Stop the presses. ‘Ink’ at Round House Theatre is a must-see.

In a rip-roaring co-production with Olney Theatre Center, James Graham's astute play is the origin story of sensationalism and sleaze as news.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 20, 2023: Due to an outbreak of COVID in the cast, all remaining performances of Ink have been canceled.

This page-turner of a stage play about the testosterone-driven newspaper biz is set in the late 1960s on London’s Fleet Street and features as one of its two main characters the real-life Rupert Murdoch, then a thirtysomething Aussie mogul on the make in the UK — the same Rupert Murdoch who would go on to own a global media empire including Fox News. The other main character in Ink — James Graham’s astute origin story of sensationalism and sleaze as mainstream news — is Larry Lamb, a fortyish underemployed editor whom Murdoch hires to head The Sun, a low-circulation daily that Murdoch purchased on the cheap. Lamb’s mandate: to outsell the multimillion-selling Mirror within a year — by giving readers what they want.

Murdoch’s mercenary motive is transparent:

MURDOCH: I’m going to run my paper – like it’s a business. Not a public service. Not an educational programme. Not a church. Margins, bottom lines, the figures are what counts.

Cody Nickell (Larry Lamb) and Andrew Rein (Rupert Murdoch) in ‘Ink.’ Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

Watching this modern amorality play unfold in the rip-roaring production now at Round House (co-produced by Olney), there’s a delicious irony in knowing that 50-odd years after the events it presents, Murdoch’s Fox News would have to cough up $787.5 million to settle a lawsuit for lying — which it did in order to give viewers what they want.

Graham’s taut script has the rat-a-tat-tat of a linotype machine knocking out one-liners, and the walls of Tony Cisek’s stark scenic design are covered with gray slabs of cold lead that Mike Tutah’s projections flood with Fleet Street dioramas and front-page dramas. A rumbly turntable scurries set pieces on and off, and Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design evokes the rolling thunder of presses down below.

There’s plenty in the play to give one pause, but under Jason Loewith’s sure direction the intense pace of the plot never falters, and a top-shelf cast of 13 arrests attention. Among them, Andrew Rein is disarmingly whiny as Murdoch. Cody Nickell’s Lamb becomes a brazen boss before our eyes. Craig Wallace shrewdly blusters as Hugh Cudlipp, editor of the rival Mirror. Ryan Rilette as sportswriter Frank Nicklin is enjoyably overeager. Kate Eastwood Norris as woman’s page editor Joyce Hopkirk plays queen bee in this men’s world to a T. Zion Jang is amusingly flustered as the photographer Beverley Goodway, who used to shoot dead bodies in a mortuary and gets tasked with photographing young women to adorn the paper’s notorious Page Three semi-naked — a titillating editorial feature that sends The Sun’s circulation over the moon.

As Cudlipp wisely warns:

CUDLIPP: Pander to and promote the most base instincts of people all you like, fine, create an appetite, but I warn you. You’ll have to keep feeding it.

In Act One we see Lamb assemble The Sun’s staff and conduct a brainstorming session in which they pitch, to uproarious self-satisfaction, laughable ideas for overtaking The Mirror. In Act Two we see The Sun headline the shocking story of the kidnapping and murder of one of their wives. Whatever sells is whatever runs.

Chris Genebach (Ray Mills), Ryan Rilette (Frank Nicklin), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Brian McConnell), Cody Nickell (Larry Lamb), Michael Glenn (Bernard Shrimsley), Sophia Early (Diana), Zion Jang (Beverley Goodway), and Kate Eastwood Norris (Joyce Hopkirk) in ‘Ink.’ Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

One has to admire the playwright’s command of the form and his adroit use of the historical record. Murdoch and Lamb are positioned as underdogs, upstarts on a mission “to reach people” and oust the market leader. We are seduced into rooting for them as heroes — even though in reality what they’re doing is making media ruder, cruder, and untruer. The long-term effects of Murdoch and Co.’s profit-driven quest now determine electoral politics. The script of Ink fascinatingly ticks off a checklist of the reprehensibly irresponsible values that got us where we are: sleaze and sensationalism packaged as infotainment, which Lamb shamelessly defends:

LAMB: Don’t be so bloody squeamish, it’s just a bit of fun. And no-one does fun like the Sun, right?!

Murdoch goes further. Grilled by a TV host (an impressive Awesta Zarif, who doubles as first Page Three model), the mogul defends his pandering paper as societally more valuable than voting:

MURDOCH: Listen . . . When a political party increases its vote share, that’s seen as an indication of democratic intent and you place them into government. So why then is circulation not just as good a measure of the will of the people? Better, in fact, because the choice at the ballot box is a false choice. Two options, this or that. Whereas the marketplace . . . supply and demand, what you are willing to part with your pennies for – that’s pure democracy. Modern democracy. Real choice.

Awesta Zarif (TV Host) and Andrew Rein (Rupert Murdoch) in ‘Ink.’ Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

Alongside Ink’s scathing social commentary, smart wit crackles — for instance in Joyce Hopkirk’s sharp-tongued teasing during her job interview when Lamb uncredibly tells her:

LAMB: We want to represent real women.

JOYCE: Really? You and Mr Murdoch are secret feminists, are you, that’s why you’re buying this newspaper?

The joke lands because the entire play is telling a counterstory. And what makes Ink essential theater is that it’s a true story — about men in media making money by pandering to the masses and parading women’s bare bodies and poisoning the body politic.

So stop the presses. This one’s a must-see.


Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission.

Ink plays through September 24, 2023, co-presented by Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center performing at Round House Theater, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($46–$94), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online. (Learn more about special discounts here, accessibility here, and Free Play program for students here.)

The playbill for Ink is online here.

COVID Safety: Round House Theatre no longer requires that audience members wear masks for most performances. However, masks are required for performances on September 19 and 23 (matinee).

Written by James Graham
Directed by Jason Loewith

CAST (alphabetical order)
Sophia Early: Diana/Landlady/Waitress/Chrissie/Anna Murdoch*
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh: Brian McConnel/Maurice Green
Chris Genebach: Ray Mills/Bob Edwards/Sir Percy
Michael Glenn: Bernard Shrimsley/Journalist/Daily Mail Editor/Christopher Timothy
Zion Jang: Beverly/Waiter/Journalist
Cody Nickell: Lamb
Kate Eastwood Norris: Joyce/Muriel
Andrew Rein: Rupert Murdoch
Walter Riddle: Bench Hand/Cameraman/Lee/ Howard/ Tailor/ Apprentice/Journalist/
Mourner/John Desborough
Ryan Rilette: Frank/Diner/Journalist
Todd Scofield: Alick/Sun Times Ed/ Chapel Father/Sound Operator
Craig Wallace: Cudlipp/Diner/Journalist/Stone Hand
Awesta Zarif: Stephanie/Sunday Times Editor/Linotype Operator/TV Host
Offstage understudy: Pratigya Paudel

Scenic Designer: Tony Cisek
Costume Designer: Debra Kim Sivigny
Lighting Designer: Minjoo Kim
Sound Designer and Composer: Matthew M. Nielson
Projections Designer: Mike Tutaj
Associate Director and Choreographer: Nikki Mirza
Dialect Coach: Lisa Nathans
Properties Coordinators: Anna Cable, Jason Dearing
Casting Director: Sarah Cooney
Dramaturg: Naysan Mojgani
Intimacy Consultant: Megan Behm
Production Stage Manager: Che Wernsman

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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