If, as an aspiring newspaper theatre critic, I didn’t come out of The Shallow End thoroughly depressed, it would be doing something seriously wrong. Doug Lucie’s play, first seen at the Duke of York’s Theatre via the Royal Court, presents the death throes of the newspaper industry. Reader, I’m pleased to tell you that it toe-kicked me into the bluest of blue funks.
Nevertheless, that’s not to say that Stone Junction – the company behind last year’s fringe revival of another Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling – is doing everything right. Lucie’s play, which is crass enough already, needs downplaying before it needs relish, and director Sebastien Blanc fills it with wide-boys, toffs and tarts.
The point, surely, is that the Street of Shame drags its ordinarily reasonable and respectable inhabitants down. In a media culture – indeed any culture – that puts profit above all else, standards of decency are continually eroded. Intelligent men and women choose to sell out, betraying the fundamental of journalism: truth. The noble and the ignoble, who face off in various permutations during each of the four distinct scenes, should not belong to different species.
The Shallow End is, of course, a thinly veiled attack on Rupert Murdoch’s empire. News International is here renamed World News Corp – there’s little more nuanced than that – and its Sunday paper is being reinvented by new editor Malcolm Kirk (Mario Demetriou, replacing the Scottish-accented Andrew Neil-alike with an Essex wide-boy a la Andy Coulson). That means culling his staff – the old and the idealistic – and bringing in new faces, brash and inexpert hacks every one. As Kirk himself says (and you to realise that, whatever the fate of newspapers, he’ll survive elsewhere), ‘So the wheel turns’.
Kirk‘s hiring and firing takes place at the mogul’s daugter’s wedding. Lucie takes us, step by step, towards the inner-sanctum, from the frivolity of arts and features (out with the critic, in with the straight-talking, sexualised columnist), through sport and politics and, finally, holding the whole company over a barrel, maverick foreign correspondent Harry Rees. That means the play can swell, but even where barnstorming conspiracy supplants pettier misdemeanours, it is fatally two-dimensional.
With the Leveson machine rumbling on, Lucie’s bludgeoning attack looks timely from afar. The Shallow End is very much a mid-nineties play, however, and – worse – a product of the very same culture it sets out to satirise. Full of blow, bubbly and banging, it slots quite snugly into the post-Mojo slipstream of men behaving badly. For every moment of Lucie’s lucidity, there’s another dragged under by luridity, and The Shallow End starts to look like the Fleet Street equivalent of Footballers’ Wives. Pravda it is not.