Theatre review: Great Britain at the National Theatre

Richard Bean’s rollicking swipe at the red tops fizzes with energy and gags both coarse and clever, but takes so many (cheap) shots at its targets it’s in danger of not landing its punches.

In satirising the grubby collusion between politicians, police and the papers, Bean stuffs in the gamut of recent scandals from MPs expenses to phone hacking. There are allusions to Milly Dowler, Murdoch’s BSkyB takeover, and Met Commander Ali Dizaei, but is Bean telling us anything we didn’t already know?

Billie Piper excels as amoral, sexy, hyper-ambitous Paige Britain, news editor of The Free Press, prepared to – literally - get into bed with whoever it takes to get a seat at the top table of power and influence.

In a Coulson-esque twist, her foul-mouthed exuberant editor Wilson Tikkel (Robert Glenister, superb) ends up as Downing Street’s press spokesmen, leaving Britain to indulge in hacking the phones of celebrities, topless models and the father of abducted twins.

On a yacht-based shooting trip, Dermot Crowley’s newspaper magnate Paschal O’Leary wins a concession to scrap the BBC license fee in return for endorsing a conservative election bid – a warning about how far friendly horse rides between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks might lead.

There are hugely enjoyable running gags, often in headlines flashed up on screens. The hacking scandal is broken by The Gardener newspaper (tagline ‘we think so you don’t have to’) and the gaffe-strewn quotations of incompetent Met Commissioner Sully Kassam end up as a Youtube spoof.

The second half turns darker as hacking results in suicide, recriminations, wrongful conviction and death. Britain’s defense implicates us all – we applaud her methods when they expose corruption or celebrity gossip, but castigate her when things go wrong.

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Worked on in secret and only staged once the hacking trial was over, Hytner’s production is admirably topical and often hilarious, but doesn’t suggest how to curb journalistic excess while protecting free speech.

Rating: Four stars