REVIEW: Great Britain, Lyttleton Theatre ✭✭

Billie Piper in Greatr Britain
Billie Piper in the National Theatre’s production of Great Britain. Photo: Johan Persson

Great Britain
Lyttleton Theatre
August 4, 2014
2 Stars

Great Britain, now playing at the Lyttleton Theatre at the National, and shortly to transfer to the West End, is a many-tentacled satirical beast from the pen of Richard Bean. Directed by Sir Nicholas Hytner, it is a three hour ramble through the endless wake of the Leveson Inquiry and seeks to shine a comic light on the activities of Politicians, Police and the Press, (with the odd reference to that old comic stand-by, the Paedophile Priest) all the while raising questions about the other P in the room – the Public.

And like most rambles, it’s not that funny.

There is a lot to see and think about, but the path seems so well worn (from, for instance, all the real life will-we-or-won’t-we-regulate-the-Press clamouring, the Forsythe Saga-like court cases about phone hacking, the vigilante campaigns against former stars accused of lechery) that there is an ever present sense of familiarity, of same-old same-old, of flowers, rotting wood, and berries, ripe and unripe, the occasional hare darting along and, very rarely, a surprising bloom or sight that is unexpected, perfectly formed and almost breath-taking.

Oliver Chris is the surprise bloom in this cast – his performance is pitched exactly right. He has a finely honed comic skill and he makes Assistant Commissioner Donald Doyle Davidson that perfect combination of absurdity and dead-pan seriousness. And, indeed, it is his skill at this duality which highlights the short-comings in other performances.

Largely, this is down to directorial choices. The style of playing is not consistent – there are full throttle outrageous imitations of real life that have nothing to do with stylish comedy, but are rooted sternly in pantomime (Robert Glenister’s voracious, vicious and vile newspaper editor, Wilson Tikkel or Billie Piper’s ruthless, rutting, rapacious News Editor, Paige, a character for whom the phrase over-the-top could have been coined) or farce (Aaron Neil’s dry, dead-pan dolt of a Police Commissioner, completely unreal in every way but played straight for maximum laughs: “A Clue is the one thing I don’t have”) or dry-as-dust sitcoms (Rupert Vansittart’s Conservative PM, Ian Hallard’s itchy, dirty Jimmy The Bins or Joseph Wilkins’ betrayed Cricketer). Koruna Stamell is really the only one who follows Chris’ lead, and her turn as a smart, slick and surprisingly good lawyer is one of the real, unexpected joys of this particular ramble.

Because there is no coherent overall style, the audience is left uncertain what it is watching and why. It’s a pity, really, because there are so many good actors here – the cast is enormous – and marshalled in the one direction the results might have been very different.

Piper is great as the Cruella de Vil of newspaper land – but how much more interesting – and troubling – might Bean’s play have been if she was played with more vulnerability, with a certainty that what she was doing was in the greater good, rather than just for her own ambition? What if Glenister’s ghastly hack-in-Chief had been an old print warrior overcome by the rush of modern technology and the need to compete with the internet for stories, someone who felt trapped, forced into doing what he did?

Or what if every character was written and played in pantomime style or in dead-pan style? – the overall effect would have been instantly more interesting. And the result would have been inevitably funnier.

Instead, pretty much every comic style is thrown into the one pot and all jostle for attention in Bean’s bubbling stew of social issues. And the result is blander than it should be.

Tim Hatley’s design is excellent, evoking the notion of the busy newsroom as well as sundry other places, including the Ivy (rather humorously). It all looks splendid, really splendid.

Modern comic satires are few and far between, but the recent Charles III showed the possibilities the form offers. There everyone was in the same boat, approaching the text pretty much the same way. Bean’s effort is not in the league of Charles III but with some rewrites, more rehearsal and more structured direction, it could provide a real opportunity for the theatre to contribute to the debate about freedom of the press rather than just a ramble through a range of comic styles.

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