Who's for a fat lip?

Doug Lucie used to be known as a bit of a bruiser, merrily laying into assorted Oxbridge and media types with witty abandon. Now, in his latest play, he's turned his pen on Fleet Street. Should we hold the front page? By Adrian Turpin
When Doug Lucie writes a new play, a whole section of society runs for cover. In the past, it has been Hampstead-dwelling TV researcher types (Progress), Oxbridge wankers (Heroes), evangelists (Grace) and advertising executives (Fashion). In the 1980s, critics thumbed the thesaurus to find synonyms for scabrously funny, as Lucie honed a Shavian wit to give a much-needed boot in the pants to the moribund art of issue-based theatre.

So, when news emerges that he has written a black comedy set at the country- house wedding of the daughter of an Australian media mogul and featuring the take-over of a Fleet Street Sunday newspaper, tongues begin to wag. And when an early draft emerges, there is some eager speculation about the characters in the script. Consider the following: Malcolm Kirk, the fortysomething domineering editor. "Divorced but married to his work, he suggests more drive and energy than he has to show. He is Scottish, smooth and very assured, with an analytical mind." (In the words of the brash columnist, "Another middle-aged man aching to be a trendy young thing again".)

Consider also Harry Rees, foreign correspondent: "He is originally Australian, but gives off a sense of statelessness. A life-long anti-establishment figure."

Or Percy Wadsworth: "A former Thatcher aide cum journalist who has recently recanted his past beliefs. He is slightly foppish with a twinkle in his eye."

On first acquaintance it seems that The Shallow End, which previews at the Royal Court from Thursday, is the theatrical equivalent of a roman- a-clef. "Whispers around the West End are throwing up names like Rupert Murdoch, Andrew Neil and Julie Burchill," a recent diary story in the Evening Standard claimed. It quoted Lucie as saying, "There isn't a character with funny hair or red braces, I guarantee." The paper added archly: "Who can he mean?"

Doug Lucie is customarily portrayed as British theatre's Mr Angry, the son of a milkman from Chessington, who went to Oxford University and never quite got rid of the chip on his shoulder; the man who in 1986 told an interviewer that he had compiled a "fat lip list" of people who deserved a smack in the mouth. ("That's the problem. People stereotype you. I'm 43 now, I've got a daughter. I don't walk around kicking things," he says.)

He is initially hesitant about doing any publicity for his new play. Will he allow his picture to be taken in front of a news-stand? No. What about reading a paper? Nothing doing. "I don't like people from the media," he tells our photographer. "Tell them, if they don't like the pictures, I was being an obstructive bastard."

But on the day we meet, a fortnight before the photoshoot, he is civility personified. A little gaunter in the face than expected. A bit hyped- up, perhaps, from too much coffee and the cigarettes that he chainsmokes as we talk, but not the bruiser of reputation. He's keen to set straight a few misconceptions about the play.

"Let me make it very clear. I do not have any personal vendetta against individuals in the media. I'm not involved in that world. That's not what I'm about. I am very concerned about the globalisation of the media, the way that, as someone says in the play, decisions are taken, 'from a building high in the sky on another continent'. There will be certain areas of the media that feel they are under attack, but I don't even want the play to be simply limited to the media. What I'm trying to do is say something about the way we work now. These days people feel that their working lives are out of control. I feel very deeply that that is bad for people. When anybody asks me what this play is about, I say it's about bullying."

In the past, he admits, he has caricatured specific individuals in his work ("I've lost a few friends that way"). In what he calls this "public play", Lucie is more interested in creating composites with a universal appeal. "On any night in the theatre, I think, there'll be a whole spread of the reading public there. I wanted to make characters broad enough so that everyone in the audience can say, 'Ah, I recognise that.'"

Anyway, the characters inevitably assume a life of their own once they reach the stage. The Scottish editor in the script, Lucie points out, has become an Irishman (played by Tony Doyle) in Robin Lefevre's production. "One of the reasons it is not set in the offices of a newspaper is that - and I don't mean this as a terrible criticism - is that journalists tend to be terribly literal in this situation, and the last thing I want is an audience of journalists pointing at the stage and complaining that there aren't enough paperclips there." Quite the contrary, it seems. Stephen Daldry, the artistic director of the Royal Court, who commissioned The Shallow End, was recently quoted as saying, "I've shown it to people like Andrew Neil, Harry Evans and others in the business, and their response has been very positive. They recognise the truth of the play."

It is not a very pleasant truth. It is full of betrayals (of principles and people), and spiced with unpleasant sex. The opening finds Kirk indulging in sex games with a female columnist he is trying to hire, while another extraordinary Hogarthian tableau involves a priapic showbiz hack, a billiard table, two ageing Tory-leaning columnists and a football reporter. "I think I've gone into my Old Testament phase now on certain things," says Lucie.

There is something prophet-like, too, about Lucie when he gets into his stride talking. He spouts like a geyser. He talks about the pop music he loves ("My claim to fame is that my band once supported Supergrass. Pretty sad for someone my age"). He spends a long time lamenting the triumph of lowbrow culture. "For me, one of the turning-points was in Cracker, when Robbie Coltrane got up to lecture to some students, picked up some books, threw them into the audience and said something to the effect of 'You don't need those, it all comes from within here.' I nearly wept."

He tongue-lashes - in no particular order - Michael Portillo, Gordon Brown, Oxford City Council, Bernard Levin and the Spice Girls. And it dawns on me that, should he ever want a second career, he's opinionated enough to make it as a newspaper columnist. What, I ask, was his ambition at school? "I was probably going to be a journalist."

'The Shallow End' previews from Thursday at the Royal Court (at the Duke of York's), St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-565 5000)