sun 21/07/2024

Great Britain, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Great Britain, National Theatre

Great Britain, National Theatre

Richard Bean’s timely play about phone hacking and corrupt tabloids is fun but too long

Read all about it: Billy Piper in 'Great Britain'Johan Persson

The National Theatre delayed the opening of this play about newspapers for two weeks as it waited for the results of the phone-hacking trial. Is this what a tabloid would call “legal health and safety gone mad” – or what a broadsheet would characterise as “a sensible precaution”? Either way, in the wake of last week’s verdict on former News of the Screws editor Andy Coulson, who was found guilty of phone hacking, Richard Bean’s new play is certainly timely.

And it stars the charismatic Billie Piper, who can make a legal dictionary sound interesting.

Piper plays Paige Britain (geddit?), the young and ambitious news editor of The Free Press, a redtop not completely dissimilar to The Sun. Her editor is Wilson Tikkel (quite unlike Kelvin MacKenzie) and her proprietor is Paschal O’Leary (not a bit like Rupert Murdoch). As you can tell from the silly names, this epic satire is as lurid in its cartoonish detail as the lurid and cartoonish British popular press. It's a tabloid play about a tabloid scandal.

It’s clever, it’s slick, and it’s often really very funnyUnder the slogan of “We go out there and destroy other people’s lives – on your behalf”, The Free Press evolves from feeding the public’s relentless appetite for celebrity gossip into something much more sinister. Paige learns how to hack phones, and then a sensational murder case helps her sell more copies and brings her into contact with some pretty important policemen. When O’Leary appoints his red-haired darling Virginia White (no resemblance to Rebekah Brooks) to the editorship of the paper the plot jumps up a gear.

Bean has taken the phone-hacking scandal, added some instances of MPs’ expenses, changed all the names to protect the guilty and then written the whole affair as a cross between The Beggar’s Opera and a stand-up routine. It’s clever, it’s slick, and it’s often very funny. In Asian Met Commissioner Sully Kassam Bean creates one of his typically hilarious and eccentric characters, who lights up the stage whenever he opens his mouth (usually to put his foot in it). It’s vivid, comic writing from the man who brought us the wonderful One Man, Two Guvnors.

In Piper’s hands, the amoral Paige is also an appealing character. She’s gutsy, she’s spiky, she’s sexy and she’s good fun. She also has no conscience and doesn’t care what she does – as long as it sells copies. Rarely has a villain been so attractive. Yet, after almost three hours of stage action, I have to admit that a certain tedium sets in. Tabloid humour, filthy language and sexual innuendo are best taken in small doses and this epic story sprawls at inordinate length. It badly needs an editor. There's a crudity about the satire that gets mighty tiresome and jovial vulgarity can be boring after a while.

When, after ages and ages, Paige finally comes onto the stage to accuse the audience of complicity and complacency, no one seems to care. And this seems to be the general effect of the show: only the tasteless jokes about disability get a sharp intake of breath. Otherwise, we are all swept away by the one-liners, the video projections and the humorous headlines. But the effect is wearying in the end. What’s lacking is any sense of real surprise; there’s too much finger-wagging – funny how populist satire can’t quite shake off the dead hand of Teacher.

Still, while not exactly challenging, there is plenty to enjoy in Nicholas Hytner’s vigorous and often charming production, which opens without the usual previews. The cast is large and hardworking (pictured above), with Piper confidently leading the audience through the story, and Robert Glenister (Tikkel), Aaron Neil (Kassam) and Dermot Crowley (O’Leary) all enjoyable to watch. The best bits – the Queen playing drums for the Hitler Youth and the laser-sharp jokes about Rebekah Brooks – are great, but I long to see an abbreviated version.

There’s too much finger-wagging — funny how populist satire can’t quite shake off the dead hand of Teacher


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article


Went last night. Two seats in the stalls @ £50. What a waste of money. Funny? I think the only reason the reviews in the newspapers tell you that is because it them. If I had the opportunity to get a refund I'd take it. There are far better things I could spend the money on and get a shed load of enjoyment too. Did we stay to the end? No. It was a waste of the talent of both Glenister and Chris and Billie Piper carried it, the lifeless corpse of a "play". It's like the "Emperor's New Clothes". Am I the only one to have the balls to state what a crock of sh1t this play is?

I have to agree with Porter. £40 seats in the Gods for us and left at the interval. Did not laugh once. Once! It felt like a terribly overlong episode of 'Drop the Dead Donkey' albeit with far better acting. Piper et al cannot be faulted. And the pace is kept up over its 3hr + (incl interval) duration. But for a comedy, it simply was not funny - tho' a fair proportion of the audience found it so (but I suspect they were the same people who gasped in enjoyment at the frequent swearing - no, I didn't find any of that either shocking or even interesting). Otherwise, the jokes were hammy and obvious - or involved wordplay that while smart, just wasn't amusing. I found the gay/supremely dense commissioner storyline actually faintly offensive (and I have no connection with the police). So, Porter, no; you're not the only one. It's a crock and I'm amazed it's transferring.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters