Digging Dirty For Victory

James Graham catches the atmosphere of Sixties tabloid jounalism in his new play about Murdoch’s Sun

Anne McElvoy

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.”

It gets darker in the second half, with the dreadful story of the kidnap and murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy chairman, and turns into a slightly sanctimonious morality tale about Lamb’s determination to cover the horrible tale as an exclusive. Really, what else was a tabloid editor going to do? The implication is that the Sun’s coverage contributed to her death, though given the callous lunacy of the kidnappers, that stretches credibility.

Graham is good on how shocking the decision to run Page Three with fully-uncovered breasts was at the time and how uneasy Murdoch felt at the innovation until the sales chart vindicated the full-frontal approach. But after all those years of campaigns against Page Three as the nadir of populist exploitation, it feels strange to fixate on it now that hardcore porn is available on every teenager’s mobile phone. Tempora mutantur, as they say at the Sun.

A rather different 1960s’ icon gets intriguing lateral treatment in Girl from the North Country — Conor McPherson’s agreeable if unchallenging vehicle for an evening with Bob Dylan’s lilting hits, which is at the Old Vic until October 7.

It is a tale of various lecherous, desperate, criminal and plum-crazy inhabitants of a bankrupt Minnesota boarding-house in the dustbowl years of the early 1930s, a winsome evening that blends Dylan’s gift for conjuring stories through song with McPherson’s affinity for the poetry of failed lives and spectral presences — he gave the modern stage one of its best ghost stories in the Olivier-award-winning The Weir.

In this ochre-tinged Duluth, Dylan’s hometown, we meet Nick Laine (Ciaran Hinds), a genially despairing landlord burdened with heavy debt and a prematurely senile wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson). The luminous Sheila Atim plays Marianne, his pregnant adopted daughter. Economic desperation is the theme, as the Depression eats away at fortunes and hopes. Really, these are tableaux and not exactly rich in dramatic narrative or insights, but the stories interlock to spawn pop-up musical moments.

The achievement is finding a cast who can belt out the songs with brio, but ensure the evening doesn’t turn into a tribute musical, of which the West End has had an excessive inventory, from Jersey Boys to Motown. McPherson has chosen wisely in placing Dylan’s great songs, from “I Want You” to “Girl from the North Country” and “Forever Young”, outside the context of his hippy-minstrel/rock rebel years. The voices here are strong, but I thought only Hinds had the rasp of disappointment, experienced or imminent, that always permeates Dylan’s writing.

There are a few curses, too, the main one being that dementia is a trope rapidly becoming tiresome on the stage by overuse. The role is over-egged by having Elizabeth’s illness compounded by compulsive sexual exhibitionism — one infirmity too many. It is hard to concentrate on Dylan’s poetic couplets when we’re in recovery from the landlady exposing her pudenda to a Bible salesman on the dining table.

The production looks gorgeous, even if poverty in the 1930s surely did not come clad in such tasteful shades from the Toast catalogue. Art forms are conjoined with a light touch — Alan Berry as musical director deserves plaudits for that. The Old Vic has picked a winner with this melodic evening. It might even bring a smile to Bob’s grizzled face, for the first time in decades.

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