“Who needs friends when you have readers?” That’s the prevailing question raised by Ink, James Graham’s new play at the Almeida, which chronicles the rebirth of The Sun in 1969 under the ownership of the “Australian sheep farmer” Rupert Murdoch. Cast your mind back to a time when The Sun was a failing broadsheet, up against the world-leading Daily Mirror, and strap yourself in for a newspaper battle like no other.
Like Graham’s last work, This House, which explored the hung parliament of the 70s, Ink is a study of the past that holds a mirror (excuse the pun) to the present. The shift orchestrated by Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) and his faithful editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle) towards celebrity gossip and tabloid sensationalism might seem tame by today’s standards of click-bait and fake news, but the dilemmas posed are as true now as they were then. Should newspapers publish what their readers want, or what they think they ought to want? Is editorial integrity just another form of elitism? When does populism become mob rule, and whose job is it to mop up the consequences?
Like the best news stories (at least according to Lamb), the play raises all of the questions, and none of the answers.
It’s a slick, high-energy production that uses every trick in the technician's handbook to transport the audience into the grubby heart of Fleet Street. Watch out in particular for the electrifying sequence at the end of the first act, which reproduces the printing process, from hammering the type blocks into place to forging the templates in molten metal – exhilarating.
There’s a trap when confronting ethical quandaries, as Ink does in act two when The Sun’s journalists agonise over how to report on the kidnapping of their chairman’s wife, and at times it risks veering on moralistic. It is saved by the exquisite acting, particularly Carvel, whose occasional shyness and squeamishness prevents Murdoch from being reduced to a heartless caricature (as in Richard Bean’s Great Britain, which confronts similar topics). Pearl Chanda shines as Stephanie, The Sun’s first Page 3 girl, and the scene in which Lamb convinces her to bare all in print is spellbinding. If the second half could do with some trimming down to keep up the pace (and it could), that one scene redeems it.
Ink is not just for hacks, nostalgic for the glory days of Fleet Street. Expect a history lesson with a few sharp edges, not a sermon. It’s relevant, irreverent, and for the most part fun – just as Murdoch intended his paper to be.