Review: Ink, by James Graham
James Graham’s latest outing – on the birth of the Sun newspaper and the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire – is guaranteed to win headlines, writes John Ashmore
"It’s true, that’s what makes it a good fucking story,” declares Bertie Carvel’s Rupert Murdoch at the opening of Ink.
Much the same could be said of the latest outing from the much-fêted and extremely prolific James Graham.
After dealing with frontline politics in This House and Coalition, Graham turns his gaze on the transformation of the Sun from a sinking broadsheet into the tabloid bedrock of the Murdoch media empire.
We begin with Murdoch poaching editor Larry Lamb from the Mail, before acquiring his new title from the rather complacent Mirror group – at the time riding high with close to 5m readers.
The play is almost as much about the decline of the Mirror as the rise of the Sun and David Schofield excels as the paper’s legendary editor Hugh Cudlipp, a grand figure left behind by the march of history.
Calvert, meanwhile, has real presence as a stooping, sweary and at times sinister Murdoch.
But Graham resists turning the Australian into the bogeyman of News International’s fiercest critics.
This Murdoch is a hard-nosed, carnivorous businessman, but also a true populist bent on “disrupting” the fusty traditions of the British establishment.
Nor is Murdoch some kind of puppetmaster – the new tabloid is very much spearheaded by gruff northern Fleet St man Lamb, ably portrayed by Richard Coyle.
A zippy, very funny script is helped along with nicely understated choreography and deft, inventive staging, particularly one set-piece about the nuts and bolts of actually printing the paper.
The boxes, scattered papers, booze and fags lend a pleasing authenticity to the world of early 70s Fleet St, with Lamb managing to look simultaneously energetic and bedraggled.
To borrow a footballing cliché, this is very much a play of two halves. The much longer first romps along, packed with sharp one-liners, such as Murdoch asking Lamb what his coal miner dad reads. “Nothing, “replies the editor, “He’s dead.”
Journalists may chuckle knowingly at conversations about the angle of italics or discovering the new paper only has three headline-sized letter Es (“let’s hope nothing happens to the fucking Bee Gees!”)
The hilarious scene in which the editorial staff get together to decide what goes in the paper – from boxing to bingo, to the euphemistically titled ‘Love’ – is among the play’s highlights, capturing the excitement behind putting together something genuinely groundbreaking.
Things get altogether darker in the second, though, with Murdoch and Lamb forced to confront the power of their new creation when the wife of Murdoch’s deputy is kidnapped.
This is when we see a new side to Lamb, the affable enthusiast of the first half replaced with an altogether more cynical figure, prepared to push his paper in a dangerous direction.
It’s to his credit that Graham largely resists getting too drawn into a preachy thesis on press ethics, although one set piece between Lamb and Cudlipp gets perilously close.
Critics of the Murdoch empire may also find the portrayal of the tycoon overly sympathetic, but a playwright of Graham’s skill was never going to present us a cartoonish monster.
Equally his description of the revamped paper as part of “the fight for progress” might be stretching things a touch.
But these are minor quibbles in a thoroughly entertaining piece which, like the best tabloid, titillates, provokes and gets to the heart of things in equal measure.