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Review of Great Britain

by Taylor Green

Richard Bean’s 2015 satirical play Great Britain takes us back to the Fleet Street of the tabloids of ten to fifteen years ago, just before various “dark arts” were exposed, and when mobile phones were still a novelty. In those days publicists arranged who was and who was not in the papers, celebrity bins were rummaged, and personal details were blagged from banks. The tabloids had corrupt relationships with both the police and politicians. They were all in it together.

And into this sordid mix comes along the hacking of voicemails. “This is fucking Eldorado,” exclaims one delighted insider in the play, as the lucrative method of gaining private information is discovered. The play shows the comedy and tragedies of what happens next: excitement, scoops and prizes, law suits, police investigations, criminal prosecutions, and deaths.

This was a cracking production from director Pauline Armour.  The fast pace was maintained throughout. And it was very funny:  not only the knowing titters from those in the audience who spotted allusions and role models, but frequent roaring belly laughs.  And there were also strong poignant parts: the misery and illness of those non-celebrities caught up in the hacking scam.

Bethan Boxall gave another perfect BLT performance here as the cynical Paige Britain, whose ambitious pursuits and helpful asides join the story together.  She showed how a rookie reporter becomes a manipulative hack, a hardened editor and, at the end, an international superstar, and she was convincing as each.

The dynamics of the crowded “Free Press” newspaper office were excellent. Everyone in the ensemble in the news room worked well to convey the busy newsroom culture where badder and badder things were happening and nobody cared enough to stop it.

Keith Dunn and James Mercer deftly set the laddish and bantering tone, Bruce Wallace was spot-on as the paper’s business manager, and Dave Oatley and Richard Gissing as the paper’s editor and proprietor respectively showed why the paper (and journalism) was in the state it was. Piers Newman was enjoyable as the “fake sheikh” type undercover reporter with comic entries and departures. And Tom Dignum’s bopping “How big’s your telly?” columnist also warrants a deserved shout out.

Over at Scotland Yard, Matt Platt was excruciatingly funny as the hopeless Police Commissioner. His deadpan lines were delivered superbly, and his misconceived exercise with a taser gun was hilarious. I didn’t think many in the audience were going to stop laughing. Matt Platt was ably complemented by Rob Widdicombe as the charismatic PR and Howie Ripley as the urbane graduate staff officer.

Elsewhere, Andre James was a dead ringer for the Blair-Cameron sort of prime minister we used to have, Roxana Graves was great as the loathsome Max Clifford-style publicist, as was Jan Greenhough as her latest fun elderly lady. And in their multiple roles Maxine Edwards, Karen O’Neill, Fiona Cullen, Max Pritchett and Alison Green were all top-notch.  There was not a weak link.

Special mention should be made for those who had to do the tragic scenes. The hospital scene with Heather Phelps as the phone-hacked model, accusing her parents (Roxana Graves and Keith Dunn) and friend (Naomi Cunningham) was well done.  And Matt Platt, switching to a very different role to the pathetic copper, was harrowing as the father falsely convicted of murder on the basis of hacked evidence. To get the balance of such scenes right in a play like this must have been difficult, and they were impressive.

The animation, video and photography were outstanding, and a lot of credit must go to Dave Jones, Anton Armour and Max Pritchett for making sure the footage and headlines were as funny as the stage show.

Overall, this production of the satire could hardly have been better, or more memorable for those lucky enough to see it. We got to see how people used, and suffered from, the tabloid excesses and how so many got carried away with the buying and selling for profit of private, often intimate, information to be used for public exposure. As Paige Britain says, this is what they did: they went out and they destroyed people’s lives.