By William Wolf

SAVORING TWO PLAYS AT BRITAIN'S NATIONAL THEATRE  Send This Review to a Friend

On every trip to London I head for the National Theatre, where one can always count on seeing works of stature. The venue again lived up to standards, as among the plays my schedule permitted me to catch were two enjoyable comedies, the new “Great Britain” and the revival of “A Small Family Business.”

We’v e been reading about the scandals involving the British press and Richard Bean has written a lacerating, extremely funny play that spoofs the shenanigans behind the headlines. The exposé is alive with fictional characters that Brits in the know are able to recognize as akin to some of the actual personages involved. Some of the in jokes inevitably slip by an American visitor, but I found more than enough with which to connect.

Lots of projections light up screens with front pages and news stories. The brisk staging by Nicholas Hytner evokes memories of the speed with which a good production of the American classic “The Front Page” achieves. The newsroom banter on stage at The Lyttelton is fast and often profane, rendering all very realistic. Take it from one who first entered journalism as a copy boy in a New York daily and then wrote for a wire service with offices in a newspaper.

The acting is consistently of a high quality, with characters colorfully delineated. The spotlight is mainly on Paige Britain, the ruthless, ambitious news editor in the fictional publication under inspection. She is played by Billie Piper, who has achieved much praise for her performance. On the surface I found her over-acting shamelessly, including with exaggerated body movements. But I’m sure all of that was worked out most carefully to satirize a real-life target. Piper is highly entertaining in her behavior, whether in the newsroom. in a sexual escapade or maneuvering to survive.

One especially amusing and enjoyable performance is given by Aaron Neil as the corrupt, gay Police Commissioner Sully Kassam. His speaking in platitudes is hilarious, as are his cover-ups. One of the funniest lines is the show is a characterization of Kassam’s dalliance with a male subordinate as a violation of a Biblical admonition -- “Thou shalt not comfort they rod with thy staff.” There is also a story peddled about the Queen having played the drums in a Hitler Youth band.

The cast is very large, with some doubling in roles, in the kind of elaborate production that would be expensive to stage in the commercial realm of the New York Theater, or even a West End production in London. Yet a West End run was scheduled following the enthusiastic reception to the play.

For all the humor, “Great Britain” also projects a serious side, harshly judging some and also including personal tragedy. This is not a sleazy take-off, but a very sophisticated satire of a high stature. It remains very timely given the results of the split-verdict, phone-hacking trial that generated huge interest in Britain, as well as abroad.

The other play I caught was a revival of the prolific Alan Ayckbourn’s “A Small Family Business,” another satire, one that also has current meaning in light of the avalanche of corruption that has surfaced in the business world.

Ayckbourn is an amazing playwright, and I have derived pleasure from all of his works that I have seen, including a few examples recently staged in New York. “A Small Family Business,” begins with a party at which Jack McCracken, played with great flair by Nigel Lindsay, taking charge of a family furniture business from his doddering father, vows to keep everything very honest with a passion for the up-and-up. The business, he pledges, with be run with the greatest show of morality, down to every paper clip.

The play is populated by a group of odd-ball characters, including Poppy, Jack’s wife (Debra Gillett), Nicky Wardley as Jack’s sexually aggressive sister-in-law Anita, and Matthew Cottle as a private eye with his own agenda. Of course, the minute we hear the pledge of morality, we know the result will be the opposite. The ensuing situation becomes more and more tangled, with revelations about past corrupt practices, desperation growing comically, and Italian mobsters also involved. There is one compromise after another, with honesty hard to find. Expedience becomes the order of the day, and Ayckbourn’s play takes on a timely effect even though it is a revival.

Adam Penford’s direction neatly mixes funny lines, Ayckbourn’s broad characterizations and dashes of slapstick, and once again one is made to realize how funny Ayckbourn can be even while producing social commentary. Reviewed August 31, 2014.

  

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