Review: Great Britain
A post-hacking trial page (and Paige) turner
Lyttelton, London SE1
Billie Piper with Dermot Crowley and Robert Glenister
Richard Bean's satire on the press - probably the most significant since Howard Brenton and David Hare's Pravda of 1985 - arrives amid reports of the show being rehearsed in secret and of director Nicholas Hytner taking lawyers' advice not to open until the end of the phone-hacking trial. The day after the verdicts came in, the National announced that Great Britain would begin performances a week later. It's impressive to see a giant move so nimbly. There wasn't even time to print programmes - though there will be for the West End transfer in autumn.
Writer Bean and the National's outgoing director Hytner are the team that produced the extremely funny knockabout farce One Man, Two Guvnors. Here, they deliver a funny and bruising knockabout satire whose targets are many. It is populated by newspaper editors, such as Billie Piper's Paige Britain, who view lives destroyed by inaccurate stories with the compassion of a colonel viewing collateral damage. There is a proprietor whose plan for a media empire involves killing the BBC and a Prime Minister-in-waiting who promises to help achieve that aim in exchange for a newspaper's support.
Bean's plot sails close to the truth. There is also an MPs' expenses scandal and a child murderer on the loose around the same time that Paige Britain's red-top newspaper, The Free Press, stumbles upon the phone hacking technique. The other exclusive-generating ace up her sleeve is a high ranking policeman (Oliver Chris), whose buffoon of a boss provides a stream of running jokes about institutional stupidity. The blizzard of gags softens us up for the play's more telling, darker half. It shows the victims of a country run by vested interests. Some of them die. And those responsible, runs Bean's argument, are not just the politicians and proprietors but the public and their appetite for newspapers such as Paige's.
On the other hand, Paige points out that if hacking the phones had resulted in the lives of children being saved, she'd be a hero, which is probably true.
Few evenings are as funny and chastening as this. Piper's cynical Britain is somehow likeable for telling a lot more truths to her audience as a narrator than she does in print in her newspaper. But the marvel of the show lies in how Hytner and Bean nimbly accommodate the verdicts of the trial without letting any of play's real-life counterparts get away with anything.