Here’s something a little unusual – a play that was written and rehearsed in secrecy, only being revealed at the culmination of the hacking trial, with the first performances at the National Theatre taking place just a week later.
This certainly ticked all my boxes with the subject matter.
This a fictionalised account of the phone hacking scandal, from Richard Bean, with everything happening at The Free Press, a tabloid paper edited by Wilson (Robert Glenister) and with a newsroom led by the ambitious Paige Britain (Billie Piper). In a story that parallels, but doesn’t quite replicate reality, Britain learns from a concerned reader that it’s very easy to listen into other people’s mobile phone messages – especially if you know the network and the default PINs.
Throw in an Irish proprietor with big television ambitions, a corrupt police force subservient to the press and willing not to investigate unless they really have to, an MPs’ expenses scandal, an inept Metropolitan Police Commissioner, a journalist looking to get scoops by dressing up as an Arab prince (amongst others) and a PM who’s desperate to win the support of the press, and you have… well… something that’s not a million miles off the truth.
Oh yes, and there’s an editor with long curly hair, who simply has no idea how her paper’s stories are being generated and is genuinely shocked when it all comes home to roost!
This is a rambunctious play with everything dialed up to 11. If you’re looking for delicate performances then this really isn’t for you. It’s only a few steps away from some kind of pantomime for Guardian readers (See – I told you it ticked all my boxes). In tone, imagine an elongated version of Drop the Dead Donkey set in a newspaper rather than TV newsroom.
Piper is great playing an over the top, stop-at-nothing career obsessed news editor, never overly concerned with morals, and nearly everything else is played for laughs.
There are some great comic moments. Glenister’s news conferences are basically excuses to crack lots of bawdy gags, and that’s no bad thing. Meanwhile Aaron Neil’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sully is just goes from disaster to disaster. Every time he gives a press conference or television interview, you know you’re in for a treat.
The production design is simple but very effective with glass walls doubling as office dividers and projection screens for interstitial videoed sequences. These include Free Press TV ads (“Is your vicar on gaydar? We have the answers.”) through other newspapers’ headlines (“Guardener: We think, so you don’t have to,” and a Daily Wail who’s headline has to include the word “Immigrant” regardless of the story), and short video extracts from TV news or in one wonderful scene a select committee.
Overall, it’s a very fun way to spend an evening, even if it’s not the greatest piece of work ever. It encapsulates the madness and hideousness of the whole phone hacking debacle, and is generally a good night out. The rapid response nature of the production feels smart too. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s already a West End transfer taking place.