From “42nd Street” onwards, backstage stories were once a staple in the theater, and while there was often a shark or two, they were usually only of the loan variety. But in the West End play “The Shark Is Broken,” it’s an actual (unseen) shark – or at least a mechanical facsimile thereof – that dominates this behind-the-scenes glimpse of the turbulent filming of “Jaws.” Co-written by and starring Ian Shaw, son of the original film’s co-star Robert, and armed with his father’s diaries, it offers an intriguingly unique angle. But like the sea during the famously nightmarish, 159-day shoot, much of the result is frustratingly becalmed.
Both patient Demetri Goritsas (as a painstaking Roy Scheider) and high-energy Liam Murray Scott (as a self-obsessed, neurotic Richard Dreyfuss) prove themselves considerably more than lookalikes as they convincingly talk their way through Guy Masterson’s production, a hit from the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show depicts the men’s frustrations on the increasingly over-budget movie, which went 104 days past schedule thanks to the demands of a relatively new kid on the block, Steven Spielberg. But it’s Shaw junior who delivers the biggest jolt: Costumed as per the movie, he is a dead ringer for his father.
Filmmaking tends to be portrayed as glamorous, but “The Shark Is Broken” captures the sheer long-winded boredom of it as the three actors measure out their days in card games, sparring and, in Shaw’s case, heavy drinking. Initial wariness sours into skepticism and rivalry. Stuck most days on board the little boat out at sea — previously, sea movies had filmed in tanks rather than on the actual ocean — their fractiousness soon develops into full-blown fights. Anyone for whom fact-based authenticity is the priority is likely to be satisfied.
But while theater loves a familiar property, one as well-known and fully examined as “Jaws” brings its own problems. As the play’s script points out too many times, no-one, especially this squally triumvirate, had any idea the movie would wind up a blockbuster hit. (It’s now 13th on the list of all-time movie hits with an inflation-adjusted gross of $2.1 billion.) Audiences, however, do know that, since that success and the ceaseless fan fascination it spawned resulted in not only three sequels but umpteen making-of documentaries. The facts, in other words, are already out there.
Although Shaw and his co-writer Joseph Nixon lace their script with some of those facts plus well-worn theories about the movie (a cross between Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” a chase and a monster movie), what they’re really writing is a character study of the three men. Scheider is the peacemaker between patronizing Shaw, who thinks it’s beneath him, and Dreyfuss, who, aided by a serious coke habit, is desperate to get his career into orbit and more than willing to sell-out for success.
There are nicely unexpected laughs along the way — Dreyfuss beats himself up with the knowledge that “Jews should stay away from the water” — but unexpected moments are few.
Unsurprisingly, the meat is reserved for Shaw’s strong, insider portrayal of his father. But tender though he proves to be beneath the bluster, the portrait of a man struggling with his career, alcoholism and lacerating self-disgust lacks surprise. From its initial promising conceit, the script’s gradual decline in tension feels all the more noticeable given that masterly control of tension is the quality that distinguishes the original film.
Between its Edinburgh run and its arrival in the West End, the show has attracted a raft of impressive producers and excellent production values. Adam Cork’s soundscape mixes atmospheric effects and John Williams’ unforgettable score, while Nina Dunn’s video set design, together with Jon Clark’s lighting, makes the static boat look genuinely at sea. It’s the kind of transfer that small companies at Edinburgh dream of, but it’s going to take an a high degree of audience good will for the enterprise to float in the West End.