The Shallow End isn’t a slick production; “oleaginous” one might say, but slick, not so much. Rather, it’s a semi-prescient piece from the early days of the Murdoch stranglehold, dredged back to light due to the Leveson Inquiry and a decent attempt at timeliness. An attempt, indeed, to be “not funny… witty”, and like a mid-season writing staff change on your favourite TV show, deficiencies in dialogue are made up for by the cast simply talking too fast.
It’s 1997 (or thereabouts) at a grand family wedding; we’re watching the ruthless scything of journalistic jobs as a newspaper is taken in a ‘new direction’ by its almost mafia-esque new owners. It’s the old guard against the pitiless new breed of media heavies, and despite an attempt at moralistic shades of grey by playwright Doug Lucie, the whole thing feels like a giant lecture in good vs. evil. There’s little the cast can do with this script other than rattle off the hyper-sexualised, sensationalist dialogue with a hideously self-aware tone.
True, there are a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments (mainly delivered by Stephen Chance’s laconic Foreign Correspondent) but in the main the delivery stays in the vein of an irritatingly cocky sixth form boy who’s just discovered irony.
Just cocky sixth form “boys”, though? Sadly yes, given that the few female characters to grace this play are generally two-dimensional, whose only currency is sex; old or young, waitress or editor’s wife alike. Louise Templeton does eke out a small dose of humanity from the marginalized Alison Toop, political editor’s long-suffering wife, but to sympathise with the character itself is almost a step too far.
Frustratingly, Lucie was indeed somewhat the prophet: the Leveson Inquiry tells us as much. But this play of semi-clever boys, playing their journalistic game of Risk only stiffly scrapes the surface of what was happening then, and continues to come to light now. Despite the dire warnings of profit-based, showy ‘journalism’ ruining the world and our country’s moral fibre, this play is the literary equivalent of the imaginary newspaper: tabloid analysis in a world where real broadsheet depth is needed.