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Ink starring Bertie Carvel – review at the Almeida Theatre, London – ‘detailed and fascinating’

Bertie Carvel in Ink at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

James Graham’s new play Ink, about the rise of The Sun newspaper, is a fascinating study of Fleet Street as it once was.

The Sun was an ailing broadsheet when it was purchased by ambitious Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch in 1969. Together with editor Larry Lamb it was transformed into a new kind of paper, one that set out to cater to ‘ordinary people’ by writing about gossip, sport, sex and, god forbid, television – then very much considered the enemy.

Graham shows how Lamb used budgetary limitations to his advantage. He was irreverent and unafraid to make his paper popular. There’s a very funny scene in which Lamb recruits his editorial team – including his majestically humourless deputy Bernard – before gathering ideas on making a paper that people would want to read: free stuff, horoscopes, celebrity tittle-tattle and, of course, the weather in a prime position on page two. Graham is so good at this kind of thing, mining recent political and social history to create compelling theatre.

In the darker second half Graham uses two incidents to explore the murkier side of journalism at The Sun. One is the kidnap of Muriel Mckay, mistaken for Murdoch’s wife, held to ransom and murdered; the other, the introduction of the page three girl. Both are used as tools to shift papers and trounce the Mirror in the circulation wars. The gutter beckons and Lamb wades in willingly.

Bertie Carvel’s performance as Murdoch consistently avoids caricature. Not yet a reptilian old man, he’s a square-shouldered, stiff-limbed, somewhat socially awkward figure, intent on disrupting the old models of journalism.

Richard Coyle’s Lamb – the son of a Yorkshire blacksmith, an outsider as much as Murdoch, and equally keen to make a lasting mark on the establishment – is the play’s driving force and superb in his own way, but each time Carvel appears on stage the production shifts up a gear.

While Graham does not shy away from exploring journalism’s moral ambiguities, there’s also a great deal of affection in evidence in Rupert Goold’s production. 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 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.

With the exception of Lamb and Murdoch, the secondary characters feel thinly-sketched and the scene in which Lamb convinces a young model (Pearl Chanda) to disrobe for the first page three photo shoot affords her more agency than seems likely, but Graham’s skill lies in the compelling way his play tells its story while also asking questions about the role of the press in society today, its power, influence – and responsibility.

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Fascinating new play about a pivotal episode in the history of British journalism