Theatre review: Ink, New Theatre

New Theatre makes a good fist of James Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s first forays into Fleet Street. 
Ink by New Theatre. Six people are lined up on a dark stage holding identical copies of The Sun newspaper in front of themselves, obscuring their faces.

Today he’s a global media behemoth, so it’s easy to forget that Australian-born Rupert Murdoch was once little more than a colonial upstart with a dream and a hell of a lot of chutzpah. 

At least, that was his standing in the UK in 1969 – the place and time we meet the mogul in Ink, James Graham’s riveting play about Murdoch’s acquisition of The Sun.

While The Sun became a wildly popular red-top tabloid, it wasn’t always that way. When Murdoch (played by Adrian Adam) buys the paper and persuades Daily Mirror subeditor Larry Lamb (Nick Curnow) to come aboard as editor of The Sun, it’s a staid, plodding broadsheet with a small, declining readership.

With his can-do Aussie enthusiasm, Murdoch sees an opportunity where others see a liability. Upon purchasing the financially flailing paper, he changes its format from broadsheet to tabloid and sets Lamb a challenge: make The Sun the most popular newspaper in the land within 12 months. 

The establishment scoffs, not least supercilious Mirror editor Sir Hugh Cudlipp (Simon Bolton) who sees Murdoch as an Antipodean vulgarian who’s out of touch with British values.

Murdoch and Lamb, vowing to bring egalitarianism to Fleet Street, set out to “give the people what they want”: a diet of celebrity gossip, scandals, sex and sport. Out with sober news reports and worthy features; in with ribald stories about pop stars, sensational crimes, politicians’ infidelities and all things fun and titillating.

Lamb, given autonomy as editor by Murdoch, takes to his role with relish. Having learned from the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) he is soon “out-Murdoching” Murdoch, showing no bounds in his pursuit of the salacious. 

The play’s first act is a bright and breezy treatment of the situation, drawing laughs aplenty as the editorial team behind this new kind of newspaper skewer stuffy social mores. Particularly good is a hilarious brainstorming session in which Lamb questions his motley crew of journos about their private peccadilloes, to mine them for editorial content.

The time in which the play is set – the tail end of the Swinging Sixties – presents an opportunity to plunder the period for striking visuals and sounds. This production does exactly that, with the creative team including set designer Tom Bannerman, costume designer Aibhlinn Stokes and sound designer Kevin Davidson creating a memorable world of bellbottoms, miniskirts, paisley patterns and swirling Sixties soundscapes.

But Ink is not just fun and froth – far from it. Soon, the morals of Lamb, Murdoch and co are under scrutiny, and things take a very dark turn. 

In act two, the wife of News Limited executive Sir Alick McKay (Les Asmussen) is kidnapped for ransom, the kidnappers having mistaken Muriel McKay (Charlotte Sherston) for Murdoch’s wife Anna (Sophie Highmore). Instead of complying with police requests not to publicise the crime, Lamb decides to milk it for all it’s worth, splashing it on The Sun’s front page day after day – with disastrous results. 

The performances in Ink are strong throughout but, at this point, the acting prowess reaches its zenith. Asmussen’s portrayal of a widowed Sir Alick in the aftermath of the tragedy is gut-wrenching. A shocked silence from the audience soon gives way to scattered sobs, underscoring the devastating power of Asmussen’s performance. 

Faithful to the real-life events of late 1969 and early 1970, Ink portrays the fact that The Sun’s coverage of Muriel McKay’s kidnapping and murder took its sales to new heights. But it wasn’t enough to meet Murdoch’s challenge, with its circulation still second to the Mirror’s. At this point, Lamb devised a cunning tactic – one that took The Sun to the top: the introduction of the tabloid’s infamous Page three girls.  

The procurement of the first Page three girl, Stephanie Rahn (adroitly played by Mariah Stock) sees the show explore the sexual politics of this fascinating time, when the hippy-led “free love” era began to give way to the harder, bleaker realities of the UK in the 1970s.

In many ways, The Sun itself is a character in Ink. It functions here as a symbol of capitalism in its purest form and a marker of history, tracking the start of the Murdoch media empire’s expansion beyond Australia and New Zealand. 

Read: Musical review: Sunset Boulevard, Princess Theatre

This Louise Fischer-directed production doesn’t proselytise – but watching this powerful play about the rise of The Sun, audience members will come to their own robust conclusions about the “Murdochrasy”, arguably the most powerful force in the history of the mass media. 

Ink by James Graham
New Theatre, Newtown NSW
Director: Louise Fischer

Set Designer: Tom Bannerman

Lighting Designer: Peter Ross

Costume Designer: Aibhlinn Stokes

Assistant Costume Designer and Dressmaker: Burley Stokes

Sound Designer: Kevin Davidson

Vision Designer: Verica Nikolic

Assistant Director: Spark Sanders Robinson

Dialect Coach: Benjamin Purser

Stage Manager: Rosane McNamara

Assistant Stage Manager: Marc Monnet-Demarbre

LX/SX Operators: Alice-Rose Nolan Lucchetti, Matthew Forbes 
Cast: Adrian Adam, Les Asmussen, William Baltyn, Simon Bolton, Nick Curnow, Sophie Highmore, Brycen Horne, Gerry Mullaly, Jack Elliot Mitchell, Emmanuel Nicolaou, Charlotte Sherston, Mariah Stock, Parker Texilake, Daniel Tompson, Chad Traupmann, Jane Wallace, Emily Weare

Ink will be performing until 29 June 2024.

Peter Hackney is an Australian-Montenegrin writer and editor who lives on Dharug and Gundungurra land in Western Sydney - home to one of Australia’s most diverse and dynamic arts scenes. He has a penchant for Australian theatre but is a lover of the arts in all its forms. A keen ‘Indonesianist’, Peter is a frequent traveller to our northern neighbour and an advanced student of Bahasa Indonesia. Muck Rack: