One of the early scenes of James Graham's Fleet Street-set play Ink sees Bertie Carvel's Rupert Murdoch at a meeting to officially sign the deal that will put The Sun newspaper in his ownership. It's 1969 and the men in suits shake hands and ask after each other's wives who naturally 'send their love'. Murdoch waits quietly while this goes on then asks if the foreplay is over and if they can now get on with the fucking.
It is a symbol of his forthright, no nonsense style that was to disrupt Fleet Street and change the British newspaper industry. It also sort of sums up the two halves of the play. The first half has the fun, laughs and sharp wit as it follows Murdoch's chosen editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) putting together the editorial team and the content for the first issue under new ownership. The second half gets more serious and looks at the consequences of the direction in which he has taken the paper.
Lamb is tasked with making The Sun 'fun' and boosting its flagging circulation, pushing it ahead of The Mirror which is outselling its rival quite considerably.
What Murdoch gives Lamb is permission to disrupt the accepted norm; just because newspapers have never done something, doesn't mean they shouldn't. Why give readers what you think they want when you can give them what they actually do want. Lamb rises to the challenge and while the strategy behind his approach seems in some ways so obvious now, it was radical at the time. However, there are also lines he is given that could apply to the media now.
It's a long time since I've been immediately impressed with a stage set and Ink's is impressive. There is a huge pile of desks and filing cabinets which create cubby-holes doubling as office space and upturned cabinets and draws create steps to upper levels. There are also an impressive number of cigarettes smoked as befits an office in the 1970s. The frenetic pace, activity and noise of a daily newspaper office is recreated as the cast sweep pieces of furniture and props on and off the stage with a dance-like pace and routine.
Bertie Carvel's Murdoch is as crisp as his tailoring; he settles into a sharp and intelligent performance that gives the newspaper tycoon a formidable air and presence. However, it is Lamb who is the linchpin of the piece - this is really his story - and Richard Coyle's performance gives just enough pause for moral contemplation.
Ink is a feisty play, with a first half particularly full of laughs, and yet it doesn't take sides leaving you to mull over the consequences of the actions. It is roughly three hours including an interval and I'm giving it five stars. It's at the Almeida Theatre until 5 August.
I'm a bit of a fan of James Graham's plays:
And Bertie was rather great in Bakkhai, Almeida Theatre