Crushed Shells and Mud*** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: October 6, 2015 in Theatre

crushed shellsThis review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Best described as an apocalyptic drama encased inside a coming of age story, Ben Musgrave’s new play is set against the backdrop of the panic that ensues when a mysterious, highly contagious disease strikes South-East England. The disease is referred to only as ”type 37 contamination”, but, as it is transmitted through contact with body fluids, we must assume that the writer is alluding to repercussions from the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa and the Worldwide HIV/AIDS scare of the 1980s. Victims of the disease are being ostracised like lepers, London has been sealed off and the coastal area where the play’s action takes place is building up its defences. Derek (Alex Lawther) is a shy and awkward teenager who finds sanctuary in a secluded spot where the sea is visible when standing on top of a caravan. He writes poetry in peace until the arrival of Lydia (Hannah Britland) from London and a friendship begins to form, interrupted by another teenager, Vincent (Alexander Arnold), who is an assertive and occasionally violent bully. This triangular affair seems rather a cliche, but Musgrave adds a dash of mystery, dropping in hints of something sinister going on beneath the surface and slowly revealing what it is during the course the first act. Lawther’s sensitive performance is superb, giving Derek, who in lesser hands could be just a boring nerd, real depth. Britland also shines, bringing out Lydia’s innocence, confusion and terror. Vincent begins as a stereotypical thug, but he later softens and Arnold handles the transition convincingly. A chilling sub-plot introduces Peter (Simon Lenagan), a zealot representing “The League”, a movement with the aim of defending against the disease and, effectively, persecuting its victims. Musgrave now demonstrates how fear, fuelled by religion and patriotism, can sow the seeds of fascism in the fertile minds of impressionable youngsters. At times sweet and romantic, at other times harsh and even cruel, the play’s fragile structure is held together by Russell Bolam’s slowly paced and thoughtful direction. Ellan Parry’s sets and Richard Godin’s lighting are particularly effective in creating an unsettling air of troubled tranquility. Occasionally Musgrave does not appear completely certain of the messages that he wants to send, particularly in an unsatisfactory conclusion that draws upon symbolism when a grounded vision is most needed. Yet, for all that, some of the imagery is haunting, the performances are top class and the progression of the play always keeps us enthralled.

Performance date: 5 October 2015


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