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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

James Graham’s Ink about the re-founding of the Sun in 1969, features Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch challenging Richard Coyle’s editor Larry Lamb. Almeida director Rupert Goold hurls the pace through Bunnie Christie’s superb slag heap of desks apexed upstage, to a thwunk of sound intermissions by composer Adam Cork, to the bulb-flicker of Neil Austin’s sometimes garish, noirish lighting. Till August 5th.


In John Hodge’s Collaborators Stalin tells writer Bulgakov: ‘It’s man versus monster, Mikhail. And the monster always wins.’ The genius of James Graham’s Ink about the re-founding of the Sun in 1969, is that monster Rupert Murdoch, no monster here, hires editor Larry Lamb to monster himself through fear of failing: the true monster is something neither wished nor expected to create. ’I want to tell you a story.. the best stories are true’ Bertie Carvel’s slow-simmer Murdoch challenges Lamb at the outset. ’What makes a good story? Go.’


Almeida director Rupert Goold hurls the pace forward like a slipping deadline, and it’s impossible not to reach for just such slipshod tabloid similes. This production from Bunnie Christie’s superb slag heap of desks apexed upstage, to that overfamiliar, here superbly apposite thwunk of sound intermissions by composer Adam Cork like falling presses, drives stage business to the bulb-flicker of Neil Austin’s sometimes garish, noirish lighting.


Such intensely physical realisations care of a quick-change trapdoor pistoning of press machinery culminates in a hammer blow of stone-setters as an apprentice is shown physical intricacies shrouded in steam as will as guild-like union demarcations. But most of all when editor Lamb played with dour headlong intensity by Richard Coyle, seizes the ‘stone’ hammer himself when all refuse to handle the most shocking of all scoops to literally get hands and shirt filthy. You can almost see unions crushed and the shape of Wapping rise from the ink-splattering stone; this from a man who defended unions to Murdoch. At least once Lamb gets real blood out of that stone.


Slighted colonial Murdoch, buying the sunset Sun from IPC Mirror wants not only to win but in part revenge himself on the establishment, and picks Lamb not just because this working-class editor’s been passed over by snobs, but because he feels Lamb’s as hungry as himself. Both outsiders with the establishment they pit themselves uneasily against slammed nostrums like circulation targets. Challenged late on by Lamb Murdoch never explains his own drivers beyond his competitive ferocity: it’s not money or even exposure. Carvel’s glowering, occasionally human portrayal allow us to draw inferences, not impose them.


Graham and Goold exhilarate this rags-to-chip-paper narrative, so we’re almost tempted to cheer its up-beat tempo of recruiting disaffected or soon-to-be redundant hacks over Fleet Street as Lamb assembles his often motley crew. There’s Justin Salinger’s union-minded politico journalist Brian McConnell, the nearest Lamb’s Coyle has to an internal sparring partner, the one who challenges him tersely on his own past terms. It’s a pity we don’t see more of the nascent swing to the right, though we do get a whiff of political un-coupling that precedes it.


There’s his old boss the Mirror’s Hugh Cudlipp who having failed to promote Lamb, now wants him back and in a slippery way tries to act as his other conscience: newspapers’ moral duty to deliver a smeared Reith lecture informing with mild entertainment. David Scholfield’s autumnal Scot plays Cudlipp like a father usurped. But it’s he who challenges Lamb to overtake the Mirror’s circulation in a year. Combined with Murdoch’s commercial challenge Lamb’s already driven up against the two authorities he owes anything to, but must kill; these imperatives drive the whole play.


Tony Turner’s sports editor Frank Nicklin similarly brings the rancid warm beer of a Fleet Street fast vanishing. Tim Steed though deputy editor is the greatest coup: we witness the bending of a sensibility whose tailored look of layouts gets bullied into distortion; but he admits to translating lesser-known Zola novels.


This arises from Lamb’s key recognition: what team members really want is what people want. Zola mightn’t cut it but every other obsession does. This includes Graham’s subtle unsubtlety on women’s roles. Sophie Stanton in her main role as Joyce Hopkirk gets woman’s page editor. There’s Rachel Caffrey’s sassiness in contrasting garb. Then there’s Pearl Chanda’s slowly challenging Stephanie Rahn. It’s really Kahn and she’s playing in Tamburlaine though prefers comedy. The un-feminist Joyce says Kahn’s not sexy; there’s a racist undertone since Joyce needles ‘you are much lighter than the name suggests’. ‘It’s attached to me’ Kahn/Rahn protests but has to discard this and much else.


Graham not only explores what liberating womens’ desires means but in equal measure shows how the nascent paper feed this as exploitation. Even Murdoch can’t take the Knickers week giveaway, his wife doesn’t like it. You can sense collision but again we’re given something far more engrossing than hubris, which it isn’t.


The pacily funny first act culminates in dance-offs, a ‘Gimme that thing’ routine and what the second part gifts us is consequences, for the Mirror, and the Sun’s team when Goeffery Freshwater’s Sir Alick crumbles visibly: his wife Muriel’s kidnapped in place of Anna Murdoch. Lamb’s response despite Murdoch is as Murdoch’s creature, out-Murdoching him with Cudlipp’s challenge also ringing out.


Again Graham shows Lamb having to cap this with his coup de foudre Page 3. Rahn steps in then sees consequences spiral. The scene and volte-face with Chandra, Carvel and Coyle shudders round despair and bottled anger. None of them are happy with Page 3, but there’s another outcome. And naked genies out of bottles can’t return.


It’s tempting to say with the Almeida recently that everything it touches turns on Goold. Most of all here, it’s Graham’s persuading us of a classic peripeteia: combustion from challenging a cornered man with everything to lose; and the irony of the most ruthless media operator in living memory given a desperate, humbling masterclass. In their friction it’s not only the Sun that bonfires every liberal vanity, but our naked selves.