Richard Bean’s play about the phone-hacking scandal hits the West End like a blunt-force instrument, following its success earlier this year at the National Theatre. Then, it appeared out of nowhere, having been written quickly and kept under wraps. Here, deprived of the gleeful surprise of its sudden debut, it’s often good fun, and very funny in places, but by no means a blistering masterpiece.
The plot greedily crams in every pilloried profession from the past few years’ sorry saga of lies and public corruption. We watch as morally vacuous and fiercely ambitious journalist Paige Britain sets her sights on being editor of Sun-like tabloid the Free Press, stumbles across the phone-hacking technique and literally gets into bed with the police as she uses it on celebrities, the Royal Family and the father of two missing girls.
This is sitcom satire, distinctly reminiscent of 90s newsroom TV comedy Drop the Dead Donkey, firing enough jokes at us that some inevitably hit their mark. From digs at the expenses scandal to a Nick Clegg-style YouTube remix of Aaron Neil’s brilliantly inept Met Commissioner, it’s a greatest-hits package of our media-digested lows. Bean parades cartoon posh-boy politicians, reporters and an Irish version of Rupert Murdoch before us in all of their scummy glory.
The National Theatre’s artistic director Nick Hytner keeps things moving at a colourful and energetic pace, with sliding video screens that smoothly partition the stage while blitzing us during scene changes with sharp send-ups of pun-tastic newspaper headlines (from such liberal bastions as The Gardener) and a hysterical social media. And there’s an undeniably cheeky thrill in hearing the voices of the Queen and Prince Charles spoofed in intercepted telephone calls.
The major change in the show’s transfer from the National to the Haymarket is the replacement of Billie Piper with Lucy Punch as Britain. I didn’t see Piper in the role, but I wish I had. Punch is good at the newsroom banter but lacks the believable charm I suspect Piper brought to the character’s calculatedly flirtatious insinuation into the male-dominated and mutually back-slapping upper echelons of the Free Press, Downing Street and the Metropolitan Police.
But it’s blessed with some great performances – like Robert Glenister’s foul-mouthed Free Press editor Wilson Tikkel, who gets an erection with every punning headline. His is old school social prejudice versus Paige Britain’s career-motivated discrimination. She’s only interested in feeding whatever nasty public craving will get her promoted. Bean slyly contrasts her with Jo Dockery’s Rebekah Brooks-alike, Virginia White. The latter is unbelievably naïve – and deliberately so.
Broad brush caricature was probably the only way to go here, when the sheer awfulness of the likes of Andy Coulson and Brooks is almost beyond parody. If Bean hadn’t gone big, this play would have felt like any number of real-life news reports during the height of the Leveson Inquiry. Even so, the sense of familiarity is overwhelming. We know this story before it starts. There’s nothing here not sent up before.
Bean never deviates far enough from his source material to write something that carves a new route. Each character is a pastiche, going through motions we already know. It hits all the familiar beats and even the cynical ending isn’t a surprise when we’re used to a smug Piers Morgan presenting chat-shows. It’s good for easy laughs (although the jokes are never quite as funny as you want them to be) but disposable as theatre. It risks dating as quickly as yesterday’s headlines.