By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - Foreign visitors to London's West End may benefit from a little background reading if they have tickets for "Great Britain".
A ruthless, scatological and no-holds barred look at the British phone-hacking scandal and at media ethics in general, the play moved last month to London's main theater district after a successful run at the National Theatre.
It lost actress Billie Piper as the main character Paige Britain, a hard-as-nails tabloid editor who will get into bed with the police or the prime minister if it will net her a story.
But Lucy Punch is perhaps even more shark-like in her stiletto heels and slit-up-the-side tube skirt as she delivers the punch line on the raison d'etre of the tabloids: "That’s what we do – we destroy other people's lives on your behalf."
It has audiences roaring with laughter at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, but if the person beside you doesn't seem to be getting all the gags, it may be because the hacking scandal was not as big news in the United States as it was in Britain.
"I don't care for it - it's so over the top and in your face with so many in-jokes that I don't get," said Cheryl Downey from Los Angeles, attending a recent performance, and she was not the only American there to be a bit nonplussed.
The play by Richard Bean, who had a West End and Broadway hit with his "One Man, Two Guvnors", opened in July just after the verdict in Britain's long-running phone-hacking scandal.
The jury in the trial that transfixed the nation found Prime Minister David Cameron's former spokesman Andy Coulson guilty of conspiracy to phone hack. Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the hugely successful News of the World tabloid that was the focus of the scandal - and which press baron Rupert Murdoch shut down to appease critics - was pronounced innocent.
These and other colorful personalities have provided rich pickings for Bean and his talented cast. But not everything may click for those who don't know that a former editor of the fictional The Free Press tabloid, played with swashbuckling panache by Robert Glenister, follows a career trajectory uncannily similar to Coulson's.
And it may not be obvious to all that the press baron and Free Press owner Paschal O'Leary, played with Celtic Tiger swagger by Dermot Crowley, is a blend of Murdoch and Irish press baron Tony O'Reilly. And in a mischievous twist, the man behind a tabloid that purports to defend British values is a former high-level operative of the Irish Republican Army.
Still, as could be expected from former stand-up comic Bean, there is plenty to enjoy for those who come to the topic cold.
This includes a running gag based on a black and gay London police commissioner Sully Kassam, played with deadpan dumbness by Aaron Neill, whose officers seem to have a penchant for killing unarmed black men.
Kassam, whose press conferences are turned into YouTube rap satires shown on a massive on-stage screen, promises at one of his news briefings that his force will soon even up the score.
The play moves at a rapid pace but if you miss one gag three more come along. Many are headlines flashed on screens, often taking digs at Britain's obsession with immigrants such as: "Immigrants Can't Spell" and "Immigrant Dole Cheat's Cat Ate Salmon".
The play's second half turns darker as Bean tackles the ethical issues arising from journalists' use of voice messages that private investigators obtained by hacking into mobile phones.
When the stories concerned celebrities, footballers and royals, readers happily went along for the ride, but when the phone of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, later found murdered, was discovered to have been hacked, things came crashing down.
In the play, The Free Press, acting on phone-hacking evidence, falsely fingers a father for the disappearance of his twin girls. After he is murdered in prison, the girls' actual murderer is found and The Free Press goes from hero to zero.
"Some of you give a damn about hacking the phone of publicity-seeking celebrities and royals ... Isn't that what you pay us for?" the still-swaggering Britain, heading off to host a U.S. chat show, says in a final challenge to the audience.
"The truth is, you know as well as I do that if our hacking had led to the cops finding those twins alive I'd be a hero." And in that, she probably does have the last word.
(Michael Roddy is an arts and entertainment editor for Reuters. The views expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Aidan Martindale and Gareth Jones)