Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
Jonny Lee Miller as Larry Lamb and Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch in Ink.
Photo by Joan Marcus
These are the five musts of a good newspaper story -- Who, What, When, Where and Why. But how true is that? Rupert Murdoch, Australian businessman about to become British tabloid owner, learned from an old-style newsman, Larry Lamb, that "Why" is not so important. “Shit happens...Only thing worth asking isn’t ‘why’, it’s ‘what's next?’”
And it is the "what's next" that propels Britain's James Graham's gripping Manhattan Theatre Club production, Ink, now at the Samuel Friedman Theatre. In 1969, sly and slippery Murdoch, played with Machiavellian opportunism by Bernie Carvel, (Miss Trunchbull in Matilda), is trying to convince Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller), editor at another tabloid, the Daily Mirror, to run Murdoch's upcoming purchase, The Sun. Although the Daily Mirror is far more successful than the Sun, Lamb (After Miss Julie), a been-there, done-that newsman, is unhappy at that more staid tabloid where he is and often passed over for promotions.
A working class Northerner who scoffs at the more traditional newspapers, Lamb realizes that he and Murdoch are really two of a kind, brash and populist, when it comes to journalism. He wants to rattle the staid moralist elitism of the traditional newspapers. He accepts Murdoch's challenge to run the Sun and financially overtake the Daily Mirror in one year with a blasting new right-wing, insolent and nationalistic focus. "Margins, bottom lines, the figures are what count,” Murdoch tells Lamb.
Lamb's first step takes him to Fleet Street, hiring a posse of newswriters to vigilantly deliver scurrilous headlines, theme weeks ("Knickers Week," "Pussy Week"), crime, sports, sex and a sleazy Page 3. Just before the first edition of the new Sun hit the streets, Murdoch reminds the staff, “You’ve decided to give people what they want. Something so radical — and yet so simple. To hold up a mirror … to ourselves. And to hell with the consequences if we don’t like what we see. It’s who we are.”
Set designer Bunny Christie heaps stageful of desks and office furniture into a pyramid and director Rupert Goold (King Charles III) keeps cheeky editors and writers at the Sun scrambling, sometimes dancing, over and around them, with breaking scoops and juicy deadlines. A background of headline projections is designed by Jon Driscoll with Neil Austin's theatrical lighting and music and sound by Adam Cork. Christie, also the costume designer, recalls the mod 60's look with miniskirts, high boots and period suits.
With the Murdoch viewpoint and Lamb's fire in the belly, the Sun is fiercely opinionated and grows over the years to become international and influential with its impact on Margaret Thatcher, Brexit, cable news, social media and Donald Trump.
In Ink's West End production, Bertie Carvel won the Olivier award playing Murdoch, slinking, smart, confident yet harboring lifelong grievances. Miller's indefatigable Larry Lamb, is a sharp contrast against the conventional old guard. The two characters are not likable yet not totally evil either, but Carvel and Miller, two fine actors, layer them with ambition and grit.
While the first act is fast driving and entertaining, Lamb's sense of control turns shaky in Act II, featuring two of Lamb's highlighted moments. He persuades one of the Page 3 models, Stephanie (Rana Roy), to be photographed topless, a sensationalist move to sell more papers, and it did.
Later, two Islamic brothers, planning to attack Murdoch's wife, mistakenly kidnap and murder the wife of Murdoch's deputy chairman. Lamb shows his unprincipled hunger for sensationalism when he reports the kidnapping before the investigation and eventual murder. It is easy to infer why Murdoch's continuing issues of immigration, racism and misogyny play out over future decades and two continents
The cast is solid, many playing several roles. Tara Summers plays the editor of an updated women's page. Andrew Durand does not quite know what to do or who he is, gender-wise, but he becomes a paparazzo. As editors, reporters and sportswriters, Michael Siberry, Bill Buell and Brian McConnell also deliver credible characters.
Ink is Ben Hecht's The Front Page all grown-up. Bertie Carvel and Jonny Lee Miller possibly do the best work of their careers here, not only about the newspaper game but, chillingly, about the culture it helped develop.
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
263 - West 47th Street. NYC
Previews: April 2, 2019. Opening: April 24, 2019. Closing: July 7, 2019 (extended)
Running Time: Two hours, 40 min. One intermission.
Cast: Bertie Carvel, Jonny Lee Miller, David Wilson Barnes, Bill Buell, Andrew Durand, Eden Marryshow, Colin McPhillamy, Erin Neufer, Kevin Pariseau, Rana Roy, Michael Siberry, Robert Stanton, Tara Summers, Ian Bedford, Willian Connell, Christopher McHale, Jessica Naimy, Daniel Yearwood.
Playwright: James Graham
Directed: Rupert Goold
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors, April 2019
Also can be read on TotalTheater.com