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Stuart King

Review: NETWORK at the National Theatre

Network - National Theatre Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s multi award-winning movie from 1976, played to a packed and enthusiastic audience at last evening’s Press Night. The production’s box office success is already guaranteed for the duration of its run (although some day seats are available), due in no small part to the casting of Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Trumbo) as TV News anchorman, Howard Beale. The part won Peter Finch an Oscar for his portrayal which sadly had to be awarded posthumously.

This is one of those rare occasions where a stage play of a successful film, works impressively well - due largely to the TV studio environment which lends an impressive fluidity and flow to director Ivo van Hove’s production, whilst enhancing the solid narrative structure.

After 27 years reporting the news for a loss-making network, Beale is being put out to pasture. He takes the opportunity of his last broadcast, to tell a few home truths, thereby reawakening viewer interest and causing a sensational spike in advertising revenues, the potential of which, is not lost on his employers. A young and ambitious studio producer Diana, convincingly pitches her format idea to capitalise on Beale’s new found connection to the masses. The role which earned Faye Dunaway her Oscar, is played in this production with confidence and panache by Michelle Dochery.

Studio execs run with Diana’s idea and soon offer Beale a broadcast slot to vent his spleen about the state of society, through which he quickly ascends to the position of people’s messiah.

Jan Versveyweld’s set and lighting is masterfully devised with hand held cameras moving around the stage transmitting directly to a large screen which acts as the nation’s living room TV. In these moments, Beale rants, breaks down, cries, eulogises and postulates. Given the complexities of a television studio, the whole environment is realised amazingly well; especially notable, was a scene where Cranston sits with the audience and is filmed from the stage musing gently on the world’s ills.

Whilst set in 1970s America, understandably, the production team have been quick to recognise significant parallels with today’s society which is a great strength. A screen montage relayed after the bows, in which every US President since Gerald Ford swears to uphold the constitutional rights of Americans, drew snickers, loud cheers (for Obama), boos and obscenities (for Trump) and generally gave everyone an opportunity to exchange opinions on the state of the world as they headed out of the theatre.