Review: The Shallow End, Southwark Playhouse

Written in 1997, Doug Lucie’s play is visionary in that it foresaw the state that many of UK media organisations find themselves in now. We are told that when the play first premiered, it derived some negative response from the press then which thought that it was ‘a somewhat hysterical reaction’. I’ll be eager to read what the press says this time.

It is a biting account of what happens when a media organisation plans to reinvent one of their Sunday newspapers in order to increase circulation and the bottom line. These changes come at a cost to ‘old fashioned’ journalists, who believe that their role is to pursue the truth, and ultimately to society as a whole. Journalists who valued their craft and worked hard at it are soon to be replaced by glitzy, cocaine snorting, superficial journalists or wannabe ones. A conversation between the football writer and the showbiz journalist reveals what lies ahead for journalism. Specifically they both attend a football match, the former to report on it while the latter sits in the director’s box and boasts about his conversation with a high profile English football manager. The showbiz journalist knows nothing about football (he claims to be a Man Utd fan which is telling) and nor is he interested in it but what he wants is to pursue the tardy and glitzy side of football related stories. No one needs to be an expert in his/her brief when all that is required to sell newspapers is to write titillating stories. The old guard is presented with a stark choice – either accept and adapt (ie be demoted) or resign – and we see them wrestle with their own conscience in their decision making.

Needless to say the parallels between this 1990’s fictional newspaper world and the recent developments such as the hacking scandal and the unfolding revelations at the ongoing Levenson Inquiry are canny. I have always believed that the media needs some form of accountability and their influence is important but it cannot be allowed to be the most influential in determining public policy or how private enterprises are run. This is a theme that runs through the core of this play and is its most powerful message. The most memorable line for me is what the political editor’s wife tells his younger colleague: ‘The media is one of the most abused authorities’.

Presented in 4 Acts, we meet an assortment of journalists in each one. In this respect, it reminded me of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists where in each chapter you meet the various denizens of a newspaper world where, by the end, the sum of the parts make the whole. My biggest criticism of this staging is that it is far too long. There is a good story in this play but it takes a long while for it to be unleashed. Acts 1 and 2 can easily be made punchier and economical by shaving an awful lot of distracting material (sex act, references to sex, an extended soft porn routine). In fact, it is difficult to take the whole of Act 2 seriously when we see two minor characters engaged in sexual intercourse at one end of the stage throughout the Act. It’s not only demeaning to the actors but it is also demeaning to an intelligent audience. Contemporary audiences don’t need to see lurid sex acts to understand the sleazy environment of this world. Act 3 was, by far the strongest, and on the whole, the last two Acts help to bring the play together. For a play that is about the media, this new production can take a leaf out of journalism training and edit the writing ruthlessly. There should be no wasted words and every detail should move the story forward.

The friend I went to see this play with told me at the interval that this ‘is more likely to be interesting for people who work in the media’ and I am inclined to agree with him. Anyone who has had first hand knowledge of the media world will say that this play has successfully captured some of the cultural aspects. The portrayal of banter, competitiveness and self importance are spot on. But some of the journalist portrayals are ‘hysterical’ to say the least and will jar in today’s context. The largish cast do a good enough job and the performances in Act 3 are superb. The editor and the deputy editor, however, come across as too nice to crack the whip under the new regime.

As we left the theatre, I got a text message about Fabio Capello’s news. Everyone knows the press has been campaigning for him to go and I went home in a rueful mood.

Until 3 March 2012.
Written by Doug Lucie.
Directed by Sebastien Blanc.
Performance time is approximately 2.5 hours with an interval.

This review is based on a performance I saw during preview week.


About manipillai

Oh, just a few of my thoughts on theatre.
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One Response to Review: The Shallow End, Southwark Playhouse

  1. This is an excellent review and I pretty much agree with it. Act 1 was far too slow to get going, had I turned up 10 minutes late I would not have missed anything. In Act 2 the sexual intercause was very distracting but fortunately it was also slow to get going or you may have missed something.

    Act 3 and Act 4 really brought the play together although I preferred Act 4. If you are worried about the ‘freedom’ of the press and understand the true value of a quality daily then you will enjoy this play.

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