The Shallow End

Doug Lucie
Stone Junction Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Doug Lucie's play premiered at the Royal Court in 1997, a decade after the year long battle between Rupert Murdoch's News International and the print unions when the newspaper group transferred The Times, The Sunday Times, The News of the World and The Sun to its secretly equipped new site in Wapping, changing technology from Fleet Street's hot metal machines to lithography. That was all part of the Thatcher-led campaign to crush the trade unions, but it was also a demonstration of the power of the barons of the press. While the landslide to "New" Labour in 1997's election, giving the party their largest majority ever in the House of Commons, may have brought a sense of euphoria to some parts of the Left, this play gave a dreadful warning of how their power could change our lives.

What in 1997 was shocking is now sadly all too familiar to anyone who reads a newspaper, let alone those actively interested in the media. We have seen just how close media moguls get to government but nevertheless this revival by Stone Junction is timely.

The Shallow End is set in a press magnates country house during a family wedding, but though (almost) everyone is in morning suits with flowers in their buttonholes, we are not there to watch the nuptials, nor it seems are many of the guests. Away from the office, the management of a serious Sunday paper is carrying out company policy and restructuring to create a paper geared not to inform its readers of what they need to know but to give them "what they want", or rather a dumbing down to what its owners think will make more people buy the paper. Key journalists are among the guests and being called in for private meetings, where they are given the choice to "fit in or fuck off" as the editor wields the axe.

It starts with the paper's editor Malcolm Kirk interviewing a potential new columnist. The conversation is more about exploring sexual fantasies than journalism and when the deputy editor joins them it is clear that she's going to be part of the team. As Nikki Slater plays her, in a glittery bosomed black dress that looks more like a negligée, her long legs and red high heels makes her tower above them, you feel there's something going on that even they don't know about. The features editor who is called in would clearly have to play second fiddle but worse, she remembers how he reviewed her book and puts the boot in.

The next scene emphasises the kind of change that is coming: a football writer, keen on the game, set against the showbiz journalist who spends it in the director's box and reports the gossip. In the same room, while they talk and snort coke, a junior colleague with a waitress spread before him on a table has the longest bonk you've ever seen on stage.

A modern audience hardly needs the porn to tell it that the media world is full of sleaze; it's already busy telling us itself. The first half of the play drags and attempts at humour not being helped by low light behind drawn curtains. I could not help feeling that perhaps this should be played as farce.

Things begin to take off after the interval, helped by more light. Stephen Troop, the political editor, and a political journalist are playing a game identifying quirky political quotes and situations each sets the other. Seamus Newham makes Troop an old school patrician whom you can't help but feel sorry for. His younger colleague Brennan is more pragmatic, "dealing with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be". Left with Troop's wife when her husband goes off for interview, she recalls that the last time she saw Brennan she gave him a blow job. It is a scene that Louise Templeton and David Benoliel play beautifully. The characters are now becoming truly believable and the wedding in its huge marquee is offered as a metaphor for the way journalists play the game while knowing it is all nonsense.

Back to Kirk (Mario Demetriou), who has now called in maverick foreign correspondent Rees. Stephen Chance makes him an outspoken Australian, laid back with feet up on the table as a demonstration of his confidence, for he thinks he has things sorted with a television exposé of the company nearly finished. He hasn't counted on the groups CEO, a smooth bulldozing bully as Jim Barclay plays him. Doug Lucie extends his target now beyond former Fleet Street to the whole media scene and perceptively has Kirk already looking ahead to the disappearance of newspapers, replaced by other, equally monopolistic media. No wonder the media give so much space to breaches of privacy self-flagellation; they are just the debris floating on the surface.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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