Once upon a time, The Sun was a failing newspaper. A bit of a joke amongst the IPC who owned it as well as the top-performing, The Mirror. The Sun was a dud. A paper no one read and no one want to be Editor of. Sadly, those days didn’t last as, in 1969, the then-young Australian tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, bought it, transformed it, and, well, let’s not focus on the rest here….
Now, in Ink, writer James Graham and director Rupert Goold have joined forces to create a rather fun, brash and exciting new play that tells the story of this first year of The Sun under Murdoch’s ownership. It’s an adrenalin ride and there’s plenty of jokes and glib one liners, but there’s also enough shade to balance out the light, with foreshadowing and ever-relevant questions on what it means to give the people what they want. And whether that is even something we should even pursue.
The play starts with two men who need each other – Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) needs an Editor, and Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) is a Sub-Editor of immense experience, but who just can’t catch a break at the Daily Mirror, any hopes of promotion to a title worthy of his talents blocked by the old white men who are rotting away in the positions of power in Fleet Street.
So the two men find what they need in each other and Larry takes the job no one else wants – Editor at The Sun. Only Murdoch sets him a target – to overtake the circulation of The Mirror within one year. It starts out as a flippant comment – after all, The Mirror was the most read paper in the country with a circulation of over four million – almost five times that of The Sun. But what starts out as a joke soon becomes an all-consuming target for both men as it both drives them on and starts to corrupt their morality.
Rupert Goold certainly brings gusto and flair to the piece. There’s plenty of energy with the stage transformed into a pyramid of power, with the various newsrooms and players competing to always be in the room at the top. We watch the victories and the defeats. As some win, so others must lose, and so as Larry and his team start to clamber their way to the top, so the Mirror newsroom and other Editors start to tumble to the bottom. There’s also a terrific physical sequence, in particular, which shows the labour-intensive but hugely inefficient printing process. It’s a great demonstration of the power of the Unions, another crucial player on Fleet Street, and it is a real highlight.
But at three hours, this play comes close to outstaying its welcome. In particular, the second half, which focuses on the increasing amorality/immorality as Larry pushes his paper into some dark places in his pursuit of being No. 1, does drag. It shouldn’t do, really, as this is the meat of the play, but we do labour over the reporting of the kidnap and murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy chairman, and the start of the Page 3 girls.
There’s also the question on how truthful these scenes feel. I don’t mean they are not true – these may well reflect facts, but they don’t feel truthful here. For example, we’re expected to believe that Larry Lamb felt greater anguish about asking a young woman to take off her top to boost circulation than his role and responsibility in the murder of a woman he knew. And then when you throw in the era we are talking about, with all its appalling misogyny, would a man as cutthroat as Larry really be so conflicted and wracked with guilt over Page 3? I just didn’t buy it.
Much will be made about how this is a play about Murdoch, but, in truth, he is not the main focus here. In fact, Bertie Carvel has more a cameo part here. Nevertheless, his Murdoch is excellent – complicated and contradictory. At times, unapologetic in his ambition; at other moments, almost lacking in self-awareness about what truly drives him.
In Carvel’s hands, Murdoch is a man whose unbridled lust for power is tightly coiled with his loathing of the Establishment, his push to modernise an increasingly antiquated industry, and his desire to crush the elites. This isn’t a devilish caricature. In fact, there are moments where, God forbid, you actually find yourself rooting for the man. (Don’t panic – fortunately those moments don’t last.) But it is an intriguingly nuanced depiction of the man we all (rightly) hate.
The focus here is very much on Richard Coyle’s Larry Lamb. A salt-of-the-earth Northerner. A man of the people, who finds himself veering further away from his own principles, and his father’s. It’s a terrific performance and one that does keep you emotionally engaged in the play. For, there is something rather sentimental about this production. Its rose-tinted nostalgic view of ‘the good old days’ for British tabloids is palpable. That may not be a sentiment I share, but this is an engaging and revealing show, nonetheless.
Almeida Theatre, London, to August 5, 2017
Tickets from £10.
All production images by Marc Brenner