The frighteningly talented young playwright James Graham seems to be engaged in a competition with himself to see how many acclaimed pieces of drama he can have running at any one time. His breakthrough play, This House, was produced in the West End last year to enormous acclaim and is about to tour, and he is about to have a play about ‘the coughing major’ and his unsuccessful attempt to win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire produced in Chichester later in the year. Before that comes Ink, a spiritual sequel of sorts to This House. Replacing politics with tabloid journalism, Graham has again come up with an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of drama, although it perhaps lacks the sheen of brilliance that his earlier work possessed so amply.
If you’ve ever read The Sun, you’ll have an idea of what to expect from it; cheerfully irreverent news and gossip aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator. Graham focuses mainly on two characters, the first editor of the paper, Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle), and his proprietor, the legendary Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel). Lamb, a tabloid man to his fingertips, is shown to be bold, pragmatic and daring in his desire to revive a failing paper and transform its fortunes. What his boss longs for is something altogether more complex and intangible.
This conflict powers the play, but Rupert Goold’s typically dynamic and cinematic production makes it an engaging (if slightly overlong) three hours, during which a near-dizzying number of scenes and characters (played by actors in a variety of roles, cleverly differentiated) move forwards. The first half, dealing with the foundation of the paper and the rivalry with the Mirror, is beautifully staged, although it isn’t quite as funny as it ought to be. In the second, a grim true-life murder makes matters altogether less convivial, and the only real misstep in Graham’s writing comes in the creation of the Page 3 section, which is portrayed as scarcely less miserable. One feels a determinedly modern sensibility at work.
Most of the attention and plaudits will deservedly be going to Carvel, who is mesmerising as Murdoch. With a slightly hunched air, a mixture of charisma and aggression and the constant sense of a man on the move, hungry for opportunity and action, this is yet another fantastically transformative performance from an actor who is never less anything other than chameleonic. Yet Coyle, who is actually on stage more and has the pivotal role, is similarly excellent, especially when it comes to the increasingly convoluted explanations for Lamb’s notable facial scar. A fine supporting cast all do excellent work, and Adam Cork’s propulsive sound design and score and Bunny Christie’s surreal set – the newspaper office of Borges, perhaps – are a fitting counterpoint.
Ink is not a perfect play, and perhaps in years to come it might undergo some small revisions. Yet it is a very good one, and confirms Graham as a young man in something of a hurry to establish himself in the grand tradition of Stoppard, Hare and Rattigan as an intelligent mainstream playwright writing drama that people might actually want to go and see, and enjoy. He and his collaborators have succeeded admirably.
Ink at the Almeida Theatre until 5th August 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website. Production images by Marc Brenner.