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13 July 2017

Making headlines: the Sun newspaper and the Kids Company scandal hit the stage

Two fashionable new plays, Ink and Committee, look behind the front page stories.

By Mark Lawson

Two fashionable forms of new writing, docudramas and verbatim plays, have identical promise – a privileged glimpse at recent history – and identical weakness: the risk of the view being skewed by the selection of material.

This month, new examples of each genre look behind headline stories. Ink is a work of theatrical journalism that recreates a moment of journalistic theatricality – Rupert Murdoch’s 1969 relaunch of the Sun as a brash tabloid. The playwright, James Graham, has become a dramatic Rory Bremner, offering impressions of the 1974-79 minority Labour government in his stage play This House, and of the 2010-15 Tory administration in the TV film, Coalition.

There are no politicians at all in Ink, but the implication is that this is the story of the UK’s true political driver for the past five decades. Early on, Murdoch’s deal for purchasing the failing broadsheet the Sun includes a removal of its historical pledge to support Labour; in the last scene, the tycoon is thrilled to have spotted a Conservative MP, Margaret Thatcher, who shares his dislike for the way things have been done. Later, the proprietor would do favours for Blair, Major, Brown, and Cameron. There is a fascination in seeing this play at the time when Murdoch has for the first time backed, in May, a falling horse.

Around its study of underground power, Ink is a compelling Fleet Street procedural. A tremendous scene has launch editor Larry Lamb conducting a blokey, smokey focus group on what the readers want, which is judged to be sex (under the red-top codeword “love”), weather and TV listings. Graham convincingly presents the Murdoch-Lamb collaboration as a double-act of disgruntled, under-achieving outsiders – the Australian desperate to match up to his newspaper-founding dad, the Yorkshireman settling scores with his journalistic father-figure, populist Mirror innovator Hugh Cudlipp. Murdoch felt patronised by Britain, Lamb by Fleet Street. Like populist politicians, they won by appealing, over the heads of their enemies, to unanswered desires among the public.

Richard Coyle (Lamb) thrillingly shows how a great print journalist was a combination of writer, sculptor and artist, constantly making choices of words, shape, and image. Bertie Carvel electrifyingly depicts the contradictions of Murdoch – a shy power-freak, a puritan who uses sex to sell. Casual body-language is key to the piece. Carvel lounges on restaurant chairs designed to encourage military straightness; even when he stands, his shoulders are hunched. Strikingly, the tabloid Sun is described by an old newspaper man as “slouching” in comparison with the ramrod attitudes of more upright titles. But director Rupert Goold’s staging of its story is a sleek, speedy beast that should surely reach the West End.

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Murdoch pops up in a new musical at the Donmar: his turn at the phone-hacking hearing was previously considered the most memorable of any public enquiry – until the one described in this show’s full title: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company.

Known for ease as Committee, the show takes verbatim but filleted extracts and sets them to atonal riffs (by Tom Deering), in the manner of London Road, the hit musical about the serial murders of sex workers in Ipswich. So BBC executive Alan Yentob, the charity’s chair, delivers an aria about his dealings with “governments, various governments, all governments”, and CEO Camila Batmanghelidjh trills about “Young people who were literally so mentally ill they were hearing voices”. Intermittently, Omar Ebrahim’s posh, pompous, name-dropping Alan and Sandra Marvin’s excitable, contradictory, name-dropping Camila duet about the “vulnerable children” they were trying to help with the charity, which went bust in 2015 when the government pulled the plug.

There are lovely moments when unlikely phrases become resonant when sung but, editorially, the piece is suspect. The saga’s key journalistic chronicler, Miles Goslett, has convincingly depicted the events as a tragedy of cronyism and virtue-flagging among the media-liberal and liberal-Tory forces.

In contrast, the musical casts the disaster as a stand-off between cold austere economics (the interrogating MPs) and a venture in which the attempted ends justified the chaotic and unaccountable means. This defence, though, is questionable in the case of Kids Company as it seems likely the ends were exaggerated (the charity providing documentation for only a fraction of the clientele it claimed) and the means often incompetent, vainglorious, and, in Yentob’s case, stretching BBC editorial guidelines.

The answer might be for James Graham to follow Ink with a bio-drama about Yentob and Batmanghelidjh. Certainly, of these works, his makes the bigger splash.

Ink is at the Almeida, London N1, until 5 August; Committee is at the Donmar, London WC2, until 12 August

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions