Almeida Theatre, London – until 5 August 2017
GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES GLORIES IN JAMES GRAHAM’S SUN BACKSTORY
It’s a solid stunner of a play which has you punching the air for Rupert Murdoch by the interval. Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch asks in the opening scene, lit only by a sharp smokey beam of light, “What’s a story?”.
The transformation of the stuffy broadsheet into a popular tabloid with knicker week, Page 3 models, free giveaways and chunky font is one. It’s a sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, competing morals and competing ideas of Britain and of the press.
And sprawling real-life tales in need of snappy and dramatic condensation is James Graham’s speciality. If he had business cards (I doubt it, who does?) that would be on them. His translation of the potentially dry backroom machinations of the House of Commons under the 74-79 Labour government (This House) got theatrical juices flowing everywhere.
And here they flow freely again. The first year of the rejuvenated Sun could have run for hours and hours on stage. But Graham’s play is pacy and witty. Key moments are in there (the murder of Muriel McKay, the origin of Page 3) but it never feels like just a skip through a timeline. The full arc of the play is neat and laser-focused, and the cast are fat with good lines and fulsome, colourful, sweary and undeniably entertainingly British character.
Director Rupert Goold ensures nothing is extraneous. The scenes whip through like a snappy TV drama, although of course TV would never be this good. He’s also unafraid of a slightly musical vibe. Bunny Christie’s set is a mount of desks the cast clamber all over, the lighting is colourful and active, and the transitions are regularly helped along by bursts of music and ‘almost-dancing’. Anywhere else this could feel a bit forced. But in the office of the new fun Sun, which gives knickers away to readers in a can, it seems bang on.
At the helm, Bertie Carvel brilliantly dishes all the dirty ambition of the Dirty Digger. But nicely mixed with the underdog fighting spirit we all like to get behind. The line between charming trailblazer and ruthless exploiter is nailed perfectly with a sly Aussie accent and a slightly twitchy mannerism. Likewise Richard Coyle (as editor Larry Lamb) embodies so smoothly the transition required by the play; go-getting outsiders turned liable players.
The entire cast (many flitting between numerous parts) have perfected the tricky line many of Graham’s characters tread. They’re warm, slightly boozy, bawdily-British triers. But they make mistakes, they misjudge, they veer off the straight and narrow. But the play doesn’t come down on them like a tonne of bricks. There’s no handwringing finale, no “CENTRAL MESSAGE” slapped around the audience’s faces. Graham simply uses the weight of research he’s compiled to confidently open a dramatic window on this world. But always, unlike so many new plays, with an eye firmly on what’s the story.