THE SHARK IS BROKEN by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon (David Mirvish/Sonia Friedman Productions/Scott Landis). At the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King West) until November 6. $59-$159. mirvish.com. Rating: NN
Some Fringe shows should remain at the Fringe. What might seem exciting, novel and fun in a festival context and a more intimate venue can, after the transfer to a bigger theatre (with subsequent increased expectations, not to mention ticket prices), seem small and insignificant.
That’s clearly the case with The Shark Is Broken, the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe hit that transferred to the West End in 2021 (delayed because of COVID-19), got nominated for an Olivier and subsequently earned a spot in Mirvish’s subscription series. Watching the 90-minute show I kept thinking, like the song says, “Is that all there is?”
The thin premise – if you can even call it that – is simple. During the filming of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie Jaws, the film’s mechanical shark, nicknamed Bruce, kept malfunctioning. And so the film’s actors – Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw – were left with a lot of time on their hands.
In real life, the three got to wait things out, and grumble, in their hotel rooms on Martha’s Vineyard. In Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon’s unconvincing setting, however, they’re marooned on the film’s boat (a decent enough replica designed by Duncan Henderson), passing the time by playing games, drinking, discussing their careers and wondering if the film they’re making will be any good.
The in-joke, repeated endlessly, is that we know Jaws will be a huge commercial hit and a masterpiece; we know that all three actors will be forever tied to it; and we know that the young Spielberg will go on to become one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. And so all of their doubts are misplaced.
But The Shark Is Broken seems content with stating the obvious. Apart from some bits of casting trivia you can easily find on Wikipedia, and some references to Vietnam and Nixon that merely help establish the era, there are cheap gags about how future movies will all be sequels and remakes.
Slightly more interesting are the things that haunt the actors. Shaw (played by Robert’s actual son, co-writer Ian) is a functioning alcoholic who wants to write more and struggles with reconciling his artistic aspirations with the demands of the entertainment business. Cocky upstart Dreyfuss (Liam Murray Scott), who’s no stranger to cocaine, is simultaneously obsessed with fame and deeply critical about his talent. And finally Scheider (Canadian Demetri Goritsas) is… well, it’s hard to say, because his role is the least developed. We do learn about how he broke his nose, however.
It’s a shame the play doesn’t explore its own title. The fact that the shark kept breaking down forced Spielberg to find ways to suggest its presence and hence increase the film’s suspense and tension. I’d love to see a show that illustrates that.
The most absorbing parts of the play are inspired by or drawn from the film. Shaw, Nixon and director Guy Masterson keep returning to Quint’s famous USS Indianapolis monologue, which Robert Shaw helped write, to see how it changes. Nina Dunn’s video projections of vast ocean, clouds and the occasional seagull has a cold beauty – it’s also one of the only things to look at. (I kept hoping the boat would revolve and show us something different.) And sound designer Adam Cork’s use of some of John Williams’s well-known score, including the iconic shark theme, will, like all of these things, make you want to rewatch the film again.
Ironically, the film that comes to mind while watching The Shark Is Broken isn’t Jaws, but rather Cast Away. Watching three dudes talk about nothing for an hour and a half, you’ll feel trapped and want to escape. Wilson would be better company.