"Make the paper you want, I trust you", Rupert Murdoch tells the editor he has newly appointed to take charge of his recently acquired title The Sun -- then a broadsheet selling less than 800,000 copies and falling. "I just want something.... loud."
And that's what this noisy sprawl of a play gives us, too, as it recounts the first year of The Sun's 1968 relaunch under the stewardship of proprietor Rupert Murdoch and his editor Larry Lamb. Together they remade the paper, and British journalistic values themselves, in short order, partly by a race to the bottom (or rather the bare female midriff with the launch of the infamous page three girls), partly by giving people what they wanted (lots of coverage of television) and partly by a ruthless circulation war that saw them overtaking the Daily Mirror, then the country's best-selling paper, within that same year.
Once again young playwright James Graham (who wasn't born yet when the events he portrays here occurred) has lighted on a fascinating true story, just as he did with his 2012 play This House that told the story of the minority Labour government of James Callaghan in the mid-to-late 70s, and put flesh and dramatic life on its bones.
And Murdoch ends the play by telling his editor, "It's a good story, Larry. People like stories...." This one certainly is a good story -- or rather a series of overlapping ones. There are times when it feels that Graham is trying to cram rather too many in; scenes that relish in the old-fashioned journalistic romance of casting the hot metal to print the paper from are impressively visualised by director Rupert Goold and his designer Bunny Christie, but feel padded.
Rather, its the flesh-and-blood dramas -- and in particular one that saw the wife of Murdoch's deputy chairman kidnapped and murdered, though the actual intended target had been Murdoch's own wife -- that become the driving action of the play, as the paper turns a story that revolves around one of its own into a story that helps sell papers. There's also a powerful side story about the human cost to the paper's first page three model.
Though a large ensemble cast of 14 populate numerous characters, the spellbinding centre of the play has Richard Coyle as Lamb and Bertie Carvel as Murdoch, giving extremely nuanced performances of the moral ambiguities each man wrestles with.