The headlines flash up, perfect front pages on the glass walls which morph from newsroom to police station or private redoubts: IS YOUR VICAR ON GAYDAR? blares the tabloid end, and MERKEL MIRACLE MUM-T0-BE. IMMIGRANTS CAN’T SPELL in a dozen variants adorns the Daily Wail, and The Guardener boasts a killer slogan “We think so you don’t have to”.


Beneath them the surging human players – journalists, police, politicians – enact with deadly energy a farce for today. A roaring editor demands more “Scum” stories , slaps down a reporter’s ovarian cancer story with “This is a newspaper, not a Well Woman clinic”, and on Europe issues barks “Gemma, find a boffin who can prove that Brussels sprouts cause AIDS”. A scavenger is sent to check celebrity rubbish, a scruffy figure pops in to sell Gazza’s laptop and is paid with an instruction to go to Western Union and collect a payment from Mrs Orla Gilhooley, his supposed Granny.


The laughs – both cheap shots and brilliant barbs – come thick and fast from the first minute, with reckless energy and gleeful brio. At the heart of it, sleek and ruthless, occasionally turning to us to expound her bleak philosophy of exposure and intrusion, is the News Editor Paige Britain: Billie Piper, evilly irresistible, perfect in every squared shoulder and dangled newsdesk leg..
This is event-theatre: no sooner had the hacking trial ended than Nicholas Hytner announced a preview-free, kamikaze opening of Richard Bean’s secretly completed and rehearsed comedy about a tabloid paper hacking phones, corrupting police and controlling the government. All completely fictional, of course; though there is a red-headed editor who loves horses, is thought of by the billionaire proprietor as a daughter , and remains (genuinely, and ludicrously) unaware of how her news editor is getting all this stories. She even pushes for a “Kieron’s Law” against paedophiles . Oh, and later on the c**t-mouthed ex-editor (Robert Glenister, ranting for England) becomes the PM’s spin-doctor; and the proprietor is trying to buy ITV and shaft the BBC, and the Crown Prosecution Service chief is a humourless female taunted by Piper with “Ooh, a successful woman, you must have been on Woman’s Hour”.


Cheekier still, when the proprietor is finally hauled before the Select Committee he complains about not having lunch with “this is the hungriest day of my life”.
What Bean has created , though, is a kaleidoscope rather than a roman-a-clef. Into it he hurls extra bright chips – parliamentary expenses,Youtube parodies, selfies, even a fake-sheikh. The early pleasure, enhanced by Hytner’s generally speedy direction (though it may lose a few minutes as the run goes on) is that in the first half at least Bean lets us enjoy the sheer energy and excitement of a rufty-tufty newsroom, and amuses us with gloriously politically incorrect sideshows. Aaron Neil is a hilariously dim gay Asian Metropolitan Police Commissioner, himself hacked and blackmailed for cheating on his civil partner with a Welsh-Chinese constable. His new Met slogan “Working Together Today To Make Tomorrow A Bit Better Than Yesterday” had some of us choking with unkind laughter.


Satisfaction of a different sort awaits in the second half , as with some skill Bean darkens the picture: first with a brief cameo of a family ripped apart by mutual suspicion because they don’t know it was hacking that betrayed the dying daughter, and then with a virtuoso outburst from Paige’s lover: the Deputy Commissioner (Oliver Chris) in which he realizex the full horror of one, central, story she masterminded. It steers just this side of tastelessness.


But with remarkable honesty the play makes clear how much sheer bad luck set the Leveson-and-trial machinery in motion. If the crime had been solved and victims saved by hacking, things could have been different. You’ve got to laugh. But why not? It’s a comedy, a good one and a triumph of cheek for the NT. And for Hytner’s ability to prevent 26 actors and a huge technical crew from letting the cat out of the bag before m’learned friends had finished with the Brookses…
box office 0207 452 3000 to 23 Aug Sponsor: Travelex

rating: five. The fifth is for pure opportunist cheek   5 Meece Rating


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