THEATRE REVIEW: Great Britain, National Theatre

Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre

30 June 2014

runs until 23 August / transfers to the Haymarket Theatre, West End from 10 September

Billie Piper, star of Great Britain. (Photo: BBC Breakfast)
Billie Piper, star of Great Britain. (Photo: BBC Breakfast)

After 50 years the National Theatre proved they can still surprise us all. Barely had the verdicts been read at the now notorious phone hacking trial at the Old Bailey, when the theatre announced the opening, without previews, of Richard Bean’s new play – a satirical look at a red-top tabloid, and an ambitious young news editor who gets into bed, sometimes quite literally, with the highest ranking policeman and politicians in the land. At nearly three hours it covers a wide expanse, but its acerbic cynicism, chaotic comedy and a cast who throw themselves into it head first keep the audience hooked in this scathing farce.

Despite Bean and director Nicholas Hytner’s insistences that in this “fictional piece” none of the characters are based on anyone in particular, the audience can certainly draw their own conclusions on the matter. While the central figure – news editor Paige Britain (Billie Piper on top form) – is apparently a fiction, there are a few figures that ring some bells, to say the least. There’s something rather familiar about editor-turned-political advisor Wilson Tikkel (Robert Glenister) and power-hungry proprietor Paschal O’Leary (Dermot Crowley); meanwhile Jo Dockery, playing a new editor later drafted in, (hilariously naive, never on stage while any phone hacking is going on, and given the symbolically innocent name of Virginia White), also causes flashes of recognition, what with her soap actor boyfriend, apparent love of horses and flaming red hair.

The National markets Great Britain  as “fast, furious and foul-mouthed”, and it certainly is that. The culture of the tabloid office (recognisable from anyone who’s read Sharon Marshall’s Tabloid Girl or other similar works) presented in great ensemble scenes that zip along, as well in a wonderfully crude yet cruel turn by Glenister as the shameless editor. There’s also more than a hint of the grotesque in Bean’s play, with the world of a UK tabloid becoming a rather cartoonish land, and a lot of good old-fashioned plain silliness providing the comedy in between the startlingly accurate satire. Very few people escape Bean’s sharp pen: not only do journalists, the police, politicians and fame-hungry celebrities get sent up, but running gags come in the form of flashing headlines from the just-about-fictional papers The Gardener (“we think so you don’t have to”), The Dependant and many more.

In doing so it taps neatly into a time and a country where serious outrage is combined with YouTube mockery, as seen in the hilarious videos of laughably terrible Police Commissioner Sully Kassam (Aaron Neill). At times, the play’s humour is actually pretty simple, but there’s no doubt this is a very, very funny show. Yes, it is utterly one-sided in its portrayal of events, but Bean is clearly determined to highlight the appalling behaviour of its characters who could so easily be those who hold the power in our country. His satire is ambitiously wide-reaching: phone-hacking, cover-ups, MP expenses, police failures, vigilante justice, celebrity culture, political correctness, sex, lies and scandals – it’s all there, simultaneously lampooned and yet, underneath the laughter, treated very seriously.

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