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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Ink
Almeida Theatre  Summer 2017

James Graham's new play is an attempt to turn a piece of recent history into a moral fable. But the vehicle is too fragile for the load, and what starts as a sprightly romp drags on for a slogging three hours of diminishing returns.

In 1969 Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch – everyone in Graham's play carries their real names, if possibly invented personalities – bought a moribund broadsheet, The Sun, from the Mirror group.

He hired former Mirror staffer Larry Lamb to edit it, with a two-part remit, to create a truly populist and popular tabloid, and to exceed the Mirror's circulation within a year. 

In the play Lamb assembles a staff of beginners and old hacks with little enough to lose to hold no journalistic traditions sacred, and invents modern tabloid journalism with all its lively virtues and ethical flaws.

But the drive for increased circulation at all costs comes with costs, leaving the play's Lamb feeling that a Faustian bargain has lost his and the paper's soul. 

The first half of Graham's play is high-energy comedy as Lamb and his merry men and women have fun thumbing their noses at competitors and tradition with flashy headlines, human interest stories, gossip columns, celebrity photo spreads, horoscopes, contests and giveaways.

In the Second Act they begin to go too far, with Graham singling out the sensationalist coverage of a kidnapping that may have been what turned it into a murder and (quaintly, to our eyes) the truly shocking introduction of the bare-breasted Page Three girl. 

It may be our knowledge that The Sun went on to even greater successes and failures, quickly matched by its competitors (including the Mirror), and our acceptance that tabloids do have a place in the journalistic spectrum, that make it difficult to see the newspaper's ethical decline as quite as dramatic and significance-laden as the play wants us to, or the play's Lamb as quite so damned and despairing. 

We are more likely to be chilled by the play's Murdoch hinting in a very late scene that his ambition is less to give the people what they want than to create a tool for making them want what he wants them to want. 

Director Rupert Goold has fun with the play's happier half, letting his characters literally dance with delight at each new outrageous violation of journalistic tradition.  But directorial invention and theatrical energy drop in the gloomier Second Act, with too many meaningful pauses and thoughtful silences.

Bertie Carvel plays Murdoch as the genial charmer he may have been in his younger days, leaving the audience slightly disoriented by the unfamiliar sensation of liking him – a trick the director helps along by making the other newspaper magnates even bigger bastards. 

Richard Coyle captures the energy, enthusiasm and ability to inspire his staff that made Larry Lamb a pioneer and success in this new type of journalism, but is less convincing or able to inspire much sympathy as the doubt- and guilt-ridden Faust of the final scenes. 

I would never, ever suggest leaving any play in the interval. But all of Ink's pleasures lie in the first half.

Gerald Berkowitz

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