Ink

James Graham

Almeida Theatre

From 17 June 2017 to 05 August 2017

Review by Philip Fisher

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To supplement his prodigious talents as a playwright, James Graham has the knack shared with the very best historians of explaining the present via the past, never forgetting to entertain and amuse as part of the process.

In this case, it might be argued that, although the play is set almost 50 years ago, it sheds light on both media dominance today and the rise of populism.

Ink follows a line of newspaper dramas such as Pravda and Great Britain, portraying ruthless owners and editors ripping up the rulebook and changing not just their industry but society.

The focus is on the Sun in 1969 after youthful Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch decided to buy what was then a moribund relic or, to quote from his editor Richard Coyle's bluff Yorkshireman Larry Lamb, “a stuck-up broadsheet that has never once made a profit”. It then follows events through the ensuing year as the pair set out to beat the Daily Mirror and become country's best-selling paper.

The three-hour drama takes place on a Bunny Christie-designed pyramid made up of newspaper office furnishings and piles of copy. The setting may be cramped but it still leaves space to develop Rupert Goold's production ethos, which has much in common with his glittering vision for Enron. This involves elements of song, dance and video adding exuberance to what might otherwise have been a gritty story, albeit packed with that trademark James Graham humour.

The evening begins as the upstart Australian announces his intentions and then sets out to fulfil them, taking no prisoners. Aided by the equally ruthless Lamb, Murdoch recruits a team of no-hopers, who are then moulded into the fearless, heartless group that are charged with completely destroying then reinvigorating the industry.

By the interval, the new Sun is up and running and beginning to eat into its rivals' circulation using innovative methods combined with the Mirror's best ideas, shamelessly ripped off and barely changed.

The second half becomes more personal, first when the wife of one of the paper's executives is kidnapped and becomes a pawn in circulation wars then the first stirrings of what would ultimately be a successful battle against the unions. The coup de grace comes when a young model, Pearl Chanda as Stephanie, becomes a different kind of (porn) pawn in a finale that is tense but cleverly manages to develop and reveal character and humanity amidst the sleaze.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the play is the way in which some preconceived views about the all-powerful Australian magnate are debunked. In particular, the biggest decisions that led to the Sun's final triumph over the Daily Mirror resulted from Larry Lamb’s boldness, when Murdoch lacked courage but not quite enough to stop him.

Helped by a strong supporting cast playing multiple roles, Richard Coyle and Bertie Carvel excel in a riveting evening that seems certain to follow so many recent Almeida productions to the West End in the not too distant future.