'The Shark is Broken' review - A murky 'Jaws' backstory with impressive visuals and familial bond
This 2019 Edinburgh Festival smash has belatedly arrived on the West End, trailing wreathes of glory and with onward American destinations presumably in its sights. So I hope it’s not overly churlish of me to admire the venture in principle while pointing out that Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon’s three-hander, with Shaw himself leading the cast, is hardly the first north-of-the-border sensation to look somewhat exposed in the altogether different glare of the West End. Put another way, The Shark is Broken has a freewheeling quality ready-made for Festival high spirits after a pint or two. But both the writing and acting need no small degree of fine-tuning if this is to go the full commercial distance. Duncan Henderson’s witty design, happily, is already there, and some of the production’s funniest moments, not to be spoiled here, are visual.
The location is, in fact, the shipboard Martha’s Vineyard set in 1974 for (you guessed it) the movie Jaws, encountered at the very moment that Bruce, the mechanical shark, is failing to deliver the goods. Tempers are seen to fray across several months of gathering tetchiness – counterbalanced by occasional bonhomie — between the film’s three stars: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss. The selling-point here is that Ian Shaw happens to be the son of the late, great English actor, Robert, the onetime Oscar nominee (for A Man for All Seasons) who died in 1978 at 51, when Ian was only eight. That, in turn, means that Shaw junior, as co-author, has had to assemble the on-set substance of his own play from research as opposed to first-hand acquaintanceship, instead relying on the latter to bring his beloved dad to life anew – a challenge that must constitute a fascinating psychological ask not least for a child whose memories of a parent, at such a tender age, are inevitably filtered through the very specific perceptions of youth.
In fact, Ian Shaw’s performance – spiky, articulate, beautifully spoken in the elevated style of his richly voiced dad – is the highlight of a play that coasts a lot on sheer novelty value to get through some notably dodgy writing. A longish 90 minutes, no interval, the play has barely begun before we get a wearying fusillade of reports as to what Steven Spielberg’s film isn’t: it’s not Shakespeare, we’re told, nor The Great Gatsby (why should it have been either?). At the same time, the recalcitrant Bruce prompts the tired reflection that humankind can put people on the moon but can’t get a full-size, pneumatic shark to work: that’s the sort of observation I thought had been retired in 1975, the year Jaws was released. (An impressionable, beach-loving teenager at the time, I remember the film, and the terror it generated that summer, vividly.)
Director Guy Masterson’s production sees all three stars as archetypes, who are given a stance which each must rigidly then occupy, to diminishing effect as the play goes on. Scheider, a wonderful actor whom I recall fondly on stage and film, here comes across as a humourless pedant always ready with an unneeded fact or two and who at least gets a cursory back story denied to the stage depiction of Richard Dreyfuss: I had forgotten about the boxing injury that resulted in Scheider’s broken nose, age 13, and that gave the actor such a distinctive look. Dreyfuss, of these three, is the only man still alive, and one has to wonder what he would make of this portrait of him as a hyper-nebbishy Jew viewed as the “pearl” opposite the “grit in the oyster” of the combative, heavy-drinking Shaw. Or maybe if this ends up on Broadway, he can be cajoled into playing himself?
I’ve met Dreyfuss professionally on several occasions and can attest to this actor’s intelligence, so was somewhat surprised to see him characterised here as a dimwit, who may have principles but doesn’t understand a reference to Neptune and whose affinity for serious theatre (he went on to have a proper, if admittedly bumpy, theatre career) is given short shrift: Liam Murray Scott nails the actor’s signature laugh but looks more like Philip Seymour Hoffman, in case there’s a bioplay of that much-missed actor coming down the pike.
Ian Shaw as expected makes of his dad a pearl of a part, going so far as to conclude the play with Shaw senior in full-on Quint mode as if to admit that the invented chit-chat by then has played itself out. You wince earlier on at a cheesy, audience-grabbing reference to Richard Nixon as a president whose immorality was/is likely ever to be surpassed (yeah, right), and a reference to the celebrated “napalm girl” photo from 1972 seems far too cheap an exercise in period-defining shorthand, which isn’t in any case the play’s real interest. One notes near the end that the play has to borrow the jokes of others – WC Fields on the dubious cleanliness of water – instead of finding any fresh ones of its own.
More to the point is riding the coattails of a film seen from the inside and given undeniable heft by a family member who can chronicle the difficult birth pangs of an iconic movie while simultaneously reviving a grand actor who in every way deserves his aborted place in history. Long after yet another reference to clam chowder and an improbable three-way debate as to what Jaws is really about (Shaw’s comically to-the-point answer sounds as if it could have come from Harold Pinter, who is himself invoked in passing), the evening belongs to two generations of Shaws: one taken from view well before time only to live on in the homage paid to him by a son whose mixture of respect and affection is in no way mechanical but, unlike the difficult Bruce, snaps immediately to attention and stays there. The shark may be broken but the Shaws own the play.
Photo credit: Demetri Goritsas (Roy Scheider), Ian Shaw (Robert Shaw) and Liam Murray Scott (Richard Dreyfuss) in The Shark is Broken (Photo by Helen Maybanks)