As well as co-writing, Shaw stars in The Shark Is Broken as his father, the actor Robert Shaw. It’s 1974 and Robert, along with Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, is struggling through disastrous production on the film Jaws. The play takes place on one of the boat sets during the filming of the movie. Liam Murray Scott’s Richard Dreyfuss is jittery (mostly from nerves, partly from coke) and facing constant disdain from disgruntled, whiskey-drenched Robert Shaw. Co-writer Shaw Jnr presents his father as acerbic and amusing, and is also unafraid to show Robert’s arrogance, aggression and alcohol issues. Placid, professorial Scheider, played by Demetri Goristas, just wants to get through the production without either of his co-stars killing each other.
The trio pass the hours until they’re called for their next scenes by drinking, gambling and bickering. They gossip about their director “Stephen” (Spielberg), who is a continual source of frustration and concern. They compare childhoods and careers, and debate the point of cinema and art. Dreyfuss frets about which Shakespeare role he’s best suited to while Shaw tries to teach his American co-stars to play shove ha’penny. It’s reminiscent of life in lockdown, though with the added surrealism of being on a boat on a film set and continually delayed by a faulty mechanical shark.
The Shark Is Broken transfers to London following an acclaimed debut at the Edinburgh festival. Nixon and Shaw’s unpretentious play holds its subject matter with affection, while having a firm grasp on the ludicrousness of movie-making and acting. At ninety minutes with no interval, the play is the right length to explore its themes and characters without becoming repetitive. The Shark Is Broken raises plenty of points about life onset and the development of blockbuster cinema. In a story focussed on actors, I especially appreciated Shaw reminding Dreyfuss how many more hours the crew work than the cast.
Addiction is a key theme- early on Dreyfuss attempts to wrestle Shaw’s scotch from him, though in a later scene the pressure has got to Dreyfuss, and he’s turning up to set high himself. It’s refreshing to see these big themes dealt with in a small-scale story. Scott’s adorable, annoying, ambitious Dreyfuss was my favourite of the three great performances. There are laugh-out-loud moments from all three characters, though the play indulges too frequently meta jokes about everybody’s conviction that Jaws won’t be a hit.
The Shark Is Broken is well-suited to the intimate venue of the Ambassador’s Theatre. The boat itself feels claustrophobic for the characters yet open to the audience, anduse of a projected backdrop is a simple and effective way to show the boat’s movement and the passing of time. Transitions between scenes were noticeably efficient in their pace and use of lighting.
You don’t have to be a Jaws superfan to enjoy The Shark Is Broken, though a quick skim through the movie’s Wikipedia page beforehand is recommended. In the play, the film’s cast are sceptical about the success of the movie they are making. A sell-out run in Edinburgh, a punchy script and strong performances mean that there’s no need for those doubts about The Shark Is Broken.