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Slicked-down hair and an uneasy stoop: Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch and Richard Coyle as Larry Lamb in “Ink” (©Marc Brenner)



Really, Rupert Murdoch has been kind to the theatre. Without him no Pravda (David Hare), and no Great Britain (Richard Bean) after the hacking scandal. But it has taken James Graham, the most historically astute of them, to revisit how it all began — with Murdoch’s purchase of an ailing tabloid called the Sun.

It’s brave of Graham, an accomplished political dramatist, to take on Murdoch’s early years without fulfilling a London theatregoing audience’s expectations that it will be a narky portrait of the man the Establishment — Left and Right — loves to hate.

The Murdoch-owned Sun has long been an icon of disapproval for those so inclined. Cherie Blair wouldn’t have it in the house. Billy Bragg wrote 1980s’ songs disapproving of it. The newspaper establishment of the late Sixties lampooned the “Dirty Digger”, as Private Eye dubbed him, for the titillating lengths he would go to in search of readers.

Under Rupert Goold’s perky direction, Ink, which transfers to the Duke of York’s Theatre from September 9, casts Bertie Carvel as a saturnine, impatient Murdoch, all slicked-down hair and an uneasy stoop. He descends on torpid Fleet Street, unleashing change and chaos, cutting a swathe through stuffy London society. But Graham also catches the ruthlessness of the budding tycoon. He hunts down Larry Lamb (a highly-strung, chain-smoking Richard Coyle) as his editor, telling him he is reviled by Establishment worthies in Britain as a parvenu from the land of sheep farmers. “Whaddya say Larry? The sheep and the Lamb . . .”

Not that the Lamb needs much convincing, He is stranded in the outer circle of Hugh Cudlipp (Hugh Schofield), self-righteous super-editor of the Mirror, which dominated the tabloid market at the time, offering his diet of “nutritious vegetables, spiced up”. Murdoch and Lamb see the disruptive potential of giving readers what they want, rather than what someone else thinks will raise their aspirations.

Newsroom ambience is strangely hard to capture on stage — it either turns out trite, like Pravda, or too derivative of great forerunners such as Ben Hecht’s The Front Page. Here, with a tiered set by Bunny Christie that can shift smartly from the milk bars of Fleet Street to Murdoch’s plain office, the mood of the era of hot metal and iron union demarcation is captured unsentimentally.

Mrs Murdoch has to be made a temporary member of some long-forgotten acronym to be allowed a celebratory starting of the presses. “Jesus,” snaps Rupert. Joyce Hopkirk (Sophie Stanton), the sole female Sun executive, is a fine Geordie harpy who runs the glamour shoots with an iron pre-feminist hand : “Don’t get lippy with the lady that signs the cheques, pet.”

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