Shells is the latest offering from Howard Coase, the Trinity second year who co-wrote last year’s Bluebeard and Lead Feathers. In a departure from plays set in Britain in the last hundred years, this one draws the audience into a post-apocalyptic future, complete with The Road-style landscapes and sinister social degeneration. The shells of the title will be strewn across the floor of Balliol’s Pilch Studio in 6th week, along with some carefully sourced conches, sand and seaweed. Shells constitutes one half of Rough Hewn’s Wasted Earth season, and was written as a response to the other half: Dawn King’s Foxfinder.
The idea for the script was conceived by director Eddie Gilmore and Howard Coase. Now the script is written, Gilmore has now taken over fully at the helm, and the script is being treated as a stand-alone, unchanging text. The cast discuss ambiguities in the script and decide together how to interpret them, rather than asking the playwright directly. Gilmore aims to give new writing the attention and budget it deserves: design will be by Anouska Lester, the brains behind the exquisite production of Arcadia which was staged at the Playhouse in 1st week.
Foxfinder is set in a Britain which has developed new values and scapegoats in response to devastating food shortages; Shells seems to take place in a closer future, where rising water and eroded coastline have displaced entire communities but a new moral code hasn’t yet been defined. Its protagonists exist in a moral vacuum, cut off from society in a hut on Britain’s south coast.
The play opens with Lewis (James Kitchin) and Ben (Harley Viveash), two displaced young men whose friendship has sinister undertones: Benny mocks and baits Lewis, who is huddled on the floor with his knees up to his chin. His position is endearing, but first impressions are deceptive: sweet Lewis stands up and walks about, morphing from a child into an inarticu- late but fully grown man before the audience’s eyes. He proudly describes how he “squeezed” a woman he found wandering around the night before; a woman who is now “asleep” in the next room.
The script draws in the audience by laying clues about the situation, but refusing to fully explain the premise or the characters’ backsto- ries. Frustratingly, no one would tell me what happens at the end – I was told that human trafficking would become a theme, but basically I should come along in 6th week and see. Lead Feathers was incredibly good at building and breaking suspense: hopefully Shells will merit the suspense it’s already created.
The quality of Coase’s previous scripts, combined with the gloss we’ve come to expect from Rough Hewn, should amount to a professional and compelling production.
Shells is on at 7:30pm at the Michael Pilch Studio on Jowett Walk from 20th-23rd November, plus a matinee on the 23rd. Tickets are £6-8