Every now and then a theatre will have a run of particularly good form, as show after show manages to earn critical and popular acclaim. It’s fair to say that The Almeida is currently enjoying a very purple patch, with a series of big successes over the last six months to which they can now add their latest production, James Graham’s new play Ink. The Almeida’s luck began with Mary Stuart in January, and although I didn’t much care for it, it wowed the critics and has just announced a West End transfer, following in the footsteps of its impressive Hamlet starring Andrew Scott that has just opened in the Harold Pinter. Equally excellent was the wonderfully bizarre world created by The Treatment, and with Ben Wishaw starring in Against in August, The Almeida’s mix of classics and new writing, established stars and fresh talent is delivering an astonishing season of work.
With press night for Ink on Tuesday it will be interesting to see if this continues the run of critical approval for the theatre, especially given that its subject – the birth of the current incarnation of The Sun newspaper and its deliberate attempt to shake-up the cronyism of Fleet Street – might ruffle a few critical feathers at the very newspapers it mocks. That aside, it was perfectly clear even at the preview that this is one of the not-to-be-missed shows of the summer, a hilarious, pointed and nuanced examination of the tabloid press and the two men who brought it into being, Larry Lamb and Rupert Murdoch.
It’s 1969 and the young Rupert Murdoch is negotiating a deal to buy the ailing Sun newspaper from The Mirror group, and tries to convince Yorkshire-born editor Larry Lamb to leave his regional paper and return to Fleet Street to oversee The Sun. Given a target of one year to increase the newspapers paltry market share from hundreds of thousands to millions, Lamb sets about reinventing the modern tabloid with give-aways, bold headlines and reader-focused content. As Lamb’s team try to top The Mirror’s circulation numbers, they start to make choices that will compromise their original ideals, upset “the street” and invent a more sullied style of journalism.
James Graham has become quite adept at revealing how various parts of the Establishment fit together and 2017 is proving a good year for him too. A revival of his 2012 play This House was warmly received in the West End and another new play, Labour of Love starring Martin Freeman and Sarah Lancashire, opens at the Noel Coward in September. Best described as a comedy drama, Ink is a joy from start to finish and considerably more balanced than you’d imagine a play about the origins of a tabloid newspaper to be.
What is clear from his style of writing, is that Graham wants you to understand the human motivations behind our modern impression of The Sun and its founders, how it became the behemoth it is today by taking us back to its origins. In the creation of character, Graham deliberately avoids cartoonish ridicule, but offers a chance to reflect on the original ideals of Murdoch and Lamb, using their outsider status to create innovative disruption in the industry, and believing that they were delivering an individual-focused people-led newspaper that spoke to the working nation in a way that broadsheets couldn’t. What is so fascinating about Ink is the idea of the Frankenstein’s monster they all created by playing to these notions which then began to take on a life and momentum which they could no longer control, warnings about which are echoed repeatedly – and it is this, along with the race for circulation, this is the backbone of the play.
Richard Coyle leads an excellent cast as the change-maker Larry Lamb, who seems to trade attitudes with his new boss Murdoch, played with relish by Bertie Carvel, as the play unfolds. What begins as an us-against-the-world partnership as the northerner and the Australian try to break the clubbable stranglehold of the elite on mainstream British journalism, becomes a more fractious relationship as Lamb takes outrageous risks that Murdoch squirms away from. And in the central section of the play, Murdoch is seen less and less as he steps back from direct engagement with the paper to develop his much wider media empire, leaving Lamb to call the shots and take the fall if it all goes wrong.
Coyle is such an accomplished actor and not often enough seen on stage or screen, but here is the driving force of the play. What we know about Lamb in retrospect and the cost of his interventions will send you to this play with considerable pre-conceptions, which Coyle skilfully subverts. Instead we are introduced initially to a good man, solid, reliable and with a talent for bringing his staff together harmoniously, but even in his first scene we see the seeds are sown as he outlines the 5 whys of good storytelling – who, what, when, where and what next, having abandoned why because it doesn’t matter. He also has a slight chip on his shoulder about lack of promotion when he worked for The Mirror but he ploughs his frustrations into making The Sun a reader-focused newspaper full of the things Brits love with very little hope of turning the papers fortunes around.
But as the story develops, initial success goes to his head and Coyle demonstrates how Lamb became increasingly reckless, discarding decency and taste to reach his one-year target to outsell all their rivals, even using the personal tragedies of his own staff. Murdoch has to push Lamb to become a businessman, taking tough decisions at the expense of friendly relations with his team, but when he does there’s no one to hold him back. And in the final moments of the play when Lamb sees the consequences, Coyle brilliantly conveys a sense of hopeless regret and anxiety about the future he has been instrumental in creating.
Bertie Carvel has to bear the weight of even more expectation as the young Murdoch, espousing Thatcherite ideals of individualism and big business a decade before she became Prime Minister. Carvel captures the soft accent and slightly hunched physical demeanour extremely well and works hard to keep Murdoch on the right side of caricature. It’s clear he resents his outsider status, looked down upon for his background and connections by the owners of Fleet Street’s finest, but he clings to a new business-focus that chimes with the changing attitudes of the late 1960s, despite his instance in dining at the exclusive Establishment restaurant Rules. Perhaps most intriguing is how clearly Murdoch distances himself from some of Lamb’s innovations, and Carvel plays this as part hesitancy, part washing his hands of it, so by the end of the play you see clearly the man he would become.
Surrounding the leads are a fantastic team of reporters and production staff including excellent turns from Sophie Stanton as the chippy Joyce Hopkirk a no-nonsense seen-it-all Women’s Editor in a world of men, Tim Steed as Bernard Shrimsley the paper’s only well-spoken posh Brit with a love of fonts (who in real life became Lamb’s successor), and Justin Salinger as crime reporter turned unofficial floor manager Brian McConnell who becomes Lamb’s right-hand man. There are great smaller roles for Pearl Chanda as young model who becomes the first Page 3 star, David Schofield as Lamb’s former mentor Hugh Cudlipp and, channelling the sartorial style of Robin Askwith in Bless This House, Jack Holden as long-haired young photographer Beverley.
Bunny Christie’s towering design feels like a rat trap with desks piled on top of one another, clutter and paper everywhere and various exits and pathways. It has the look of a busy newsrooms but also the poorly conditioned basement implied in the text. The set does have several levels and if you’re at the back of the stalls you won’t be able to see more than the legs of the actors at the top due to the overhang of the circle, but the majority of the action takes place on the main stage level.
Director Rupert Goold keeps the action moving swiftly and scenes merge effortlessly using the various levels and sets raised into place from the floor. Goold also keeps the balance between comedy and a much darker second act, alongside moments of pure whimsy as short song and dance routines act as a montage for Lamb collecting his team, and later the unbelievable success of The Sun’s early months, all beautifully lit by Neil Austin. Ink is one of those rare plays that you watch with a smile on your face throughout, not just because it’s funny, but because the writing is so engaging and the performances so accomplished that you’re gripped by what it has to say. The Almeida really is enjoying the purpliest of purple patches and Ink really deserves to be headline news.
Ink is at The Almeida until 5 August and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1