Great Britain, written by Richard Bean; produced by the National Theatre: seen July 8, 2014
With a plot that is truly ripped from the headlines, Great Britain has a lot of potential. Announced the day after the phone hacking trial ended, the piece is a satirical look at the state of tabloid news and journalism.
Written by Richard Bean, the story follows Paige Britain (Billie Piper), a fictional new editor at The Free Press, in an obvious commentary on both News of the World as well as its spiritual successor The Sun with its reference to the page 3 girl. After a short few scenes that sets up what it is like to work for such an organization, with proficient use of the word ‘cunt’ and threats of placing pineapples in uncomfortable places if the stories aren’t viable, the plot takes off. Britain, through a lucky set of coincidences, finds out how to access the default voicemail settings for almost all of the carriers out there (anti-hacking tip? be sure to set a password, and change said password somewhat regularly).
Hacking the phones of celebrities and royal personages, Britain hooks up with Assistant Commissioner Donald Doyle Davidson (Oliver Chris) during an investigation into the matter. This, then, leads into following the story of a pair of twin girls (in lieu of the Milly Dowler case) kidnapped – with the main suspect being the father. Needless to say, the hacking does not help anyone but the owner of The Free Press, Rupert Murdoch expy Paschal O’Leary (Dermot Crowley), and – at least at the beginning – Britain herself.
With jokes aplenty, the show ends up being a little too on-the-nose with its commentary of the scandal and the people involved. From an over-the-top Virginia Whit (Jo Dockery) being supposedly completely clueless as to what’s really going on (in reference to Rebekah Brooks being found not guilty) to a YouTube meme generating police commissioner Sully Kassam (Aaron Neil), the play is more caricatures than actual characters.
Piper, of course, shines in her portrayal of sexy Paige Britain, willing to do anything (and anyone) to get ahead. However, for the most part, the acting is over the top. An ongoing use of breaking of the fourth wall to give the audience the lowdown of what’s happening or explaining the reasoning comes across a bit like pandering. The only real commentary I felt the show actually makes, though, is near the end: it brings up the very good point that had the hacking resulted in saving lives rather than endangering them, the public may have ended up lauding the hackers instead.
Yes, there’s a lot of good comedy (“I’m going to make love to you for so long that in years to come, it will look like a gap in your CV” being my favorite line in the play), but it’s almost too comedic for the topic. In the end, maybe it’s just a bit … too soon.
Great Britain just doesn’t quite live up to its name.
Great Britain runs until August 23 at the National Theatre (and then will transfer to Theatre Royal Haymarket on September 10). For more information, visit the National Theatre’s website.