Great Britain @ Theatre Royal Haymarket

Everyone has been raving on about Great Britain since it opened at the National Theatre a few months ago, with Billy Piper playing the lead role. The play has now moved to the West End, hosted by Theatre Royal Haymarket where I went to see it. To be honest I’m not sure I saw the same show they did because it really was not as great as it was made out to be.

The play, written by Richard Bean, follows Paige Britain (played by Lucy Punch this time), the news editor of The Free Press, as she hacks the phones of politicians and royals, and sleeps with the Prime Minister, in order to become the editor of the tabloid newspaper. Bean also explores police and political corruption and the way these establishments are presented in the media, and subsequently, the power the media can have in society.

Photo: Johan Persson

It’s odd to say this, but the performance lacked anything ‘new’, which is weird because of how current the subject matter is. It felt like all Bean was doing was pointing out what everyone in the auditorium had seen and read about the past year about the scandal. Yes that is the point of satire, but satire is also supposed to mock in a clever way and be humorous, but Great Britain really lacks this. The jokes were far from witty, and just way too obvious, and not daring at all. It was difficult to find anything clever about them, which made them unfunny.

The subject matter of the play warrants over-exaggeration in performance style, but even this seemed out of place on stage. I felt the acting was too over the top and frankly quite obnoxious. The way Punch was speaking directly to the audience felt quite boring, and not very engaging. I do want to add that I think she is a great performer and a brilliant comedic actor in other things I have seen, but perhaps this was not the best choice for her.

Photo: Johan Persson

I don’t want to be completely negative about it, because there was one thing in the show that needs to be praised. The set designed by Tim Hatley was the best part of the show. The stage is divided by glass screens that move across to indicate changes of scene, and produce a very modern-looking newspaper office. What I think makes these screens more interesting are the videos that are played on them. Designed by 59 Productions, the videos include clips from the news reporting on the the stories Britain has uncovered, and bursts of newspaper headlines, mainly about immigrants. These were hilarious.

I’m not sure how the show is doing overall to be honest. Sitting in the grand circle, the auditorium was only 70% full, and I noticed that this percentage was even less after the second half. Admittedly I didn’t see it when Piper was playing the main character, so she might have taken a different approach to her characterisation, which is why it was so popular. But now? Seems like the show has deteriorated. In my opinion, you can get the jist of this show by reading the Wikipedia article on the phone-hacking scandal. Don’t bother going to see it.