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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Somehow it's hard to envision this man as ever being young. Neither is it easy to think it would be fun to spend almost three hours watching a play in which this king of tabloid journalism is the central character.
And yet Ink, which has just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is indeed one of the most entertaining and fun to watch plays that London has sent our way. Thanks to another Rupert —that's Rupert Goold, the Artistic Director of London's Almeida Theatre — James Graham's play has been staged with stupendous originality and style and is performed with gusto by a large cast, made even larger with double casting.
New York theater goers are in luck that Mr. Goold brought along his crafts team as well the chameleonic Bertie Carvel to reprise his Rupert Murdoch from the London production. Just thinking of seeing Carvel's previeously portrayed meanie—, Miss Trumbull in Matilda— now playing meanie tycoon Murdoch is enough to tickle anyone's curiosity. Carvel's interpretation of the Australian determined to crash through the barriers of London's tight knit newspaper world is indeed fascinating and fun to watch. .
But this is a two-star vehicle. Murdoch needed an editor who could make his first British newspaper, The Sun, loudly and successfully shake up traditional journalism. Thus Ink is as much about that editor, a Yorkshire man named Larry Lamb, as Rupert Murdoch. In fact, he probably has more stage time than Murdoch and Jonny Lee Miller plays him in New York with verve and depth.
While Miller, like Carvel, is a Brit, the American cast does fine work. Small wonder, since it includes excellent actors like Bill Buell, Robert Stanton, Michael Siberry and Andrew Durand.
The scenario focuses on the history of The Sun. It starts with Murdoch purchasing it in 1969, and persuading Lamb to act as the magician to turn the failing broadsheet around, even as the seller does everything go make that happen. From there we see the man who the Fleet Street insiders snobbishly dubbed an Australian sheep farmer gets the last laugh. The Sun, is reformatted from broadsheet to tabloid, outsells every other paper.
So is this a David versus Goliath story about an establishment outsider succeeding against all odds? Has Mr. Graham whitewashed Murdoch, as still young and more likable than the ruthless empire tycoon he's become?
The answer is NO. For one thing though Murdoch is fifty years younger than he is today, he isn't a kid. And he came to London with his pockets lined with plenty of money from his Australian publications.
To his great credit, the playwright has managed to use the history of the Sun's first year struggles and triumph to tell a ripping good newspaper story — shades of golden oldies like Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht's The Front Page given a lively Broadway revival just three seasons ago (my review).
Graham's dialogue and details for the Murdoch character hardly make him a heroic figure. Without climbing on a judgmental soap box, his portrait of Murdoch lets us see that the seeds of his character were already firmly planted. In the same way, the playwright avoids preaching about The Sun's methods for outselling London's other papers had the far reaching effects on journalism everywhere. instead, he just allows us to follow Lamb and his team move through the process of launching the paper and cooking up its crowd-pleasing features, including the famous Page 3 with its topless models.
The play opens with a prologue in which we see Murdoch and Larry Lamb dining in London's oldest restaurant, Rules, a real and still functioning restaurant noted for its classic fare. An aptly named setting, given that Murdoch is out to use his purchase of The Sun to break with tradition and has no qualms about breaking rules considered de rigueur by newspaper people. (As he tells Lamb at another point in the play "what I hear when I hear'codes' and 'traditions', I hear the rules as written by those who benefit from them, to stop others from treading on their turf}.
Various similar meetings punctuate the play, but it's the opening one that gives us our first look at the two principals and sets up the event that drives the plot —Murdoch's purchase of a failing broadsheet and persuading Lamb, a journalist with a knack for features with mass market appeal to run it.
Lamb, is at first reluctant to take on a failing enterprise. It's not Murdoch's charm (he's foul mouthed and has terrible table manners) that persuades him to accept the editor-in-chief offer, but the siren song of helming a London paper instead of being relegated to a Northern outpost his former employer, The Daily Mirror.
Graham's dialogue for the dinner that launches the Murdoch-Lamb collaboration, cleverly incorporates the 5 W's of journalism (who, what, when, where, why) .
The action following that prologue is ingeniously directed by Goold and designed by Bunny Christie. Watching Lamb putting together his staff is akin to seeing a musical rather than a paper in the making. Each hire ends with a burst of music and a dance riff Lamb and his growing staff (choreographed by Lynne Page and accompanied by Adam Cork's original musi).
The often hilarious tone continues as Lamb steers his team through the process of creating a catchy new paper from scratch.
Jonny Lee Miller's Lamb gets strong support from the actors playing the varied and interesting characters. Andrew Durand is especially amusing as the gender identity defying staff photograher Beverly. Other interesting and well performed characters we meet are the establishment representatives eager to see Murdoch and Lamb fail to make the sun literally rise on The Sun
Bunny Christie's remarkable multi-level set of newspaper desks imbue this story of a downmarket paper's trajectory with a loving nod to the printers' ink days when editors were dedicated to news on the front page and entertainment as filler.
Things shift into more downbeat territory in the second act. That includes a tragic misfire for a debuting Page 3 model. Even worse is a dramatic replay of a mistaken kidnapping (the intended victim was Murdoch's wife not the wife of Murdoch's deputy chairman Sir Alick) and ends tragically because Lamb ignored the police advice to not publicize it in the paper).
The whole play is structured to follow those 5W's that first crop up in the prologue's conversation and are projected upstage throughout. But when the who, what, where, when and why have run their course Murdoch and Lamb meet for the last time, Graham's script bring on another W —What's Next? As Murdoch tells Lamb that what's next for him is to head to the America and buy a TV network. Clearly the purchase of that failing newspaper has cast a very long shadow over all our lives.
To read our London critic's review when Ink played there go here
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Ink by James Graham
Directed by Rupert Goold
Cast: Bertie Carvel (Ruper Murdoch), Jonny Lee Miller (Jonny Lee Miller), David Wilson Barnes (Brian McConnell), Bill Buell (Frank Nicklin/Percy Roberts), Andrew Durand (Beverly/Christopher Timothy), Eden Marryshow (Ray Mills/Lee Howard), Colin McPhillamy (Sir Alic Chapel/Father), Erin Neufer (Anna Murdoch/Diana Chrissie/Apprentice), Kevin Pariseau (Bench Hand/TV Host), Rana Roy (Stephanie Rahn), Michael Siberry (Hugh Cudlipp), Robert Stanton (Bernard Shrimsley), and Tara Summers (Joyce Hopkirk/Muriel McKay).
Scenic & costume design: Bunny Christie
Lightdesign: Neil Austin
Original music and sound design: Adam Cork
Projection design: Jon Driscoll
Choreographer & movement director:Lynne Page
Dialect Coach: Ben Furey
Music director: Julie McBride
Production Stage Manager:Barclay Stiff
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes, including 1 intermission.
Samuel K. Friedman Theater212-239-6200
From 4/02/19; opening 4/24/19; closing 7/06/19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/20/19 press preview
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