At the end of Richard Bean's rumbustious, kaleidoscopic, very funny and mildly depressing new play for the National Theatre - the one they announced last week and opened last night - Billie Piper as Paige Britain, news editor on a scabrous tabloid called the Free Press, sets out a vision of the country she wants to live in.

She's no surer of what this is, exactly, than we are, though it might involve the synthetic movies of Richard Curtis and endless re-runs of Vaughan Williams' quintessentially English romance, The Lark Ascending. Her newspaper's motto is "working together today to make tomorrow better than yesterday."

And the shenanigans of the Free Press, which is owned by an ex-IRA Irish proprietor bidding to take over a commercial television station even if it means stripping the BBC of its licence fee, promulgate this knackered vision by hacking phones, hounding paedophiles, sleeping with politicians, conspiring with policemen and schmoozing celebrities.

So nothing we recognise there, then. "I'm with you on the free press, it's the newspapers I can't stand," says a character in Tom Stoppard's bitingly nostalgic journalism play Night and Day, but the side of journalism we see here is only the nasty side. The Free Press operates in virtually the same marketplace as the fictitious titles of The Dependent and The Gardener, as well as the Daily Mail, "destroying people's lives" on our behalf.

The overall impression of Bean's play and Nicholas Hytner's bustling, highly populated production - designed by Tim Hatley, lit by Neil Austin, with music by Grant Olding - is of one big news conference rushing excitedly towards an exposé until stopped dead in its tracks by a revelation of its own methods of operation (no surprises there).


"The overall impression of Bean's play... is of one big news conference rushing excitedly towards an exposé "

The kinetic energy of Howard Brenton and David Hare's Pravda, the NT's last panoramic take on journalism, 20 years ago, stemmed from the voracious energy of a Rupert Murdoch-style South African entrepreneur, Lambert Le Roux, unforgettably played by Antony Hopkins. But his energy was double-edged, his power lust tinged with the revenge of a colonial striking back at an ailing and fatally timid empire.

Here, that proactive energy is split between Dermot Crowley as the proprietor, Paschal O'Leary, and purple-faced, fit-to-bust Robert Glenister as the foul-mouthed editor, Wilson Tikkel; these two incorporate elements of well-known figures without resembling them, exactly, and without either really taking the play by the scruff of the neck as Hopkins did.

Still, the sense in which certain right-minded activities in journalism are tinged with criminality is boisterously conveyed, and in ten years' time we could probably view the play, almost disbelievingly, as a Jacobean-style city comedy of Ben Jonson or Thomas Middleton.

Just as the first audiences for Everyman in his Humour (in which Shakespeare acted) or A Chaste Maid in Cheapside would recognise their contemporaries, so we can play I-spy with Kelvin MacKenzie, Rebekah Brooks (Jo Dockery plays a rising editorial star with long curly hair and a boyfriend in Emmerdale), that undercover "investigative" journo who dresses up as an Arab (and in this play puts seven nights in the Savoy on his expenses), the case histories of Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann.

There's also a carnal Conservative prime minister called Whey (Rupert Vansittart), a scurrilous urchin called Jimmy the Bins (Ian Hallard) who riffles through rubbish to find more, and a comic Asian police commissioner (Aaron Neil) who takes responsibility for shooting the wrong black guy in Lidl and claims to be a footie fan ("Sunderland till I die") until hit by a flying pig.

The cast list extends, almost limitlessly, to include Oliver Chris as a malleable copper, Andrew Woodall as an unscrupulous police apologist, Maggie McCarthy as a risible Labour MP, Harriet Thorpe as a gorgonesque PR consultant and Iain Mitchell as an old-time sports reporter.

"You couldn't make it up," Richard Littlejohn is fond of declaring on the Mail. But of course, in the theatre, that's precisely what you can do. Who would believe a boat party of politicians taking pot shots at seagulls? Or a rumour that the Queen once played the drums in the Hitler Youth Orchestra?