Theatre: Press barren

The Shallow End Royal Court, London
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The Independent Culture
Like the wife of the political editor, who rattles off a list of the warping occupational hazards of journalism, and even helpfully numbers them for us as she proceeds, Doug Lucie's new play, The Shallow End, makes a lot of articulate, worthwhile points but fails to amount to much as a dramatic experience.

Having cast a cold eye on the worlds of PR (Fashion) and televangelism (Grace), Lucie now directs his attention to the Press. This latest piece takes place at a lavish corporate wedding reception thrown by an Australian media mogul whose company Internews (ring any bells?) recently bought a left-to-centre Sunday newspaper with circulation problems. While champagne is quaffed, coke snorted and a waitress is dispassionately rogered on a billiards table, it becomes a case of a wedding and several funerals as the purge of the old guard and the drive downmarket begins.

"Wise up, shitforbrains, you're pissing in the wind," the departing features editor is advised by the newly hired star columnist (Julia Ford), a mini- skirted Northern bisexual who has written a shopping-and-fucking novel ("You think it's easy to write trash? It was exactly what it was meant to be"), who dirty-talks the editor to orgasm, and whom one would assume was a figment of Lucie's sick imagination, if one did not know better. She's sure about what the public wants, all right. Her. Not a feature on Derrida, but "what I, or someone like me, thinks about Derrida". She is the news, not the news, and this charming humanist is going to take the paper into the 21st century.

The issues of freedom raised when working for a company that owns newspapers, satellite television, publishing houses and so forth are given a worthy airing, but the play never surprises you (as it should) into a fresh perception of what is at stake. Thus, we dutifully hear the middle-aged football writer (Trevor Cooper) complain that his end-of-season round-up was spiked because of its less than glowing praise for the influence of satellite TV on the national game. Likewise, Nigel Terry's Rees, a John Pilger-ish journalist who, while working for Internews, has been compiling a damaging documentary about its shady operations in South East Asia, is a voluble mouthpiece for views about the baleful effect on choice of the company's monopolising digital decoder. The strategy of Internews, he observes, is "pollute the market, distort it, drag the quality and the price as low as they can go, and then, if there is still a market after that, fine, because you're the major player... and anyway you control most of the alternatives".

Despite all the differences of opinion, The Shallow End remains stubbornly inert as drama. You feel that Lucie had his sympathies all cut and dried before he began to write. You never find yourself warming to a character with whom you disagree or experiencing a sneaking admiration for what you know, rationally, is deplorable. By bringing the Murdoch figure to the centre of the stage in Pravda, David Hare and Howard Brenton created for themselves the problem of seeming to celebrate what they had set out to excoriate. You couldn't help but be stirred by the vision and the unholy energy of Lambert Le Roux and this was valuable, because it gave your reaction to his monstrous behaviour a dangerous and revealing ambivalence.

Lucie, determined to retain a tighter control on audience response, keeps the media mogul out of sight "enjoying a day in the bosom of his family", though for all the hints we get of off-stage hobnobbing in Robin Lefevre's production, the rest of the hired country house could be deserted. Is the drive downmarket a response to chance public tastes or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Will print journalists be the coal miners of the next century? Such questions resonate in too thin an atmosphere in a play whose best joke is more than somewhat indebted to an Alan Jay Lerner quip against Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Royal Court (Duke of York's), St Martin's Lane, WC2 (0171-565 5000) to 15 March

Paul Taylor