Broadway Play Review—James Graham’s “Ink”


Written by James Graham; directed by Rupert Goold

Performances through July 7, 2019

The cast of James Graham's Ink (photo credit: Joan Marcus)

A play about Rupert Murdoch doesn’t seem high on the list of things we need right now. But James Graham’s often thrilling, even intoxicating Ink—especially in Rupert Goold’s splendid staging—is a particularly nuanced take on the early exploits of a man whose very name conjures images of the caricatured dark lord of an evil empire.


Ink, set in 1969, begins with a restaurant dinner between Murdoch, an Australian millionaire looking to make a splash in the British newspaper business, and Larry Lamb, an editor who’s slogged away at various papers. Murdoch offers him the job as editor of the Sun, the tabloid that Murdoch has just purchased as his entry into Fleet Street. Darkly humorous and slightly ominous, this scene encapsulates and anticipates what later unfolds.


Lamb accepts the position and quickly sets about making the Sun popular and profitable in the ridiculously short time frame Murdoch has given him. Much of the first act is given over to the breakneck pace of his recruiting, hiring and getting the tabloid up and running with what looks like a skeleton crew. At the same time, the editors of the Mirror—the world’s biggest-selling newspaper, where Lamb worked years earlier—are responding to the Sun’s increasingly successful (and borderline plagiaristic) gambits, at first incredulously and amusedly, then bemusedly and, finally, very nervously.


The second act takes some darker turns: as the Sun continues its improbable rise, Lamb and his crew must come up with ever more creative ways of keeping it all moving forward, like introducing their nude Page Three girl. In a scene that’s dramatically riveting if most likely invented, the young woman (played with appropriate strength and agency by Rana Roy) insightfully describes her view of the situation to Lamb: “That’s weird, isn’t it. To think after this, I’ll go and we’ll probably never see each other again but we’re linked in this now. Handcuffed together, for all time. Isn’t that funny.”


Ink’s most potent section comes when Muriel McKay, wife of Murdoch’s deputy Sir Alick McKay, is kidnapped and responses to the crime are splayed all over the Sun’s own front pages. Lamb decides that spilling ink and adding more readers is more important than an innocent person’s life (even one connected to the paper), and when Muriel’s body is never found—presumably fed to pigs by the killers—there’s a bit of soul-searching, but not too much, as the race to the top, i.e., the bottom, continues. 


Hovering over all of this is Murdoch, flitting in and out even if he finds some of Lamb’s innovations problematic—at least until they work. The excellent Bertie Carvel plays Murdoch with a perpetual hunch, as if he’s already leaning toward what’s going to happen. Speaking out of the side of his mouth gives him a slightly sinister edge, but Murdoch never comes off as the worst person in the world—which may be why Graham adds a line, at Murdoch and Lamb’s final dinner, that he’s going to New York to buy a TV network. ("TV is the future," he casually says.) The audience dutifully groans.


Skillfully keeping apace of Carvel is Jonny Lee Miller’s Lamb. Miller has to do most of the play’s heavy lifting, as he’s onstage nearly the entire time. He also has to be amped up for long stretches, barking out orders, yelling at subordinates, screaming for new and better ideas, even angrily taking control of the printing process after the union men and women refuse when the McKay kidnapping breaks. But Miller is never showy or blatant; his noisy rage is plausibly within range of a man whose Faustian bargain may preclude him from keeping his dignity. 


Goold’s directing mirrors Miller’s performance—sometimes it seems overdone (a few winking song-and-dance routines in the first act), but it’s of a piece with the Sun’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink ethos. Bunny Christie’s imposing set, on which a mound of office furniture is precariously stacked in helter-skelter fashion, spectacularly visualizes that go-for-broke attitude. Christie’s own costumes, Neil Austin’s canny lighting and Adam Cork’s haunting sound design also contribute handsomely to Ink's sordidly enticing atmosphere.


Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY