Moments into Ink, James Graham’s bracing play about tabloid journalism, men talk about the five "W"s of telling a story – who, what, when, where and why. This bang-up Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Friedman Theatre deserves a sixth W: wow.
Set a half-century ago in London, this dramatized slice of history is set in motion when a young Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) buys the failing paper The Sun in order to “disrupt” the British press. Murdoch enlists editor Larry Lamb (Johnny Lee Miller) to put out a paper that will captivate the masses and shock and awe the competition, including the top-selling Mirror, in a year’s time.
That’s going to take a major makeover – or makeunder, as it shrinks from broadsheet to tabloid and stories get sketchier – to pull off. “There’ll be a lot of blood,” Lamb advises. “God I hope so,” Murdoch replies. The intriguing presence of Murdoch, faint echoes of The Front Page, a battle with David-and-Goliath dimensions, and the tension of a ticking clock entice us to buckle up and enjoy the ride.
All the more so thanks to director Rupert Goold (King Charles III, Enron), whose staging boasts style, theatricality and smarts as the action unfolds amid a mountain of stacked steel office desks. (Scenic designer Bunny Christie also did the vintage suits and minis.) Goold turns Lamb’s recruitment of his small band of editors, writers and photographers into a highly entertaining and cheeky musical interlude. Equally amusing are brainstorming meetings as the Sun team concocts story and layout ideas. That means articles about Royals, television, boxing, Knickers Week and Pussy Week, as in how to talk with your cat. The burning question: How low will The Sun sink?
The answer comes in the darker second act, as the one-year deadline looms and Lamb’s ethics and morals erode. He exploits the kidnapping of the wife of a company executive and baits readers with nudity. The transformation of Lamb into a wolf is complete.
The last play of the Broadway season to officially open, Ink boasts some of the best performances, beginning with its two stars. Speaking with an accent that sounds less Australian and more Nicolas-Cage-nasal a la Peggy Sue Got Married, Carvel commands as he embodies Murdoch as a slightly slithery wheeler-dealer with pliable principles. In the larger and even meatier role of Lamb, Miller hits all the right notes as a man totally turned on by reinventing The Sun and getting back at The Mirror for shortchanging his career.
Standouts in the terrific ensemble include David Wilson Barnes as a news editor, Bill Buell as a sports writer, Tara Summers as the head of the women’s page, Andrew Durand as a quirky photographer, and Rana Roy as a young woman who becomes the first (but not the last) to pose topless for a game-changing Page 3 picture. Neil Austin’s dynamic lighting, Adam Cork’s groovy music and sound design, and Jon Driscoll’s projections seen on a curved wall also merit kudos.
In the age of digital publishing, Ink offers an exhilarating look back at a print heyday and, in a sly conclusion, a peek at what was to come, as Murdoch tells Lamb of his plans in America. “I’m thinking about buying a TV network over there.” But that’s another story – and another five "W"s.