Writer: Tim Thomas (music, book and lyrics)
Director: Matthew Gould
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
The issue of combat “shell shock” – in a modern context, diagnosed as “combat stress reaction” or post-traumatic stress disorder – seems to be an odd subject for a musical. That’s a reaction that’s only compounded by Waterloo East’s new production, Shell Shock.
Set in 1975, the bulk of the story is taken up with the return of soldier John (Simeon John-Wake) from a little-known combat operation in Dhofar. Clearly traumatised, the once cheery man is withdrawn, angry, and cannot tolerate the slightest noise – a problem when his precocious daughter cannot stop talking, singing or generally demanding to be the centre of attention. The contrast between relentless cheeriness and psychologically caged brutality has the potential to be a fertile ground for exploration as a play, or even a musical, but Tim Thomas’s book and lyrics are so banal that any such possibility evaporates. John’s big solo number trying to explain what is going on in his head revolves around the dire couplet “Too much makes me mad/Too much makes me sad”. It’s a couplet which is not only repeated within that number, but then sees the mad/sad construction repeated by his daughter Emily as she struggles to understand what is going on. It’s indicative of the lyrical quality that permeates the whole show.
Between numbers, the actors’ dialogue is little better – every character stumbles from cliché to cliché, uttering lines that would be rejected by the worst soap opera. Things aren’t helped by a ham-fisted parallel story structure about Mark, a man who discovers his grandfather was shot as a deserter in World War I, but who was possibly an undiagnosed victim of shell shock. That story is further hindered by having Mark’s grandmother die during Act I, and only reveal the back story of his grandfather via a ghostly appearance in the second act. One can only feel sorrow for Maggie Robson as grandma Ada, whose strong vocals are wasted on this material.
What is perhaps most annoying about ShellShock is that one can see the germ of a good idea being strangled by ham-fisted writing and direction. It cannot seem to decide if it is a gruelling family drama, or a children’s musical – expletive-laden implications of domestic violence sit uneasily alongside an overlong, extended flashback to a happier John reciting an Edward Lear-style nonsense verse to his daughter. Thomas’s music does have a nice balance of tone throughout, with Ada’s reminiscences evoking the music of the age. Weighed down inside a badly plotted and scripted structure, though, what bright points there areare few and far between.
The one saving grace of the production is 14-year-old Ana Martin as Emily. While her character is written as a generic annoying child, alternately a wise if confused young adult and petulant toddler, Martin nevertheless commits so wholeheartedly that it becomes impossible not to connect with her. It will be interesting to see this young actor’s career flourish with better material. As it is, when John angrily demands that he wants peace and quiet and everyone to shut up, it’s hard to disagree with him.
Runs until 19th April