Laurence Green reviews James Graham’s new insightful and entertaining new play, Ink.
Newspapers have provided fertile material for playwrights, bringing an irresistible mixture of drama, comedy and enlightenment, as Ben Hecht’s, The Front Page and more recently, David Hare’s, Pravda have proved. The latest addition to this illustrious canon is James Graham’s entertaining and insightful new play, Ink (Almeida Theatre), directed by Rupert Goold, about the rebirth of The Sun newspaper under Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
The year is 1969, when a beleaguered, high-minded newspaper is sold to an Australian sheep farmer with ambitions to turn it into a popular tabloid. The rag is The Sun, the proprietor Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch appoints Larry Lamb as editor and tells him to make the paper “loud” with an emphasis on gossip and celebrity culture. “I want to disrupt the street” (the former haven of the newspaper world fleet street), Murdoch insists to Lamb meaning that he aims to puncture the sanctified traditions of Fleet Street. But he also wants to get revenge on the British establishment that excluded him and has a businessman’s need to overtake the Daily Mirror as the country’s best-selling paper.
The first half is a breezy, very funny account of one man’s ambition to create a new style of popular newspaper. We see Lamb desperately seeking new recruits for an under-resourced newspaper that doesn’t seem to have a hope in hell of succeeding. In one of the wittiest moments the new male photographer Beverly (whom everyone had previously been taken to be a woman) tells Lamb his previous experience was in the medical field – “Photographing bodies in the mortuary!”
It is only in the more dramatic second half, which admittedly does drag at times, that Graham explores the implications of the circulation war initiated by Murdoch and Lamb. Hugh Cudlipp, the rival Mirror editor, warns Lamb that if you pander to people’s basic instincts, you create an appetite you can never satisfy. That truth hits home when The Sun finds itself in the news and tries to cope with a kidnap story involving the wife of its deputy chairman. Inevitably there comes a moment when Lamb, with a certain trepidation, decides that featuring naked girls on page 3 (a move that was to define the paper over subsequent years) is the one way to steal a march on the Mirror. This Graham suggests, is the logic of cut-throat commercial competitiveness.
As with his previous play, This House, dealing with the Hung Parliament of 1974, Graham proves he is a master of political intrigue expertly dramatising the murky business of negotiation and compromise. But here in dealing with journalistic ethics in an equally ruthless word as that of politics, Graham refuses to moralise, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.
Bunny Christie’s evocative set consists of a stage piled with desks upon which the characters climb and also captures a pivoted moment in newspaper history in showing the old style of hot metal printing.
But it is the excellent performances which give this play its real snap, crackle and pop. Bertie Carvel as admirable as ever plays Murdoch not as some horned monster but as a ruthless operator, both elusive and spellbinding who values business success over the consolations of friendship. Richard Coyle excels as the bold and boyish Lamb, the Yorkshire son of a blacksmith, full of wisdom of Fleet Street, whose early idealism quickly gives way the uncaring ambition. Strong support is provided by David Schofield as a lookalike Hugh Cudlipp, Pearl Chanda as the luckless Page 3 debutante, and Sophie Stanton as The Sun’s no-nonsense women’s editor.
This, then, is a play which will give you plenty of food for thought!
Playing at the Duke of York Theatre until 5 August 2017