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Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 24, 2019

Ink by James Graham. Directed by Rupert Goold. Scenic and costume design by Bunny Christie. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Original music and sound design by Adam Cork. Projection design by Jon Driscoll. Choreographer and movement director Lynne Page. Dialect coach Ben Furey. Music director Julie McBride. 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, William Connell, Christopher McHale, Jessica Naimy, and Daniel Yearwood.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Jonny Lee Miller, Bertie Carvel
Photo by Joan Marcus

Beginning in the 17th century and lasting through most of the 20th, London's notorious Fleet Street was a hub of journalism and home to most of Britain's national newspapers. Referred to by many as the "Street of Shame," the thoroughfare has become associated with — at least among theatre enthusiasts — a certain Demon Barber. But James Graham's dazzling and gripping Ink reveals that Sweeney Todd wasn't the only Fleet Street denizen hellbent on vengeance. Rupert Murdoch, the larger-than-life media mogul and self-styled disruptor, waged his own form of class warfare and institutional retaliation.

In the 1960s, Murdoch, an Australian newspaper magnate, tried to buy his way into the clubby world of British publishing plutocrats, but he was spurned as the "Aussie sheep farmer." When he is told in the play that his subsequent goal to overturn journalistic gentility and integrity is simply an act of revenge, Murdoch responds pragmatically, "No. It's business. And it's revenge." Performed with oily charm by the outstanding Bertie Carvel, Murdoch is all business and all revenge in helping to turn The Sun, a British paper with disastrously low circulation numbers, into the nation's top-selling tabloid.

Murdoch's Mrs. Lovett, as it were, is Larry Lamb, the newspaper's editor. Lamb is every bit as ruthless as Murdoch and bears his own share of professional grudges. Jonny Lee Miller is scarily good as Lamb as he calculatingly goes morally lower and lower to ensure that The Sun may someday overtake the reigning giants of the press.

Set in 1969, the play introduces Murdoch and Lamb with an effective newspaper-style lede, which quickly establishes the characters' world through the five W's of journalism (the all-important who, what, where, when, as well as, according to Lamb, the less important why). After Murdoch acquires the failing paper from Hugh Cudlipp (a suitably haughty Michael Siberry), Lamb begins assembling a motley staff of writers and feature editors. These include a combination of skilled and unskilled journalists (David Wilson Barnes, Robert Stanton, Bill Buell, Tara Summers, and Eden Marryshow give distinct personalities to each), as well as a male photographer who keeps getting mistaken for a woman (Andrew Durand), and an astrologist (Erin Neufer) who strategically creates favorable horoscopes as politically expedient.

Murdoch challenges Lamb to make the tabloid the best-selling paper within a year's time, and part of the play's edge-of-the-seat enjoyment derives from watching the circulation numbers change. Indeed, as the first act ends, audience members may find themselves taken aback that they have been rooting for Murdoch, Lamb, and their scrappy group as they tactically overturn principles of fair, balanced, and respectable news coverage.

Robert Stanton, David Wilson Barnes, Bill Buell, Tara Summers,
Eden Marryshow, Andrew Durand, and Jonny Lee Miller
Photo by Joan Marcus

The masses, as Murdoch explains, should drive the subject matter rather than journalists chasing down the news. "Isn't that the real end point of the revolution? When they're producing their own content themselves? That's when we know they're really getting what they want." Ink considers the collateral damage of such a philosophy.

Unfortunately, the play stumbles somewhat in the second act as it pursues the ramifications of this precis. The narrative gets bogged down with a bit too much moralizing about the risks associated with exploiting sensational crime stories and the ethical costs of pandering to the prurient tastes of an insatiable public. (As Ink depicts, Lamb was responsible for introducing the infamous "Page 3," which highlighted a beautiful topless woman. The first model was Stephanie Rahn, movingly portrayed on stage by Rana Roy).

Aside from these heavy-handed moments, Ink is crackling good theatre. It is a smart, expertly constructed play and infused with rapid-fire dialogue reminiscent of a 1930s comedy (à la the gold-standard of newspaper dramas, The Front Page) while filtered through a mod 1960s lens.

Directed by Rupert Goold, the production is stunningly theatrical. In addition to the excellent ensemble of actors, there are eye-popping visuals by a team of designers that includes Bunny Christie (scenery and costumes), Neil Austin (lighting), and Jon Driscoll (projections). Peppered throughout are musical numbers, and one of the highlights is an exquisite human recreation of the newspaper production process. (Adam Cork provided the original music and sound design, and Lynne Page choreographed.) In short, Ink has the pedigree of a newspaper of record and the sensationalist appeal of a tabloid. The play gives new meaning to the designation "living newspaper."

Although set fifty years in the past (and first presented in 2017 in London as Brexit and Trump's recent victory loomed large), the play inevitably evokes tacit references to fake news, media manipulation, and unchecked populist enticements. After all, Murdoch, as the play teasingly indicates, raised the stakes in the media and culture wars with his purchase of Fox News in 1996.

Fleet Street may no longer be home to the British newspaper industry (in large part due to Murdoch's machinations), but Ink entertainingly depicts a time when, without razors and meat pies, journalism was a cutthroat business.


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