Sunday 16 July 2017

Ink at the Almeida, or, At Last, Thank God, A Hit!

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 6th July 2017.

There are two schools of thought about the Almeida under the management of Rupert Goold and Robert Icke. Everybody else seems to think it has resulted in something close to hit after hit. I think it has produced a long, mixed line of misses or shows flawed to some degree. It is, therefore, a pleasure to be able to report that for the first time since, I think, Goold's early imported Our Town, the venue finally has another really consistently first class show.

Writer James Graham follows up his excellent This House at the National with this compelling examination of the advent of Rupert Murdoch to Fleet Street. We follow his purchase of The Sun, the battle with the Mirror, and the increasing revolutionary and problematic acts which the editor Larry Lamb makes in trying to overtake the circulation of the Mirror, culminating, in Act 2, with the page 3 moment. Occasionally early on I felt the play was trying a little too hard to force laughs, but it soon settles down. There are quite a few genuinely funny moments, and Graham also avoids the trap of many an “issue” play of coming down too far on one side or the other of the debate. This is, primarily, a play driven by the characters, the issues emerging from them rather than imposed upon them – the best kind of such writing in my experience. Moreover, neither the Fleet Street establishment nor the Murdoch revolutionaries come across as unflawed. Graham is particularly clever in exploring the question of responsibility – is this revolution possible only because of Murdoch and his acolytes, or because they are tapping into aspects of the character of the wider public. And if the latter, which I think the play finally convincingly argues, what can then be done about some of the more problematic effects? The question has contemporary relevance in our age of fake news, but Graham again avoids the trap of making those links too explicit, or of posing too simple solutions. The page 3 debate captures effectively the fact that nobody at the time, at least in this reading, anticipates the longer term arguments.

The play is brought to life by the first really good piece of directorial work I've seen from Rupert Goold. In contrast to previous encounters the actors don't spend the whole show shouting, and it isn't overwhelmed with puzzling rather than effective directorial decisions. For much of the time Goold keeps a tight focus on his principal characters – he should try this more often. There are more antic episodes – the recruitment of Sun staff, the dramatisation of various headlines and the walk through the printing process (in itself a telling reminder of a completely vanished, unionised (often problematically) world – but these are beautifully choreographed, capture something of the freneticism of the newsroom, and overall enhance, rather than distract from the narrative. The set, by Bunnie Christie, creates a tower of newsprint, newsdesks, typewriters and so forth. It's visually striking and creates some nice levels effects across the evening, but much of the action remains straightforwardly on the stage level. Again this set, like the movement, enhances rather than distracts from the narrative.

The casting is also strong led by the two superb central performances of Bertie Carvel as Murdoch and Richard Coyle as Larry Lamb. The show needs them to go toe to toe with each other and they do. Tim Steed gives a scene-stealing performance as the upper class Bernard who gradually loosens up under the influence of The Sun's approach – the, for him, wild demand that yes he wants the weather on page 2 because he's British and that's what we talk about is one of many gems in the script. Pearl Chanda's Stephanie Rahn has a little bit further to go. I think it's partly because Graham's script hasn't quite got as deeply at her motivations as it might have done. She's also not helped by one of the few directorial oddities which has her wandering around singing during some of the Act 1 interludes as Coyle assembles his staff team – it is unclear whether she's then playing Stephanie or some random singer, and it undermines the creation of a total persona. All that said the key moment of Act 2 requires the character to absolutely command our attention and Chanda has not quite found that yet. The rest of the cast, many of them doubling, provide consistently excellent support.

Overall, this is an entertaining, thought provoking evening. Unlike many of the Almeida shows that have unjustifiably in my view found their way to the West End this really would deserve a further run there. In the meantime, it plays at the Almeida until early August. Recommended.

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