Ray Rackham reviews The Shark Is Broken now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, London.
The Shark Is Broken
Director Guy Masterson’s tour de force production of Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon’s new play started in a 90 seat theatre in Brighton in 2019, has been through all of last year and has found itself a perfect home in the West End. A rush of music greets the audience, as a collection of songs first released in 1974 (from the likes of the Rubettes and ABBA) almost over-amplify the Ambassadors Theatre. The curtain is up, and Duncan Henderson’s version of ‘the Orca’ (perhaps the most famous boat in cinematic history, aside maybe from its larger cousin The Titanic) sits stoically on the stage and is beautifully lit by Jon Clark’s atmospheric light design; the vessel’s imposing state augmented by Nina Dunn’s clever video framing of the sea surrounding Martha’s vineyard, placing the audience squarely in the Atlantic, just south of Cape Cod, in a time that seems just far enough away to feel nostalgic and yet so familiar, it’s very much in the present. There are no trucks, wheeling in other locations we know so well from the movie. There are no set pieces flown in from a fly tower. We have the boat, the projected waves, and a sense of eerie contemplation. What follows is a thought-provoking and entertaining examination of three male egos; a moment-in-time discourse on filmmaking; and a mirror held to both in 2021.
The performances of all three actors are thrilling. Demetri Goritsas plays the assured presence of a tiring and ‘seen-it-all Roy Scheider with perfect pitch, almost replicating temporally the role that Sheriff Brody had in the actual screenplay. Liam Murray Scott has an exactness to the boundless energy he brings to the part of Richard Dreyfuss that is a masterclass in playing a living person. So acute is his loveable portrayal of Dreyfuss’ annoying arrogance there are moments where he stops just short of our hoping that either Goritsas or Shaw would push him overboard. As for Shaw himself (playing his actual father, the brilliant, restless, alcohol-dependent Robert Shaw), there are no superlatives that haven’t already been used. It is an incredible portrayal of a man who would not seem out of place in a Shakespearean tragedy. Much attention has gone to not mimic the actors and performances that have been woven into the tapestry of pop culture for almost fifty years; but to become solid, grounded characters themselves; thrown in the deep end of the Atlantic sea, bobbing along aimlessly while the filmmakers try to fix a mechanical shark named Bruce; maybe the only other character in the play; unseen yet unrelenting. These performances are some of the finest you will see on the West End stage and all three embody a time and place in the fragile existence of Hollywood actors; and the end of the Golden Age of movie-making. Shaw’s performance, depicting a pivotal scene in the movie, but as the Epilogue of the play (and anyone who has seen the movie can guess what scene it is) sent collective shivers down the spines of everyone at the Ambassadors. Special mention must be made to Kara Tsiaperas’ dialect coaching.
Shaw and Nixon’s script has been re-drafted somewhat to fill the new 90-minute running time of this West End version. The play is funny, and there are many laugh-out-loud moments. Dreyfuss bemoaning that they can put a man on the moon and yet they’ve built a mechanical shark that doesn’t work in saltwater raised perhaps the first titter of the evening; whilst Scheider reads the Nixon headlines of the New York Times. There are perhaps one too many knowing glances into the future. References to the inevitability that Nixon may be ‘Trumped’ as the most corrupt President in the future, for example, or an exclamation as to the state of the movie-making industry embarking on a Shark slasher movie concluding ‘what next? Dinosaurs?’, bordered on that fine line between laugh and groan. And, for one audience member’s taste at least, extending the play to its new 90 minutes running time had afforded the missed opportunity to provide a slightly more solid arc in the relationship between Shaw (who believes he’s washed up at 47) and Dreyfuss (who is frustrated that he hasn’t even started at 27) which could have allowed for a greater impact as to their now-legendary arguments and fights on and off set. That being said, what we were given was a collection of funny, interesting, and moreover thought-provoking vignettes; a chance to peek behind the curtain and explore the realities of waiting for a mechanical shark to work, so you can ‘act’ alongside it.
All of the action takes place on the Orca, the floating ‘set’ of the third act of the film Jaws; and like the third act of the movie, for any Jaws fan, Henderson’s design of The Orca is worth the ticket price alone. It’s spliced in half, allowing the audience to bare witness to pivotal moments that had taken place during what was a fraught filming period. It appears almost disemboweled, a neat design conceit given the material, and Henderson’s attention to detail is exquisite. The claustrophobia woven into the script is physically embodied in the design; whilst seagulls can be seen and heard flying around and above three stand-alone performances. The Shark is Broken is that rare find, a marvellous example of how a production becomes so much more than the sum of its parts; even when – creatively – everyone is punching above their weight.
The shark may indeed be broken, but the play seems indestructible.