Review of Ink, starring Jonny Lee Miller & Bertie Carvel, on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 25, 2019
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    James Graham has become one of Britain's busiest and most prolific younger playwrights -- not yet 40, he's already had two plays running side-by-side in the West End simultaneously when Ink transferred in 2017 from the Almeida to the Duke of York's and soon after the Michael Grandage Company premiered the Olivier Award-winning Labour of Love next door at the Noel Coward Theatre. And he's since penned the HBO/Channel 4 drama "Brexit: The Uncivil War" as well.

    Although he's also already been represented on Broadway by his book for the 2015 Harvey Weinstein produced musical Finding Neverland (which never made its way to London), he now makes his Broadway playwriting debut by the transfer of Rupert Goold's original production of Ink to Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J Friedman Theatre.

    And it's a stunning achievement, both in riveting playwriting from Graham and thrilling stagecraft from Goold; the cinematic dynamism and propulsion that each provide turns a play about a pivotal moment in the history of British newspaper journalism into something akin to a thriller. Here we have an outsider newspaper proprietor -- the edgy Australian upstart Rupert Murdoch, buying a failing title from the Daily Mirror stable called The Sun, and with the help of an ambitious young editor Larry Lamb, rebranding it as a popular daily title that soon overtakes its rival in both circulation and influence.

    It is still Britain's top-selling daily title over 40 years later -- even if things are no longer what they used to be in the world of what used to be called Fleet Street (in fact Murdoch's rise, which also included taking over the UK's most storied 'quality' paper The Times, saw the dismantling of the geographical concentration of the newspaper industry at that address).

    Goold's production -- and especially Bunny Christie's design and Jon Driscoll's projections -- nostalgically summonses the memory of the days in which newspapers were produced by hot metal; but it also celebrates the timeless drama of circulation wars, advancing a populist agenda of horoscopes, television coverage, bare-breasted page three models and trying to get news scoops.

    The latter include one on the paper's own doorstep, when the deputy chairman's wife is kidnapped (and subsequently murdered).

    James Graham expertly marshals the human drama behind these headlines -- and it is properly galvanised by a pair of towering performances: Bertie Carvel, reprising his London Olivier-winning performance as a young, ruthless and determined Murdoch, and Jonny Lee Miller as his equally single-minded editor. They are both spellbinding.

    Of course part of this story of how newspapers functioned in a pre-digital age is merely of historic interest today, but Murdoch is still here -- casting a pervasive influence over the degraded journalistic culture we live in now, so it’s a story that matters. This is how and where the race to the bottom began. Yet it makes for top theatre.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "The show’s most potent chemistry is, as it should be, between Mr. Miller’s Lamb, as he becomes increasingly drunk on the thrill of success at all costs, and Mr. Carvel’s exquisitely manipulative Murdoch. Previously seen on Broadway as the demonic headmistress of the musical “Matilda,” Mr. Carvel once again delivers a balletically precise study in power incarnate."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "The choices Murdoch and his editor made 40 years ago—the race to the bottom, the destruction of journalistic ethics, the anti-immigrant rhetoric—still matter a great deal today. But although Graham labors hard to humanize Lamb with shadows of self-doubt, this psychological element is oversold and unconvincing, and we’re left with a long show about a foregone conclusion. Taken-from-the-record plays often have this problem: We know how things turned out. We know what a Murdochian world looks like because we live in it, and once the show has answered the question of how did we get here (they did it to sell papers), there’s still 2 hours and 20 minutes to go. "
    Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

    "Nothing about Graham’s unexpectedly seductive play — the smoky newsroom meetings, back-room deals, even a lesson on how the printing press functions — is ever less than rousing. The show is hoisted even higher by director Rupert Goold, doing his best work since the similarly irreverent “King Charles III,” by mixing in music and dance for a raging party vibe."
    Johnny Oleksinski for New York Post

    "While Graham capably shows how The Sun began pushing a xenophobic agenda, its volume destined to grow exponentially as the Murdoch empire expanded, he doesn't exactly tread softly in tracing a populist line back to the Nazis. But then perhaps recent history — from the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch's now-defunct News of the World to the rightward tilt of the political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic — doesn't call for subtlety. The play may be chronicling events from half a century ago, but Ink has undeniable currency in the era of Brexit and Trump."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "At first the David-and-Goliath story is fun to watch as it unfolds, upsetting the tut-tutting press powers on Fleet Street that can’t fathom what’s going on with the Sun’s shift to gossip, sex, celebrity and free stuff. But when the underdog turns rabid, James Graham’s play comes up short, and instead of digging deeper into the story, Goold and company simply crank up the speed and volume."
    Frank Rizzo for Variety