Ink by James Graham – Almeida Theatre

Despite not being alive in the 1970s, James Graham has become the go-to commentator on hung parliaments. His talent for excavating a previous generation’s histories brought him unexpected success with This House. Since then he returned to the past for The Angry Brigade and Monster Raving Loony, each demonstrating surprising relevance to current concerns. His new play, Ink, is concerned with a figure from the past who never went away, Rupert Murdoch, and the new political culture which began with his purchase of The Sun newspaper in 1969.

Graham’s play is as unwieldy as the teetering, dilapidated Fleet Street offices in Bunny Christie’s stacked set. It is a carnival of a play, packed with hard-drinking, hard-smoking editors, journalists, subs, and printers, each with their own pub. It is also a compelling and clear-eyed analysis of what tabloid culture has given us, and what it has taken away. Almeida favourite Bertie Carvel plays a youngish Murdoch, ruthless in his disregard for authority, convention and friendship. He brings in Richard Coyle’s disillusioned Yorkshireman Larry Lamb to edit a paper unlike anything seen in Britain. The Sun will celebrate the real desires of real people, brushed under the carpet by the improving journalism of rival Hugh Cudlipp at the Daily Mirror. Lamb gives his readers the ‘four W’s’: ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when,’ which he translates as who they want to have sex with, what they want to buy, where they want to go and when they want to go there.

At first it is strange to be following a story with Murdoch for a hero, an outsider fighting overwhelming establishment forces and winning. However, Graham carefully examines the reasons behind Murdoch’s unstoppable success, giving both him and Lamb, who had many of the ideas that defined The Sun, space to develop as characters. Graham is careful, presumably with lawyers peering over his shoulder, to stick to publicly known facts, but Carvel plays Murdoch as an awkward character, with an oddly puritanical streak, unable to resist the lure of personal publicity which will eventually leave him so exposed. Coyle’s Lamb is occasionally conflicted but sympathetic, perhaps lacking the streak of nastiness which must surely have existed in real life.

Ink covers just the first year of the new Sun, but it was a year packed with strange and momentous events: the kidnap and murder of Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s deputy, the end of Cudlipp’s thirty year reign at the Mirror, and the first topless page three model (Pearl Chanda, whose role as Stephanie Rahn cleverly locates both the racism and sexism of the time though little known evetnts). The world of 1960s Fleet Street is loving teased out, and inventively staged, with a sequence showing how papers were produced using the ‘hot metal’ process like an out-take from The Alchemist.

The cast, covering multiple roles as well as musical interludes, work hard to generate a buzz of newsroom activity, and have a lot of fun with their parts – including Geoffrey Freshwater’s ludicrous impersonation of William Rees-Mogg, Tim Steed as Lamb’s uptight deputy Bernard Shrimsley (“Headlines in thirty degree italics? What did we fight the war for?”), and Jack Holden as a young Christopher Timothy, doing ‘working class’ for the first Sun television ad. In truth there is too much going on, but Graham’s talent for illuminating the past to provide fresh perspective on what we think we know shines through occasional chaos.

Ink acknowledges the Sun’s role in ending an era of deference and freeing readers from the weight of class disapproval. However, it also identifies The Sun’s disregard for a fifth ‘W’ – ‘why’ – as the dark side of Murdoch’s new business model. The paper’s attitude that readers are only interested in a story that entertains, and do not need or want to know why events occur, prepares the ground for the new political overlords. The first year in The Sun’s existence released the decay into the British body politic that led, via corruption and sleaze, to the alienation of a generation, Brexit and turmoil yet to be resolved.