‘Great Britain’ is currently playing at the National Theatre in London, and has just announced a West End run to follow. A new piece written by Richard Bean (author of ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’), the play is not strictly factual but definitely draws on recent events. It depicts a web of corruption linking the police, the government and the press. Journalists raid the bins of celebrities, expose MP’s expense claims and have the power to decide the next Prime Minister through their portrayal of the candidates.
Billie Piper plays Paige Britain, an ambitious and ruthless journalist at tabloid newspaper, ‘The Free Press’, for whom ethics are not high on a list of concerns. Any source of sadness – anorexia, affairs, even death – is for her a fabulous chance for a headline, complete with alliteration, or at least some strong rhyming.
The play is undeniably funny – a fast, laugh-a-minute satire. This is often delivered by the police commissioner (Aaron Neil), who announces on television that “a clue is the one thing [he’s] not got”. However, Paige Britain (Piper) also delivers a few laughs.
The production features a strong cast, including Robert Glenister as the perpetually swearing editor and Kiruna Stamell as a solicitor and one of the few people standing up to the debauchery all around. Yet it is Piper who stands out in particular, full of energy and utterly believable. It is she who makes this rather long play fly by.
However, Great Britain’s flaw is that it’s all a little too obvious. Screens display headlines from the newspaper ‘The Guardener’ and the main scandal of the play centres around the phone-hacking of twins who are missing. This refers quite transparently to the case of Millie Dowler, a girl who went missing and whose phone was hacked by News of the World. Similarly, Wilson Tikkel (Glenister) is an obvious caricature of Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor who, like the character, was employed as Director of Communications by the Prime Minister despite the PM’s knowledge of his involvement in phone hacking.
Little effort is put towards subtlety here. The narrative does not seem to be much more than a staged version of real events, thinly veiled by the odd name change, and yet lacking in any social commentary on the scandal and corruption it is depicting. Great Britain could have gone much further, but instead it tells the audience nothing we didn’t already know on entering the theatre and comes off as relatively unoriginal.
The one thought-provoking moment in the play is Piper’s final speech in which she addresses the audience, speculating about how different the situation might have been if the phone-hacking had resulted in finding the twins. It is a premiss with a lot of promise, but it falls short of its potential here. Billie Piper was no doubt the saving grace; however, I was disappointed that it needed to be saved.
Great Britain plays at the National Theatre until 23rd August. The production will move to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 10th September.