Reflections on the heyday of scandalous Fleet Street likely won’t stir Broadway audiences with the same vigor that roused the West End when Ink debuted there in 2017. Little matter. James Graham’s play is so well-crafted that not knowing your Sun from your Mirror is a fairly minor hindrance.
Opening tonight in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, the fact-based play, starring a ferocious Jonny Lee Miller (Broadway’s After Miss Julie, TV‘s Elementary) and, in a role that won him a 2018 Olivier Award, Bertie Carvel, chronicles the wild, woolly days of a young Rupert Murdoch and the newspaperman who helped him reshape Britain’s stodgy, moralistic press into something completely different.
Miller plays editor Larry Lamb, a working class hero with a mysterious mark-of-Cain scar on his forehead, all the journalism experience Murdoch doesn’t have and the striver’s drive they share to topple the elites who tell the public what it thinks the public needs.
It’s 1969, and Murdoch – played by Carvel with a combination of silky venom and a dreamer’s dazzle – has just acquired the faltering Sun, his inroad to British society. Or perhaps his grenade. He hires the initially skeptical Lamb and challenges him to best the top-selling Mirror within a year, and to do so by transforming the newspaper into something thoroughly of its time: Irreverent, fearless and populist.
No more preaching about the wonders of classical music – the Sun will take its readers into the love nests of the Rolling Stones. Forget the polite Women’s Page niceties – the Sun will write about sex, even if it has to use euphemisms. The readers will know what it all means.
Murdoch and Lamb quickly pull together a lean, brash staff of newcomers and has-beens, all won over by Lamb’s irresistible enthusiasm and unstoppable confidence. Before long, this guru of the newsroom even surpasses Murdoch in pushing the boundaries of taste. The Page 3 girls make their debut, bikini tops at first and, then, not.
Graham and director Rupert Goold (King Charles III, American Psycho) cleverly illustrate the exhilaration of this chaotic frontier by peppering the play with eruptions of music and dance, particularly in the let’s-put-on-a-paper first act. The band of journos is a lively, odd-lot bunch, to say the least, from the women’s page editor (Tara Summers) who both protects and exploits (to a point) her Page 3 girls to the Mod, vaguely gender-confused photographer (Andrew Durand) who makes his own path in the old boy’s club.
Unfolding against a backdrop of headline projections and on Bunny Christie’s determinedly chaotic jumble of newsroom desks stacked pyramid-shape (the second pyramid scheme to grace Broadway recently, with corpses so-piled over at Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus), Ink has us on Team Murdoch throughout the first act, as we and the play can’t help side with the underdog Murdoch once was. Who wouldn’t cheer on a crew that favors Keith Moon over whatever easy-listening medicine is on tap elsewhere?
But Ink gets a bit too black-and-white in its foreshadowing, and by the second act we know the monster that’s coming. The quick scenes and dance break-outs give way to two longer sub-plots that encapsulate what Rupert hath started to wrought: In one, the young Page 3 model we’ve come to like is all but seduced into doffing her top, a history-making move that Ink oversells as something akin to the moon landing.
And in the other, grimmer storyline, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy chairman is kidnapped and murdered by two Islamic brothers. They’d intended to take Murdoch’s wife, but bungled the job.
The two subplots are convincingly portrayed – and, yes, they really happened – but nonetheless feel, if not preachy, at least a bit obvious in their demonstrations of the dangers that Murdoch’s increasingly toxic brand of misogynist, anti-immigrant populism his Sun heralds. Press coverage of the West End production of this play has made considerable mention of Brexit and Murdoch’s role in promoting it; Broadway audiences will no doubt have premonitions of Trump, a figure who, obviously, goes unmentioned but seems to hover all the same. With Hillary and Clinton playing just two blocks away, the non-character of Donald Trump is getting a real work-out.
As good as Ink‘s cast is, though – and Miller and Carvel give two of the most commanding performances of the Broadway season – the play works best as an intellectual exercise, clever and smart but short on emotion. Even the murder feels more like a playwright’s warning than a human tragedy. It could support both.