Henry VI, Act 1, Scene 2
Who doesn’t love an excitingly sudden original production? Especially at the National Theatre, where I can get £5 tickets (any 16-25 year olds out there, check out their Entry Pass scheme). The world premiere of Richard Bean’s brand spanking new play ‘Great Britain’, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Billie Piper was dramatically announced just after the equally shocking verdicts of the Leveson inquiry were broadcast.
A clever move on the artistic director’s part; Hytner clearly wanted to have the whole scandal fresh in his audience’s minds, since ‘Great Britain’ is a satirical, darkly comic play all about phone hacking, tabloid newspapers and the way huge organisations like the police, the press and politicians are often corrupt to their very core.
Piper plays Paige Britain, hot-shot News Editor of ‘The Free Press’ (an obvious parallel to ‘The News of the World’); a red-top only out for scandal and stories which can ruin people’s lives in a paragraph. Locked in a never-ending battle for higher readership, and obsessed with her ambition of ‘being invited to a party’ Paige chances upon the biggest break of her career – a way to hack any phone and listen to any message she could possibly want.
This leads us onto a pacy plot full of twists and turns, copious swearing, inventive insults and ominous foreshadowing. Whilst Paige is clearly the protagonist, and Piper does a fantastic job portraying this unlikeable, flint-hearted, cunning fox of a woman, there are several other stand-out members of the large cast. Robert Glenister (who was hilarious in Noises Off) was uproarious as foul-mouthed Chief Editor Wilson Tikkel, knowing a good story by its power to give him an erection; Kiruna Stamell was great as solicitor to the stars Wendy Klinkard (almost the ‘good’ version of Paige; still ambitious and strong, but out for what’s ‘right’) and finally, the man I think became everyone’s highlight, Aaron Neil as Police Commissioner Sully Kassam.
Sully was an Evelyn Waugh-Charles Dickens type character; an absurdity of a human being. Neil played this part with perfect comedic timing and deadpan seriousness. Half the humour came from Sully having absolutely no idea how funny he was being, and Neil captured this ignorance impeccably. Despite his stupidity, however, he was also one of the more loveable characters in the drama, and as such, (SPOILERS) one felt almost sad at his eventual downfall. (END OF SPOILERS). Although, now I think about it, he would be a truly awful person to have in power. Being funny is really no excuse for witlessness (perhaps a comment on the popularity of a certain London Mayor here…?!). As you see, every touch of comedy in this play is simply the coating for a not totally original critique on our society and those in power.
My favourite element of this play, by far, was the set. Not only did the newspaper office look totally realistic (I can actually say this from experience now!), but sliding screens used to change scenes became the highlight of the show. These screens showed us newspaper headlines from broadsheets and tabloids like ‘The Guardener: We think so you don’t have to’ and ‘The Daily Wail’ which ignores all the ongoing news and concentrates on important things like ‘Immigrant Eats Swans’. We got snatches of voicemails about one night stands and tomato soup brands and even some from the Royal Family. But by far the best moments were the ‘Youtube takedowns’ of Sully Kassam. As soon as he’d finished giving another absurd speech, we were treated to the auto-tuned version of it. I just wish the NT would upload it so I could show you all – it’s like the ‘Hide Yo Kids, Hide Yo Wife’ kinda deal:
*Contented sigh* Great song.
Anyway, overall this is a really fun afternoon/evening out, with plenty of brilliantly witty lines, great acting (I need to mention Oliver Chris here as Asst. Commissioner Donald Doyle Davidson, showing how those with good intentions can become warped by the system, and adding a note of poignancy and tragedy to the ending) and perfect staging. I’m not saying it’s going to say anything you haven’t be thinking already; the events are almost exactly those of Leveson Trial fame, so these issues have probably been scurrying around your heads for a while now. Well worth going to see, and a fantastic accomplishment on the part of Bean, but not quite five-out-of-five worthy.
Great Britain at the National Theatre (transferring to West End in autumn): 4/5 stars