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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Theatre Royal Haymarket


  Ph: Brinkhoff Mo¬®genburg

This satire about the British press was an amazingly well-kept secret, being announced as a major National Theatre premiere just days before it opened there in June. The NT's artistic director Nicholas Hytner had been advised to keep schtum till then, to avoid any risk of the show influencing the high-profile Old Bailey trials of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. As former editors of the News of the World, they stood accused of having known about the phone hacking in which some NoW employees had engaged, illegally prying into celebrities' and others' private communications.
Scarcely had the verdicts been reached than Great Britain was raced on to stage, having been rehearsed by Hytner entirely undercover. Its topicality generated a buzz, with big-name actress Billie Piper starring as Paige Britain, a power-hungry, conniving editor at fictional rag The Free Press. She gets into bed, metaphorically and literally, with leading politicians and high-ranking police officers. 
The rollicking energy and broad strokes of playwright Richard Bean's comedy also felt enjoyably exhilarating at the NT, so the script's rough edges were easily forgiven. However, the night I saw Great Britain's West End transfer, it was woefully bombing. More than a handful of punters in the stalls, having barely laughed in the first half, left at the interval. The problem isn't really that the satire's moment has passed. The recasting of Paige is the main stumbling block. Compared to Piper's assured, icy yet impish performance, Lucy Punch seems a damp squib. Her asides to the audience never quite create a sense of edgy, seductive complicity. She sounds as if she is vocally straining to project across the Haymarket's footlights. In her tight skirt and high heels, she looks as if she's merely going through the motions, perched on office chairs and designer sofas, twining and untwining her long legs. 
Two or three other cast members, as cameos, deliver their dialogue as if on automatic pilot or rattling off a pat vaudeville routine. Meanwhile, the textual edits instituted should have excised the script's baggy patches, yet the subplots actually feel jerkier now.
That said, this is a state-of-the-nation play that enjoyably sends up the brashness of tabloid newspapers with an equivalent ballsiness of its own. Bean's script is peppered with terrifically funny lines, even as he carefully ensures no real-life public figure completely tallies with any onstage character. (A second, far more innocent Free Press editor looks more like Brooks than Paige does). 
Hytner's staging is snazzed up with whirling projected headlines and hilarious mashup videos. Robert Glenister is a surprisingly likable ball of energy as a stupendously coarse chief editor. And the Metropolitan Police's farcically incompetent Commissioner is played wonderfully deadpan by Aaron Neil as he announces, “A clue is the one thing I've not got.”
Kate Bassett is a theatre critic for The Times of London, writes for and is an associate professor at the University of Reading.


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