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CRUSHED SHELLS AND MUD – Southwark Playhouse, London.

Crushed-Shells-Dress----Jack-Sain-2015-2850Writer Ben Musgrave presents us with a view of a dystopian Britain in some unspecified future that only gradually comes into focus. When Crushed Shells and Mud begins we seem to be in slightly more comfortable territory.

An abandoned caravan sits above a beach that is not the finest in the area – too much mud for that. From the roof of the caravan, the droopily creative young man Derek (played by the excellent Alex Lawther) sits and composes stories and poetry, only to be harassed at intervals by his creepily violent and needy friend Vince (played by the very good Alexander Arnold). So far, so good, and as two opposite and complementary examples of the male psyche, these two make for compelling, if slightly unnerving watching.

There is a huge sense of place here and the set (designer Ellan Parry) deserves some credit. The caravan and the clearing within which it sits will be the focus for the unfolding drama.

Into this clearing and this relationship intrudes a stranger, the enigmatic and beautiful Lydia (Hannah Britland), who quickly upsets the uneasy balance of friendship between the two young men. For Derek, she emerges like a mermaid from the seashells and mud of the shore, and is the tangible resolution of everything his soul demands. For Vince it seems, she could resolve some more immediately physical issues. Getting to this point perhaps takes longer than it should, but the play has the look of something very watchable.

But then comes the bear thrown into the canoe, or something like it. Britain is being ravaged by some kind of ebola-like illness. The population is panicking. Victims are being shunned, even though it seems there is some kind of treatment that will keep it in check. Lydia is one of the victims of this new plague and members of an organisation called ‘The League’ are there to use their holier-than-thou arguments to reinforce their fascist, survival only of the fittest, views. A member of The League, Peter (Simon Lenagan) comes to lecture at the local village hall.

While the point of focus is the two young men and their rivalry – in love, attitude and opinions – the balance survives, just about. But when we shift into ‘1984’-style territory, things are a little shakier and less well thought through.

Of course, Lydia prefers the dangerously attractive Vince to the more diffident and artistic Derek (though there isn’t much psychology to back her choice). In desperation, Derek feels forced to the point of betrayal, and there have to be some weirdly ex machina interventions in order to find a resolution to the whole thing. Harry Potter has his Ford Anglia. Here there is a mysterious Morris Thousand Traveller.

So, overall the play is very watchable, and enlivened by some excellent performances, a good set and eerie sound design (Richard Hammarton). However, it is too long, doesn’t really follow through on some of the interesting questions it raises, often doesn’t reward anyone whose first concern is logic, and lost me completely towards its conclusion. “Interesting” has to be the verdict, rather than “compelling”.

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Reviewed 05/10/2015

By Michael Spring

1st – 24th October 2015
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD.

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