By James Graham. Director Louise Fischer. New Theatre, Newtown. 29 May – 29 June, 2024

New Theatre uses a photograph of Rupert Murdoch taken in 1968 to publicise its production of James Graham’s play INK. He was 37 years old. He looks strong, and thoughtful … and that’s how Graham depicts him in this play about how Murdoch and his editor Larry Lamb turned a failing broadsheet called The Sun into a tabloid newspaper that in just one year outstripped its rivals in sales … and sensationalism.

Graham doesn’t criticise or judge. He’s “more interested in trying to understand people I don’t necessarily agree with, try to understand their motivations and why they feel what they do”. He just tells the story – brilliantly – and leaves it to others to make judgements.

INK goes beyond the Sun’s ‘page 3’ girls and scandals to the journalists who, in 1969, took up the challenge make The Sun what it became – “the what, the when, the who, the where, the why” of its success.

That manic push to change and compete happened at the beginning of ‘the 70s’, a time of “dynamic shifts in class, gender, politics, technology and fashion”. Director Louise Fischer and her creative team have made those societal “shifts” integral to their interpretation of the power and pace of the play.

Tom Bannerman’s multi-level set can be the old News of the World presses in Bouverie Street, the plush office of the editor of The Mirror in Fleet Street or alley ways where competing editors plot. Vision designer Verica Nikolic merges black and white and colour images of the time that play across the set, while Kevin Davidson (sound) and Peter Ross (lighting) add extra colour and tension. There are more than 200 lighting, sound and video cues in this production.

Costume designer Aibhlinn Stokes has recreated the “bold fashion choices” of the time. Yellow and lime green; knee high boots and miniskirts; three-piece suits and coloured waistcoats. Over 150 pieces of costume and accessories take seventeen actors back to the flaring fashions that introduced the 1970s.

Those 17 actors play 28 characters. With Louise Fischer’s wise and tight direction – and, presumably, after hours of discussion and research – they depict the journalists who, led by Murdoch and Lamb, dared to defy Fleet Street’s journalistic traditions and ethics and write about scandals, sport … and sex!

Adrian Adams plays Rupert Murdoch. He makes him wilful, ambitious, confident but also caring and, in some instances, conscience ridden. Adams shows the power of the man in the way he straightens his shoulders, holds his head, stares into the light. He shows a man who makes radical decisions based on facts and the chance of profit. He also shows a man who commands respect … and affection.

Larry Lamb, editor, persuader, motivator is played by Nick Curnow, who makes Lamb hassled and under pressure, but in control. He paces as he coaxes his staff to take up ideas; smiles winningly he placates their concerns; celebrates with them as they come up with yet another audacious story. He finds Lamb’s creative intellect, his understanding of the power of being different and brave – and the burn out that comes from constant pressure and strain.

The Murdoch and Lamb they depict face criticism and condemnation and find fame and infamy. They lead a strong, talented team – at The Sun and on the stage, because Fischer has assembled a cast who bring a variety experience to the production.

Some like Les Asmussen bring years of what he calls “job acting”. Years that give him the depth of experience to portray Australian expat Alick McKay, Murdoch’s deputy, whose wife Muriel was kidnapped and murdered in mistake for Murdoch’s wife Anna. Graham referenced this in the play in a very intense scene which Fischer directed with great sensitivity – and where Asmussen shone as a man shaken and lost, bewildered and broken.

Emily Wearne shines too as Joyce Hopkirk, the women’s editor who apparently sent 200 ideas to Lamb in her bid to be part of the team. Wearne makes her strong, bold, fashionable (Hopkirk later edited Cosmo) able to hold her own in a manifestly male environment.

It seems wrong to single out only two of the fifteen cast who played so many of the real people who were part of the team behind Rupert Murdoch’s first foray into Fleet Street. Every member of the cast, whether playing one character or four, works in tight harmony to recreate the excitement and energy, pressure and pain of the first twelve months that was the beginning of an empire.

INK is another highlight for The New. James Graham’s insightful writing, Louise Fischer’s sure, perceptive direction and a very experienced cast make this a production that shouldn’t be missed.

Carol Wimmer

Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre.


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