The acclaimed Great Britain is a play that has been on my list of ‘must-see’ shows for months now. The West End transfer was agreed and announced in lightning speed and, as a journalism graduate, the play’s themes grabbed my interest from the first mention. After trying and failing to get along to a performance at the National Theatre, Official Theatre came to my rescue with a ticket to its first night in the West End (many, many thank yous there) and I wasn’t disappointed.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Richard Bean’s satirical play follows sharp-minded journalist, Paige Britain (Lucy Punch), and her ‘Free Press’ colleagues as they struggle with newspaper circulation numbers, political relationships and the constant battle for fresh stories. After discovering how to hack celebrity voicemails, Paige uncovers a wealth of opportunity which will change the press forever.
You don’t have to be wide awake to keep up with the plot but you do need a fair knowledge of current affairs to get the most from this play. It is cleverly written around real events seen in the news which are exaggerated so carefully and extravagantly that you struggle to believe they could really happen. Paige’s final comment on the state of play stopped me in my tracks; it is unassuming but horribly thoughtful. I felt almost disgusted with having any connection to journalism; I agreed with it all. I don’t think I’ve ever had an epiphany at the theatre quite like it!
With a lot of sharp remarks and witty jokes, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud for much of the performance. Not all lines hit their mark; there are a few duds but this I felt was due to Bean attempting to please too many genres of audience. A gag about jagerbombs went down a storm with myself and a few other twenty-somethings in my row but received merely confused expressions from the rest of the theatre.
The casting is excellent despite a couple of post-transfer changes. Lucy Punch is good; she has the character right but I feel I have seen her in slightly better roles. It was her first show and she may grow into the part further but I can’t fault her performance – what’s not to like about a clever, scheming, beautiful, blonde journalist anyway, right? Robert Glenister is superb as the brash, foul-mouthed editor, Wilson Tikkel, but he plays this kind of role very well so I expected nothing less. Other standout performers are Kiruna Stamell as Wendy Klinkard, who portrays wit and smugness with ease, and Aaron Neil whose seamless comical representation of the haphazard Police Commissioner, Sully Kassam, kept the audience tickled throughout the evening.
The staging is simple but effective, cleverly using media to portray the plot’s events, heightening the comical value. Snippets of news channel reports and snapshots of humorous newspaper headlines decorate the cuts between scenes effortlessly and get more sniggers from the audience.
Despite the odd moments gauging a mixed response, the script was mostly spot on and was excellently crafted to highlight the issues of today’s journalistic and political landscapes. I can’t resist a show that will not only make me laugh but will also make me think and Great Britain hit this brief effortlessly. Richard Bean has not been afraid to take a few risks and they certainly paid off.