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Ink at the Almeida Theatre, London – review round-up

Bertie Carvel in Ink at the Almeida, one of Wescombe's favourite productions Bertie Carvel and Geoffrey Freshwater in Ink at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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James Graham is having a busy 2017. His 2012 smash-hit This House finished its long-overdue West End run in February, his new comedy Labour of Love – starring Martin Freeman and Sarah Lancashire – opens at the Noel Coward in September, and in November, his re-imagination of Charles Ingram’s fraudulent Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? victory, Quiz, plays at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Before that, though, Graham’s sprawling account of Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Sun newspaper, the highly anticipated Ink, runs at the Almeida all summer, in a production starring Bertie Carvel as a young Murdoch and Richard Coyle as his first editor Larry Lamb, with Almeida helmsman Rupert Goold directing.

Charting the newspaper’s first year under Murdoch’s ownership, from its relaunch as a red-top tabloid, to the inauguration of Page Three, via a protracted rivalry with Hugh Cudlipp’s Mirror, Graham’s play dives back half a century to embroil itself in the hectic heyday of Fleet Street.

But will this story of depraved hacks desperate for a story impress a bunch of depraved hacks desperate for a story? Will Graham once again earn headlines for all the right reasons on his Almeida debut? Does Ink find favour in today’s culture columns or will it be unceremoniously smeared by the critics?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Ink – A damn good story

Bertie Carvel, Geoffrey Freshwater and Richard Coyle

This House, with its half-fictionalised story of parliamentary whips during Labour’s shaky seventies government, had its praises sung to the rafters, garnering five-star reviews galore. Has Graham pulled off a similar feat with Ink?

“Ink is something of a stylistic sequel,” acknowledges Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), “being a fast-paced, incident-heavy depiction of recent-ish history revolving around awkward men with ill-fitting suits, strong accents and mortal rivalries shaping the future of this country in the 1960s and 1970s, similarly livened up with singing interludes and fun factoids.”

“It’s a sprawling real-life tale of competing egos, competing morals and competing ideas of Britain and of the press,” summarises Luke Jones (TheatreCat, ★★★★★), while Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★) confirms that it “catches some of the cartwheeling iconoclasm of life on a tabloid newspaper”.

“Graham is so good at this kind of thing, mining recent political and social history to create compelling theatre,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “The play lovingly recreates a world clouded in cigarette smoke and fuelled by booze but also with codes, rules and principles, that Murdoch would be instrumental in sweeping away.”

“What makes this such a good and gripping piece of theatre is that it doesn’t preach us sermons about press ethics but leaves us to draw our own conclusions from the known facts,” asserts Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “It strikes me as a first-rate play about newspapers in the honourable tradition of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page.”

“The most eye-catching fascination of this interweaving of fact and fiction, though, lies in its daring to put the most powerful media player on the planet under the spotlight – and show him when he was just starting out,” contends Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★). “Once again finding a play for today in what looked like yesterday’s news, Graham has surely penned a super, soaraway smash.”

And most agree. For Ann Treneman (The Times, ★★★★), Ink is a “broncobuster of a play”, for Demetrios Matheou (Hollywood Reporter), “it’s a sharply written, vibrantly theatrical, boisterously performed piece of work”, and for Fergus Morgan (Exeunt), it’s “gripping stuff, suffused with a resounding historical resonance”.

It’s “stingingly astute” and “a shrewd and absorbing look at journalistic ethics” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), and it “proves that it’s entirely possible to simultaneously inform, educate and entertain”, according to Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★).

There are less enthusiastic voices. Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★★) opines that Graham takes too many unneeded diversions with the play, “sucking out its dramatic life”, Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★) reckoning similarly that extraneous sequences make Ink feel “padded”, and Connor Campbell (The Upcoming, ★★★) is frustrated that is “fails to engage with The Sun’s toxic political legacy”.

But the majority of critics think Graham has done it again. As Cavendish observes: “Boy does the blazingly talented James Graham have an eye for a good story.”

Ink – A bygone age

Richard Coyle

Goold’s reign at the Almeida has been a phenomenally successful one in recent years, with hits like 1984, King Charles III, Oresteia, and Hamlet (spot the Icke-shaped recurring factor) all earning critical acclaim under his artistic directorship, and all having lives after their Islington runs. How does he fare getting his own hands dirty with Ink?

His direction is “a kinetic delight” according to Michael Day (i newspaper, ★★★★), “tightly drilled” according to Letts, and “unafraid to use tabloid methods to show a tabloid creation” according to Billington.

“Goold’s production, with an outstanding set by Bunny Christie comprising an Everest of newspaper desks, fairly whizzes along and captures the dizzy excitement of the hot-metal era,” adds Billington, while Treneman observes that he “mostly lets it run riot, creating the feel of a newspaper office, organised chaos at the best of times”.

“There’s also a great deal of affection in evidence in Rupert Goold’s production,” argues Tripney. “He uses movement sequences to convey the thrill and ritual of hot type: the glow of molten metal and the clang of hammers. Designer Bunny Christie has created a temple of metal desks, with headlines cascading down the walls.”

“The scenes whip through like a snappy TV drama,” describes Jones. “Christie’s set is a mount of desks the cast clamber all over, the lighting is colourful and active, and the transitions are regularly helped along by bursts of music and ‘almost-dancing’. Anywhere else, this could feel a bit forced. But in the office of the new fun Sun, which gives knickers away to readers in a can, it seems bang on.”

For Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★★), Goold’s direction “captures all the energy as well as the excess of the era”, for Morgan it’s a riot of “bombastic vigour” and “knockabout gleefulness”, and for Hitchings it simply “pulses with energy”.

It’s a great production of a great play, then, even being labelled “the finest thing at the Almeida since King Charles III” by Cavendish. And, if the murmurs in the reviews are anything to go by, it’s probably following Hamlet and Mary Stuart into the West End sometime soon.

Ink – Murdoch and Lamb

Bertie Carvel

Bertie Carvel is getting a reputation for inhabiting hate-figures; he originated the role of Miss Trunchbull in the RSC’s Matilda to great acclaim, and now he tackles the abrasive, divisive figure of media mogul Murdoch. Does he find the humanity in this antipodean oligarch?

His performance, according to Crompton, is what makes Ink “ultimately unmissable”. “It would have been easy to turn such a hate figure into a caricature,” she writes, “but Carvel gets under his skin. Every time he appears, his arms stiff, his body tensed, coiled with the sense of his own power, he sends a jolt of electricity through the entire theatre, perfectly encapsulating the dangerous disruption that Murdoch brought to British society.”

“Carvel plays Murdoch not as some horned monster but as a man driven by the ruthless logic of the market, and as someone who prizes business success over the consolations of friendship,” adds Billington. “Carvel even suggests Murdoch is shy and awkward when asked to confront his employees.”

Such praise is matched all round. Carvel’s Murdoch is “something of a sphinx, prone to quizzical tilts of a long chin” according to Letts and has “a slithery hint of the reptilian but also a burning, beguiling passion for a new way of doing things” according to Cavendish. “Each time Carvel appears on stage the production shifts up a gear,” notes Tripney.

And Coyle’s Lamb – “the play’s driving force”, says Tripney – is showered with praise too, Sierz praising a performance that is “increasingly desperate and savage”, and Morgan admiring how Coyle “embodies just the right combination of faded journo charm and scumbag sleaze”.

For Lukowski, Coyle is “excellent”, for Hitchings, he is “elusive and spellbinding”, and for Letts, he is “terrific”, “almost eating his way through cigarettes”.

Ink – Is it any good?

Yep, you bet. Graham has unearthed another rollicking yarn, steeped in recent British history, and mined it for all the comedy, the characters and the contemporary relevance it’s worth. Ink, the majority agree, is a thumpingly good play, infused with a thrilling, throwback charm by director Goold and brought to life by two cracking central performances from Carvel and Coyle.

A host of four-star reviews, with the odd five (and one or two threes, too) point to a show that surely has a long life ahead of it and that confirms Graham’s status as one of our finest political dramatists. But then, that’s yesterday’s news already.

Read our interview with Bertie Carvel

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