Theatre Review: Great Britain

Date Posted: 02/10/2014

Pictured: Asst. Commissioner Donanld Doyle (Ben Mansfield) and Paige Britain (Lucy Punch) / Photo credit: Johann Persson.

Just transferred to the West End, Helen Cannon reviews Great Britain, or should that be corrupt Britain - a sharp-tongued satire that takes no prisoners.

‘Press. Police. Politics’, read the posters for Richard Bean’s new play, Great Britain - a quick-fire parody of the seedy world of red-top journalism and its cosy threesome with No. 10 and the Met.

The play hit the headlines when it opened from a shroud of secret rehearsals at the National Theatre last summer, just days after the end of the News of World phone-hacking trial.

Drama is not often so hot off the press but maybe it was this rush to get it to stage that has resulted in this clichéd, often cheap script. The characters are supposed to be recognisable caricatures of course, thinly veiled - there’s the Rebekah Brooks character with her bouncing curls on a crusade for ‘Kieran’s Law’; the freelance ‘fake sheikh’ and the foul-mouthed, unscrupulous editor, played quite brilliantly by Robert Glenister.

The fast-paced storyline centres around news editor Paige Britain, who Lucy Punch plays with delightful distaste. She’s ruthlessly ambitious to be made editor no matter whose lives she destroys on the way - all in the name of a ‘good’ story of course.

Paige discovers how easy it is to intercept the voicemails of the rich and famous and before long, phone hacking becomes everyday practice.

The story becomes darker when the abduction of twin girls hits the front pages, drawing in the Met with blackmail and the Prime Minster with a dodgy political favour.

This growing complicit triangle of corruption doesn’t pull any punches and each of the involved parties should be left feeling bruised at curtain call. The public can’t feel much better, we are constantly reminded that it is us (or enough of us) that demand the sort of stories that enable someone like Paige to rise to the top.

Pictured: Wilson Tikkel (Robert Glenister) and the cast of Great Britain / Photo credit: Johan Persson.

This is firstly and predominantly entertainment however, and smutty, one-trick entertainment at that - expect an onslaught of foul-mouthed lewd one-liners. The biting, sardonic references are plain to see; the writer didn’t have to invent much to make his point with reality providing ample material all by itself.

The set is dynamic and quick moving, just like the action. Dominated by three giant screens that intersect the stage, they flash with rival paper front pages poking fun at the left and right wing press during scene transitions.

‘Immigrants melt the Arctic’ and ‘Is your vicar on gaydar?’ shout two of the headlines of the Daily Mail-esque paper, and the Gardener (aka the Guardian) ‘thinks so you don’t have to’.

It was Aaron Neil’s portrayal of the dim Met Commissioner Sully Kassam that got the loudest laughs from the audience, and I enjoyed the banter of The Free Press editorial meetings most.  

But I left the theatre feeling a little disappointed; I was expecting more laugh-out-loud moments but instead it was like watching a re-run of Have I Got News For You.

The cast was classy and the delivery was slick but it didn’t have anything new to say and I think this dense, complex subject matter would work better as a sharp political drama.

I do think this play was probably more at home at the National Theatre. If after reading this you want to give it a go I suggest you do so while it’s still warm off the press. I don’t imagine it will be around too long.

Great Britain is currently taking group bookings at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 10th January 2015. Discounted rates are available for parties of ten or more on the top two ticket prices, valid for Monday to Thursday performances.


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