hilarious as completely inept police commissioner Sully Kassan; by far the least believable character of the piece but also by far the funniest (he even gets the autotune treatment in the second act, twice). He gets all of the best lines - his act one speech about how his force has shot disproportionately more innocent blacks than innocent whites and he intends to redress the balance is the best pieces of comic writing I've heard in some time - and his delivery is straight as a die. Which is frankly quite remarkable. I hope he gets am American TV style spin off. I'd so watch that.

The play does get serious sometimes and this is when it's at its weakest for me. It's not that the points it makes about how it's the public's desire to read the stories that phone hacking generated that fuelled the practice aren't valid, they clearly are. It's just that the way these points are delivered - by and large in soliloquy by Paige Britain at the very end of act two - just come off as a lecture and an unnecessary one at that since the whole rest of the play has made the same points implicitly. The play is also completely uncritical of the Labour Party, which seems rather unfair given how close they were to Rupert Murdoch whilst in government - and how little they did to take any action to curb the excesses of the press and police (who also get off very lightly) that the play rails against.

That aside, this is a great show and one I'd highly recommend everyone see, but especially my readers of a political bent. It's on at the National for the summer before transferring to the West End so you've got no excuse not to. Go see.

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