Great Britain – Lyttelton Theatre @ National Theatre, until 23 August (transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 10 September)
Leaving aside any judgement on the qualities of Richard Bean’s Great Britain, we must first applaud those involved for what the play attempts – an immediate response to the biggest domestic news story since cash for questions – and how – in the world of social media – they managed to keep it under wraps to pretty much everyone.
There is a certain irony in a play entirely focused on leaks, hacking and exposure being kept secret right up into previews – and that it was achieved by the country’s biggest theatre company, with a lead who has been forced to grow-up under the bright glare of the tabloids’ flashbulbs is a remarkable achievement.
Richard Bean proved with his artfully balanced adaptation of Goldoni’s One Man, Two Guvnors that he is capable of broad comedy that captures the public imagination. The play operated as traditional British farce whilst simultaneously deconstructing the genre by breaking through the fourth wall and toying with the audience’s expectations. That it was a success was probably to be expected – with James Cordon reconfirming his exceptional comic talents after a series of mediocre moves in TV and film – but the fact it has become a global mega-smash was not predicted and must have placed an awful lot of pressure on Bean for what he would come up with next.
That his response was to attempt something as ambitious as Great Britain demonstrates he is a man clearly up for a challenge, and it is pleasing to see how admirably he has risen to it. With Great Britain he tries another form of alchemy in attempting to blend the mechanics that drive farce with an attempt to explain a highly complex and incredibly serious series of events that do not deserve to be treated lightly. It is as if Bean was attempting to create the lovechild of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and Democracy.
Bean doesn’t succeed in what may have always been an impossible proposition but it is undeniably great fun to see him try. There are an awful of laughs in the show and they come from all angles; from the wonderful faked headlines of the papers – right up to the Guardian’s tagline of ‘we think so you don’t have to’ – to the ribald language of the tabloid’s newsroom, which masks an amazing felicity of expression among the journalists.
The play takes a number of sacred cows and turns them into hamburgers, and as a result the air is thick with gasps followed by laughter. Taking these jokes right to the edge of acceptability is absolutely necessary for the play and it should create an interesting, and uncomfortable, tension for the middle-class, liberal audience members busy reading the Independent on their smartphones, whilst pretending that they are not keeping one eye on the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame.