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Great Britain at the Theatre Royal Haymarket - Review

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Great Britain Will Make You Laugh - Guaranteed
It's irreverent, it's immoral, it's poignant, it's disgusting, it's tasteless, it's hilarious and it's utterly brilliant.

Great Britain, Richard Bean, Play, London, Lucy Punch, Royal Haymarket Theatre

If we live by the old maxim that "timing is everything" Richard Bean's Great Britain is a punctual masterpiece. The National Theatre boldly released the play back in June, 2014 a mere five days after the end of the Rebekah Brooks trial for phone hacking ended. The play is a thinly veiled fictionalised account of the News International scandal and aims to tackle the press, police, politicians and the corruption that binds them together.

The West End début starring Billy Piper was a sold out production, and was favourably reviewed across the UK. The play has now reopened in Haymarket, with a largely unchanged cast, against the backdrop of new, almost more dangerous scandal - The mass celebrity phone hacking dump, or as it has less than elegantly been referred to as "The Fappening".

At the heart of the play is a series of pathetic police and politicians who bend to the whim of a less than scrupulous and omnipresent press. Bean attacks the idea of a country that is fair and moral while chastising his audience for being culpable in the moral corruption of modern British society.

Don't worry, if it sounds like a heavy introspective look at modern society and an intelligent case study into our sick fascination with celebrity, travesty and modern culture it certainly is nothing of the sort. This is Richard Bean after all; the mastermind behind the comedy genius of One Man, Two Guvnors and while Great Britain might not reach the dizzying heights of that comical masterpiece rest assured there are moments in this play where you will laugh out loud, and if not, you should probably check for a pulse.

lucy punch, paige britain, Great Britain, Richard Bean
Lucy Punch as Paige Britain


The comedy is irreverent bordering on the taboo to say the least. A few times the audience groaned, a woman of African descent actually tutted out loud in front of me at some of the more crass "Black Jokes" or rather constant stream of unfortunate black victims. No taboo subject is left off the table: classism, racism, immigration, disability, pedophilia, murder, adultery, suicide and on and on… It's not the kind of thing you'd take the kids to.

The play centers around Paige Britain, the ruthless News Editor of the "fictional" Free Press played by perhaps, the just as aptly named for the role, Lucy Punch. Punch is excellent and plays her role with the sociopathic charm that you'd associate with Charles Manson recruiting his cult of killers. She manages to combine beauty, power and revulsion with such seamless perfection you can't decide whether you want to envy her, hate her, love her or torture and kill her. Her sole goal is to "attend the party", the party being a seat amongst the ruling elite, and the play circulates around her corrosive effect on this group as she exploits her position in the press for scoops and to serve her own interest. Paige combines sexual predation with guile, charm and intelligence gaining access to everyone from the Prime Minister to the Police Commissioner and a stream of underlings along the way to get her to her end game.

The play is tied together with a rotation of short scenes, none taking longer than it would take you to read your average newspaper article. You'll find yourself bouncing between Paige and the Prime Minister in bed, a black victim, a falsely convicted father accused of murdering his daughters, a black victim, a page 7 (Page 3) girl the paper essentially murders through exposing her life through phone hacking, a black vic… you get it. The narrative is brilliantly kept in check through an excellent array of multimedia screens during set changes, which are used to display faux headlines that are equally as funny, if not more, than any joke in the play.

Aaron Neil, Police Commissioner, Great Britain Play, Richard Bean


Special mention has to go to Aaron Neil who plays the incompetent and utterly hilarious homosexual Police Commissioner. The police perhaps come off worse than any other party in the play and it is a combination of Neil's deadpan sincerity and utter stupidity that helps to deliver the most comical episodes throughout Great Britain. When addressing the press during a murder enquiry the hopeless Commissionerbegs the public for a clue and deadpans "A clue is one thing I've not got." He allows himself to be tasered in the interest of a positive PR spin and the genius use of the auto-tuned videos of his speeches during set changes ensure that if the joke didn't land the first time, it will the second.

A lot has happened since 2005 when the real scandal of this fictional account broke. During the National Theatre's first run of the play earlier this year rehearsals had to be held in secret to avoid legal implications of influencing the News Corp International trial… the irony.

Phone hacking now just seems like the tip of the iceberg. We've had Snowden, the NSA, and just this week the third instalment of a mass celebrity phone hacking photo leak. It leaves you with the feeling that in our age that the only way to be actually safe is to live a life completely devoid of doing anything spectacular, or for that matter, even remotely interesting. Sure drunken-drugged-up-naked celebrities and corrupt politicians is one thing, "they're asking for it" as Paige highlights, just by the very nature of their success - but kidnapped kids, 7-7 victims and dead soldiers families, and YOU & I is another altogether. However, if you leave Great Britain contemplating living a life uninteresting enough for anyone to care enough to tap your phone, hack your pictures, rummage through your bins and follow you down the street you might pass the M&M's store on your way to Leicester Square tube at 11:30 PM.

It'll be full of tourist and worse still locals, they'll still be snapping selfies next to giant inanimate neon candy and you'll realise the darker morale of the play is clear. We can be outraged with corruption at the highest outreaches of power and at the people who commit these acts, but we must be equally outraged with ourselves for our voracious desire to consume them. As a society we are so desperate to be famous, or just to be near fame, to the point people will queue to take their pictures in front of a mediocre tasting candy-coated-chocolate with a face, because you know, "It was in that ad that one time". If we can't have this fame, if we aren't even close to it, we relish when it is brought down, humanised, brought to our mortal level and we're just as culpable in the act of consuming it as the people who gathered it in the first place. Richard Bean generated headlines for his subject matter and his perceived attack on the "Red Tab" press, but Great Britain forces the viewer to acknowledge their own moral compass and their own guilt at revelling in the misery of others.

Sorry, got a little bit heavy there for a comedy review, just to reiterate…. It's utterly hilarious and since you can pick up tickets for a mere £15 it'd be a mistake to miss it.
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*Joseph McCullough was invited as a guest
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Why? It's not only funnier but it's cheaper than anything you'll see at the cinema down the road.
Phone: 020 7452 3000
Where: Theatre Royal Haymarket
Cost: £15 - £59.50
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