In Depth

Billie Piper 'excellent' in tabloid satire Great Britain

National Theatre's Nicholas Hytner rushes out play which had to be rehearsed in secret during Coulson trial

A new play by Richard Bean, directed by Nicholas Hytner, opened at the National Theatre last night. Great Britain had to be rehearsed in secret because its subject matter is a tabloid phone-hacking scandal.

With former News of the World editor Andy Coulson convicted of conspiracy to intercept voicemails - and his ex-lover Rebecca Brooks acquitted - the play has been rushed to the stage, to great acclaim from the newspaper trade it savagely attacks.

The author's chief bile is reserved for "a fictional tabloid called the Free Press" says The Guardian's Michael Billington, "though glancing references are made to a paper called the Guardener whose masthead boasts 'we think so you don't have to'".

Bean's play reminds us "of the sins of the powerful", says Billington, giving it four stars out of five. Written with "real verve" it has the "bracing quality of topicality" but is also "blessedly funny". The only downside: it could do with a trim.

It's Billie Piper's turn as news editor of the Free Press, Paige Britain, which gets the most praise. She is "thrillingly persuasive", says the Evening Standard's Henry Hitchings in another four-star appraisal, "at once odious and irresistible". (Who can he be thinking of?)

The Independent's Paul Taylor agrees that Piper is "excellent" and, also awarding four stars, says the show is "directed with terrific niftiness by Nicholas Hytner". He lauds it as "laughter-making on an industrial scale".

The play has attracted attention from outside the UK. The Hollywood Reporter found it "overstuffed and uneven in tone" and warned it was "peppered with cultural references that may confuse non-Brits" but it nevertheless admitted that Great Britain "puts an agreeably lurid and highly amusing slant on current events".

For the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish also finds Piper "convincingly shallow and ruthless" - and gives the "vitriolic, bluntly entertaining comedy" the obligatory four stars.

Cavendish also detects a "darker second half", where "despite Bean's constant heavy-handed editorialising" the play "stops looking like a bold, topical summer filler, and becomes required, conscience-pricking viewing".

Great Britain "initially has the audience tickled pink with its levity, then finally blushing red with national shame" says Cavendish.

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