Review – Great Britain – National Theater

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Given the National’s track record of reviving the dullest chestnuts on God’s green earth, you can’t imagine my surprise when I heard they were mounting an original comedy – Great Britain. And the way things have been going with me, hey, a comedy is what is called for, and with just a few rumors of it being an actually funny show, I ponied up £28 each for seats (these were the cheapest I could find) and hurried off to the quickest show I could fit in my calendar.

A quick plot summary: Paige Britain (Billie Piper) is a news editor at a tabloid that bears a shocking resemblance to News of the World, so much so that it’s eventually closed down due to a history of its management paying people to hack into the voicemail of various people living and dead. To make this more clearly a work of fiction, we have, well, the Billie Piper character, and also changes in the critical story (murdered twin girls) that tips public opinion against the paper’s activities.

Otherwise, though, it’s really a comic look at the whole trashy episode of extremely recent British history, with plenty of characters you can recognize (oh look, it’s Rebekah Brooks! It’s Rupert Murdoch being questioned by Parliament – only no cream pies) but all sorts of purely imaginary detail (such as the sexy cop who’s literally in bed with the papers) and flights of fancy (the fake YouTube spoofs of the gay Chief of London police are a riot, as is his entire plot line and his “straight out of George W Bush’s mouth” dialogue).

But Great Britain rides an edge that I found uncomfortable. A lot of people in this play kill themselves because of the pressure that’s put on them by the tabloids, and this element is one that I have found horrifying as it has played out in the real world. Listening to Paige say that as far as she’s concerned, she did nothing wrong (in regards to these deaths), well … I was hearing a bit of John Gabriel Borkman, but I was wondering if what I was hearing was also Richard Bean’s take on how either the newspapers or the British public sees these events. To me they are truly horrifying, but I don’t see this play tackling that problem head on. It also brought up the issues of tabloids collaborating with cops and politicians, but it didn’t seem to really address just how cozy they are as, well, something that is wrong. But then, these relationships are purely exaggerations made by Bean to make a better play – or are they? In the world depicted in this play, the police work with the tabloids to try to make themselves look better, and the papers tell politicians that they’ll make sure they’re elected if they can get some favors done for them, which seems pretty damned close to reality based on what I’ve read. Is this really how things are done? Or am I just so American that I can’t tell that everybody already knows this and nobody cares?

At any rate, while I did find this a very fast moving show (and there were some laughs), overall it had enough about it that depressed me about the world and the country I live in that I didn’t exactly walk out with a spring in my step. Excellent performances all around, though, and plenty of surprises, so I think this is going to be a popular show and good on the National for laying off the dusty old crap for something that actually addresses the society we live in in a way that theater can do more quickly and more daringly than either TV or the movies.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 9th, 2014. It continues at the National Theater until August 23rd, after which time it will be transferring to the Theater Royal Haymarket. The consumption of cornettos during performances of this play is not advised by this author.)

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