Pros: A cutting and funny summary of the events surrounding the phone hacking scandal.
Cons: Followed the true events so closely that it felt a little bit like a re-enactment rather than a new play.
During 2012 in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, the Leveson Inquiry gradually revealed a complex web of horse-trading, cover-ups and corruption. It involved people in the highest positions of media, the police and politics. It was deeply shocking and, for most of us, completely confusing. With so many groups involved and so much information concealed, it was incredibly difficult for a layperson to keep track of what the hell actually happened at the News of the World in the early 2000s…
Great Britain, by Richard Bean, is basically an attempt to create a narrative around the events surrounding the phone-hacking scandal. Obviously, many details have been changed, exaggerated and embellished (probably at least partially to avoid defamation court-cases), but fundamentally, this is a thinly veiled summary of what happened in reality. They say that “truth is stranger than fiction”… and indeed, who needs to dream up the plot of a political intrigue when it is handed to you on a plate in the form of the Leveson report? Richard Bean takes this, puts the pieces back together into a coherent story, changes the names, and adds in plenty of comedy and satire to poke fun at basically everyone in media, policing and politics.
The production values of this show are what you would expect from a National Theatre show transferring to the West End: impeccable. The space is decked out like an open plan office (with exactly the right amount of tidy chaos to be believable), with three large transparent moveable flats that function as dividers to create meeting rooms. The flats also function as screens for projections, which vary from concrete walls to news reports and comical YouTube videos. This set design by Tim Hatley is wonderfully highlighted by veteran lighting designer Neil Austin, who plays his usual trick of making the lighting seem so natural you forget you are in a theatre.
The cast does a good job of mimicking real-life whilst giving their own flavour to the characters. This is a comedy after all, and there are some hilarious performances. Some of my favourites included Scott Karim as the clueless Met Chief Commissioner, and Kiruna Stamell as a witty small-town lawyer who outmanoeuvres the tabloid’s corporate leadership. Lucy Punch had big boots to fill in replacing Billie Piper as the lead in this show, and she did a good job of it, although I think her performance will become more fluid as the run progresses.
The downside of this production is that at times it felt a little like a staged re-enactment rather than a play. It is hard to see how this could have been avoided, even with the illustrious (former director of the National Theatre) Nicholas Hytner at the reins. The fact that Great Britain so closely follows real life is both its great strength and biggest weakness. On the one hand, it is a cutting satire of the upper echelons of British power, and leaves the audience with some serious food for thought. On the other hand, though, following reality so closely meant that creative license was limited, and more importantly, the corruption and deceit portrayed left a sour taste in the audience’s mouth.
“Is this really how our country is run? If so, it’s too depressing to be funny”. With the Leveson report only just starting to gather dust, and already new cases of dodgy journalistic practices emerging (the Brooks Newark case being just one example), sometimes it just feels a bit close to the bone.
Author: Richard Bean
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Design: Tim Hatley
Lighting: Neil Austin
Booking Until: 10 January 2015
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking Link: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/great-britain-at-the-theatre-royal-haymarket?dates