Engimatic, Beckettian, intriguing – Shells received excellent previews. Certainly, the set is impeccable: a beachcomber’s paradise, strewn with sand, flotsam and jetsam. Subtle lighting suggests the shift from dawn to day to dusk, complementing the theme of transience. Set in a dystopian future of coastal erosion, the beach is a lawless frontier, populated by two unusual bandits, Lewis (James Kitchin) and Ben (Harley Viveash). They do not collect shells per se, but rescue women from the sea, employing them in a dystopian breeding programme.
The play begins with clear Beckettian echoes. Lewis and Ben appear to form a typical bromantic odd couple, a comedy double act channeling Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon. Kitchin in particular gives a nuanced performance – nervy and mercurial, his facial expressions convey tenderness, timidity, and a malicious sense of humour. His scenes with the plucky Helen, the latest woman he and Ben have collected, work well. Rebecca Banatvala gives Helen a cheery charm which masks a touching vulnerability – like Kitchin, she demonstrates real emotional range in her scenes.
The playwright, Howard Coase, has an intriguing idea, and an ear for humorous dialogue. As last year’s production of Lead Feathers demonstrates, he is a talented and promising dramatist. However, Shells is a more problematic concept. The script progressively introduces a plethora of ideas and characters, making it increasingly unwieldy and diffuse. The effect is not one of pleasant and stimulating disorientation, but rather of disengagement.
The script does not allow the actors a chance to develop their characters and their relationships: no sooner are we introduced to them than they disappear off-stage. We see Ben at the beginning and end of the play – he effectively vanishes for over an hour. In his one appearance, Adam (Anirudh Mathur), the object of Helen’s adoration, transitions from oily, to seductive, to stony-faced, then back to oily again. The scene is excessively repetitive. Indeed, since Adam is not seen again, and is described throughout the play as never coming to the beach, it feels odd to see him at all. In contrast, Lewis and Helen’s relationship, the most appealing interaction in the play, is limited to two short scenes.
The audience is supposed to feel all at sea. However, Shells takes this a step too far – the sense of dramatic tension is lost and we become indifferent to the characters’ fates. Previewers likened Shells to Waiting for Godot, ‘a play where nothing happens’, but which is totally gripping. Its patterns of symmetry, syntax, and gesture create a hypnotic structural rhythm which transforms boredom into a theatrical experience so that it becomes an object of fascination. By contrast, I was surprised that the wonderfully inventive symbol of the shell did not recur more often in Shells – it would have provided a structural motif for the play, offsetting some of the longueurs.
If the play could have had the simplicity and emotional directness of the silent Girl, (played with intensity by Gráinne O’Mahony) throughout it would have had the force of a tidal wave. As it is, it is like the muffed sound of the sea in a conch shell – a murmur rather than a roar.
Shells is showing at the Michael Pilch Studio on Jowett Walk from 20th-23rd November at 7.30 pm (tickets here).