Rough Hewn Theatre prides itself on making people think, and I have seen very few plays that have achieved this as much as Shells. Howard Coase’s piece of new writing is creative and clever. The production includes quite remarkable performances, natural dialogue and, above all, a fresh and captivating storyline. Each of these elements was abundantly clear at times, suggesting the work of a very promising playwright. As a whole, though, it doesn’t quite fit together perfectly. It is almost brilliant.
Shells is set on a littered beach with a corrugated iron shack, in a dystopian world where the sea is gradually consuming the land. Along with the thoughtful use of lights and sound, the illusion is designed very effectively. On entering the Pilch, Lewis, played by James Kitchin, is sat there shivering in an old arm chair. He is a very eccentric character, awkward yet sharp in conversation, always looking occupied as if a thousand thoughts are running through his mind.
When it starts, Ben (Harley Viveash) appears on the beach and begins light-heartedly teasing Lewis for not waking him up. They speak in thick West Country accents – maintained throughout – as we find out slowly that they are working together on some ‘procedure’. Despite the strange setting, their dialogue feels very natural and their chemistry is strong. Though the confident, laid-back Ben patronises Lewis, the latter’s intelligence makes the dynamic really interesting, and at times also very witty. Kitchin and Viveash were extremely believable and their performances were exceptional, especially towards the end.
Without wanting to give too much away, with the introduction of a girl, Helen – performed well by Rebecca Banatvala – and the leader of the ‘business’ Adam (Anirudh Mathur), we gradually find out that the ‘procedure’ is human trafficking. Plot points are placed into the dialogue effectively, but unfortunately the energy was allowed to drop in the middle of the play.
Though he was not meant to be a straightforward character, Adam was less believable than the others who, despite their uncertainties, seemed oddly real. His scene with Helen lacked the electric atmosphere that seemed to be there in the writing. As well as the slight dip in force, perhaps the play bombarded the audience with too many questions and open-ends. Though these were mostly resolved in a powerful ending, the amount of ambiguities that were brought across sometimes undermined the flow of the play.
Despite these shortcomings, the play is incredibly impressive in what it is trying to do, and in many cases also successful. The performances, especially from Kitchin, are at a very high standard, frequently matched by fantastic writing. It is exactly the kind of thought-provoking piece that theatre should be attempting, and it is well worth seeing.
Shells is playing at 7:30pm at the Michael Pilch Studio on Jowett Walk until Saturday 23rd November, plus a matinee on the 23rd. Tickets are £6-8