The announcement of the opening of Richard Bean’s Great Britain was as sudden as it was, we have been told, due to legal issues, but you can’t help feeling it was also a bit of a publicity coup for the National. The unveiling of a play about the hacking scandal and our national press mere days after the conclusion to the trial which delivered verdicts on those involved would, you’d assume, make such a play supremely current. Weirdly, however, Bean’s new tabloid farce is topical without being contemporary, and though it’s full of brilliant gags it never quite hits you in the gut.
The whole plot broadly tells a fictionalised version of the phone hacking scandal. Paige Britain (Billie Piper) is a news editor at the Free Press, which is run by a foul-mouthed editor (Robert Glenister) and owned by an idiotic Irish tycoon (Dermot Crowley). It’s a sleazy red-top which believes it works in the public interest, and soon gets into bed with both the police (literally, in the case of the Assistant Commissioner, played by Oliver Chris) and the politicians (again literally, with Rupert Vansittart’s Jonathan Whey). Before long, and supposedly unbeknownst to Rebekah Brooks lookalike Virginia White (Jo Dochery), the hacking starts prying into the family of missing twins and is used as leverage for multi-million pound deals and major circulation increases.
Dramatically, it’s pretty old news; Bean follows the contours of the entire scandal pretty faithfully, and even when he shifts a plot-point you can see it coming from a long way off. You find yourself spending a lot of time mischievously aligning characters to their real-life counterparts, but though the intention is not necessarily to create drama, the whole thing pales in comparison to the actual events that occurred.
Nicholas Hytner’s production tries hard to move things along swiftly, with a smart sliding walls design by Tim Hatley allowing for slick scene changes and a plethora of pre-recording video clips. Like the world it depicts, it is shallow and surface, surviving on the headline pun and the story above everything else. Even the cast frequently come across as tabloid caricatures rather than fully-fledged human beings, with Glenister savouring every insult he churns out and Piper taking the lead with a villainous relish.
Great Britain is often monstrously funny, and Bean manages to make us laugh throughout the entire three-hour running time, with gags coming out at a machine-gun pace. The news team, for example, pass the time naming their “Cunt of the Month”, and Glenister’s editor is full of gems: “Find a boffin who can prove that eating Brussels sprouts gives you AIDS”. The clown of the proceedings is Aaron Neil’s Met Commissioner, who frequently stands at a podium looking dazed and confused and comes a cropper at the hands of YouTube mash-ups. There are also plenty of (sometimes inconsistent) sight gags too, projected onto the glass screens, but they sometimes come across as satire-by-numbers rather than jokes with genuine insight.
And here is why, given all this, Great Britain never quite elicits the visceral response you may expect; it feels altogether too safe, and not nearly as angry as it could be. Though it presents an uncompromising view of our corrupt establishment (“20 people talk to 20 people talk to 20 people”), with hardly one redeemable feature among the lot of them, there’s never a moment that feels dangerous, even when half of this country’s elite has piled in for press night. A play like Great Britain has the power to recreate the same electric frisson which King Charles III found earlier this year, but its fairly conventional (and already known) narrative struggles to open up avenues of alternative.
It shows a world we already knows exists (even at this heightened level), and seems to endorse rather than subvert some of its characters and attitudes. Bean attempts to turn the whole thing on its head by implicating us with Paige Britain’s direct address (“Democracy? Give me a break”), but it often feels like a middle-class liberal-minded audience are let off the hook for not reading tabloids, with those who buy the papers silently burdened with much of the blame. This is a play which has the chance to make the whole audience feel part of the problem, but instead it often panders to our prejudice and never demonstrates much we don’t already know: that power in our country rests with the few, and many of our national structures encourage rather than deter corruption and cynicism. Hold the front page.