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The Shallow End

There's little action --- a scene of sustained fornication notwithstanding --- and lots of talk in Doug Lucie's "The Shallow End," but given the high-level fury of the talk, who can complain? A state-of-the-nation play that finds Britain in a worse than parlous state, the play ranks with the very best (that's to say the earlier) work of its noted Oxford-educated leftist author, who on this occasion manages to suggest Ben Jonson refashioned by someone like David Hare. After taking on the advertising industry in "Fashion," Lucie's terrain here is the press (specifically the Murdoch empire, though the Murdoch character remains offstage). While Lucie's invented Internews is clearly News Intl., "The Shallow End" is no documentary. Set at a country house given over for a corporate wedding reception, it uses the media as a prism through which to examine a society in which truth and decency no longer count, expediency and bucks do. There's no good or bad, we are told early on --- only "what's allowed." Or as another in this blithely amoral milieu puts it, "It's just how it is."

With:
Cast: Tony Doyle (Kirk), Nicholas Day (Drummond), Julia Ford (Slater), Alan David (Toop), Jane Asher (Alison Toop), Alexander Hanson (Brennan), Nigel Terry (Rees), Stan Pretty (Fleming); David Cardy, Theo Fraser Steele, Angie Alderman, Trevor Cooper.

Lucie is far too clever on this occasion to stoop to sermons, even if it is never difficult to tell where the characters leave off and the playwright’s own harangue, however laudable, begins. With a structural cunning that recalls the first act of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” he gives us mostly pairs and trios of people in differing combinations, all of whom are either feeling the squeeze or doing the squeezing.

Would these exchanges actually occur? Perhaps not, though amid a Fleet Street climate in which people can be fired via e-mail, who’s to say? In the opening scene, it hardly matters that a thirtysomething columnist (Julia Ford), clad (naturally) in black, might not come on quite so strong in real life to her paunchy editor (Tony Doyle). What counts, in theatrical terms, is the bloodcurdling brio of an encounter between two generations of piranhas whose real-life prototypes will be obvious to London journalism connoisseurs. And if employees may not be quite so ready to set their bosses straight as the Australian investigative journalist (Nigel Terry) in the last scene, the encounter has a richly barbed payoff that keeps the evening from emerging as too many talking heads.

As directed by Robin Lefevre on Robin Don’s elegant set, those “heads” are almost all superbly played, especially when one considers that most of the large cast are given little more than one conversation in which to establish character. An unrecognizable Terry is particularly impressive as a seeming lout from Down Under who turns out to be unimpeachably upstanding: This is one play in which the devil, surprisingly, doesn’t always carry the best tune.

That’s certainly true of Lucie’s other moral exemplar, Alison Toop (Jane Asher), sleek yet unhappy wife to the political editor (Alan David) who is being none so kindly let go. “Just remember,” she tells the young correspondent (Alexander Hanson) with whom she once had a guilt-inducing fling, “they throw you off when the ride ends. If you don’t crash first.”

For all the play’s ideological fury, it is Alison who shows Lucie’s concurrent flair for domestic malaise. Describing a marriage as dead as her husband’s job, she reflects on her spouse’s wedding-day speech. “Not funny. Witty,” she concludes, eyes downcast. The play, on the other hand, is both. And chilling, too.

The Shallow End

LONDON

Production: A Royal Court presentation of a play in two acts by Doug Lucie. Directed by Robin Lefevre. Sets and costumes, Robin Don

Creative: ; lighting, Mick Hughes; sound, Paul Arditti. Opened, reviewed Feb. 16, 1997, at the Royal Court; 586 seats; £18 ($30) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Cast: Tony Doyle (Kirk), Nicholas Day (Drummond), Julia Ford (Slater), Alan David (Toop), Jane Asher (Alison Toop), Alexander Hanson (Brennan), Nigel Terry (Rees), Stan Pretty (Fleming); David Cardy, Theo Fraser Steele, Angie Alderman, Trevor Cooper.

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