The Sun, for better or worse, has been at the heart of tabloid journalism for longer than most of us will be able to remember, entertaining and aggravating its readership with sensational and insensitive stories. It has long demanded depiction in fiction, and it is no surprise that this has attracted the attention of James Graham, author of such highly acclaimed plays as The Vote and This House, and the superb drama Coalition, starring Bertie Carvel. Carvel appears in Graham’s new play, Ink, as Australian mega-tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the world’s most infamous newspaper magnate. Yet Murdoch is just the catalyst for this story, which illustrates how a nothingy newspaper became a whopping success through brashness and exceptional PR.
The play begins in 1969, with Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) buying the ailing Sun newspaper, a pitiful off-shoot of the Daily Mirror that was lucky to draw a couple of hundred thousand readers a day. He chooses Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle), a shrewd and media-savvy sub-editor at the Mirror, to run the paper, and challenges him to outsell Lamb’s old paper within a year. This fantastically difficult task is heightened by a skeleton staff, who struggle for original ideas, and a clause in the contract of sale which requires an issue to be published only weeks after purchase. Yet Lamb’s rag-tag team defy expectations, and sales steadily grow. Yet to overtake the Mirror, they must capture the public’s imagination, and Lamb is willing to take any step necessary to show up his former employers.
Carvel and Coyle are on tremendous form. The former’s prematurely wizened Murdoch, face carved into a perpetually disgusted grimace, both delights and appals. In turn, he expertly captures the paradox of a man with an insatiable appetite for power and influence, but is repulsed by the public eye. Coyle’s Lamb takes centre stage, and it is a very convincing and charismatic turn. His performance speaks of one with a sincere desire to do good, which is corrupted by an unrelenting desire to take revenge on the newspaper which spurned him. The play also benefits from a range of fantastic supporting performances, not least Sophie Stanton’s Mrs Hopkirk, the perceptive, no-nonsense editor of the ‘Women’s Pages’, and Tim Steed’s meticulous Bernard Shrimsley, whose immaculate comic timing compelled an almost Pavlovian reaction to his dialogue.
Ink is at times extremely funny. The team’s examination about what people really like – including free stuff, the weather on page two, and sex, is absolutely delightful, whilst Carvel and Coyle’s beautifully deadpan ‘pants in a tin’ argument had me in hysterics. Graham’s script is not only very witty, but weaved together with some wonderful one-liners. Yet for all its admirable qualities, Ink felt more like a series of vignettes than a single solid, full-blooded narrative. It is fairly light on character development – notably Murdoch’s squeamishness at some of the newspaper’s more salacious features, Lamb’s struggle between his political beliefs and his zealous devotion to his task, are consigned to individual scenes and then often forgotten.
Indeed, in its examination of The Sun’s fascinating history, I think that Ink spreads itself a little too thin. We are treated to discussions about the nature of storytelling, depictions of the employee/employer dynamic, the insensitive coverage of a sensational kidnapping, and the rise of the Page 3 girl. Over time, I found myself craving greater insight into how the heady, exhausting and morality-atrophying life at The Sun impacted on the lives of its journalists, editor and owner. In this respect Lamb’s interactions with former boss Hugh Cudlipp (the excellent David Schofield) are a highlight, as are appearances by The Sun’s model Stephanie Rahn (Pearl Chanda), whose humanity shines forth in a powerful penultimate scene. Nevertheless, these interludes too often serve as exposition into the history of The Sun and occasionally Murdoch himself, culminating in a finale replete with historical in-jokes. Ultimately, this left me feeling slightly unsatisfied, albeit entertained and undoubtedly edified.
Though the audience’s mileage may vary with regards to the narrative, it is hard to comprehend a detractor of Bunny Christie’s awe-inspiring set design. A cathedralic collection of chairs, tables and filing cabinets are framed by giant televisions that loom menacingly over the stage, depicting a world characterised by flamboyance, chaos and a splash of grime. Coupled with Adam Cork’s soundscapes, which both fizz with excitement and lend a brooding note, Ink is rendered an undeniable spectacle.
Ink is an entertaining and enlightening depiction of how Murdoch’s purchase of The Sun newspaper, coupled with installing Larry Lamb as editor, led to it becoming the paper it is today. The play’s admirable qualities – an excellent cast led by Richard Coyle and Bertie Carvel, a keen wit and immaculate set design – were, for me, undermined by a narrative which focuses on too many facets of The Sun’s history, at the expense of the human drama. Nevertheless, I think opinions will justifiably vary between audience members – while everyone should enjoy it, I am sure that many people who are more discerning than I am will find it spectacular.