Thank god, I only paid a fiver, I thought, as I sat folding and unfolding my ticket with restless fingers. It was the interval of the Saturday matinee. I’d only been there an hour and a half but it felt like five, and the prospect of another seventy minutes of boorish writing and teapot acting made me want to grab my ice cream and get out of there as quickly as suede high heels would carry me. The posters had called it “laughter-making on an industrial scale”. “Raucously funny” they said in over-compensatingly HUGE, RED WRITING. Normally, when attending a National Theatre production, you can be reasonably well assured that even if its a bit dull, you’ll probably learn something useful along the way. Unfortunately not this time. This time I was proved wrong.
Great Britain directed by Nicholas Hynter and starring Lucy Punch as That-Character-She-Always-Plays and a vast ensemble of other, undoubtedly talented actors in vapid, cardboard roles was a bit of a car crash at the Haymarket last weekend. The play explores the tenacity and savageness of the media through the recent phone-hacking scandal. We follow Paige Britain, a career-driven journalist working at the imagined Free Press and gunning for the position of sub-editor for the entirety of the performance, to no avail. An intentionally unlikeable character (I hope), played in an unpleasant comedy-sketch style, Punch sucks her teeth, twists her face, drops her hip and sashays in self-satsfsaction across the stage without a hint of remorse, development or humanising trait for the full two hours and forty-five minutes. If Hynter’s aim was to utterly alienate the audience from his protagonist, then he succeeded. This wouldn’t have been such a dangerous choice if there had been other redeemable characters in the play, but unfortunately everyone else on the stage was just as cartoon-drawn and boringly overdone, as well as over-acted. Even the typically useless Police Chief inspired no fondness or affection in me regardless of his constant, bumbling mistakes. In fact, they were more annoying than endearing as I assume they were meant. Indeed, the only memorable comedy came from a short video used during a scene change, intended as a YouTube remix of one of the chief’s unfortunate interviews into a song. Even this wore thin before it ended.
However, everyone else in that Satuday matinee seemed to find the play “raucously” funny as advertised. The original production at the National Theatre got rave reviews from everyone important. A strong part of my high-heeled and dissatisfied self wished that I could have seen Billie Piper in the role, to discover whether she was as obnoxiously off-putting as Punch in the role.
The set was fairly adaptable and appropriate, though nothing fantastic or exciting. The see-through flats used as glass-windows dividing offices became screens to show news bulletins and online videos during scene changes, but nothing really seemed innovative, exciting or ground-breaking about this performance. The aim was to show Britain’s problem with the press, and how lightly the phone-hacking crime was taken in the offices. I felt however, utterly vapid and ambivalent towards the entire narrative. I didn’t even hate them for doing it. Why? Possibly because I never saw the victims, never saw the lives that were destroyed, never saw the repercussions beyond a police raid of the Free Press offices to arrest a news team in disarray alongside an unconcerned Paige Britain. Yes, Great Britain is intended as a satirical play and meant to be a laugh, not something that’s in-depth and self-aggrandising. Even so, Hynter says “Great Britain has one big ambition; to make an audience laugh, to be uproariously funny” and leave with “something to think about”. Oh, dear.
Sorry Nicholas, but that’s actually two.
Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg