Review: The Shark is Broken, Ambassadors Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Three men in a boat (to say nothing of the shark) could be the subtitle to this clever, funny and extremely entertaining retelling (or imagining) of the behind-the-scenes interactions between stars Robert Shaw (Ian Shaw), Roy Scheider (Demetri Goritsas) and Richard Dreyfus (Liam Murray Scott) on the set of Jaws, as they impatiently wait for their eponymous co-star to be repaired. The play, co-written by Ian Shaw, who plays his own father, opened to rave reviews at Edinburgh Festival in 2019 and is finally making its well deserved West End transfer.

The play begins, appropriately, with that famous two note theme before we open on the interior of the Orca, on which the majority of the film’s action takes place. The boat, designed by Duncan Henderson so that is a tight, claustrophobic space for the actors but open to the audience, is surrounded on all sides by a spectacular sky and ocean, by video designer Nina Dunn, that moves from night to day and from sunshine to storm. It’s here where the three actors are stuck.

Demetri Goritsas, Ian Shaw and Liam Murray Scott. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Their roles are quickly established; Roy is the wise head, playing referee between the drunk, impassioned Robert and the high, frustrated Richard. Shaw, Goritsas and Murray Scott all put in fine performances, managing to bring these familiar characters to life without straying into imitation or caricature. Shaw is the best of the three; squinting and starring into the distance, his eyebrow sometimes cocked, he could be his father, such is the striking resemblance between them.

You feel the passing of time and the building cabin fever in the short between-scene vignettes, as the ‘Brucie’s’ mechanical failings continue to wreck havoc on the film’s schedule. The men turn to alcohol, card games, pub games, betting and arm wrestling, bickering all the while – to great comic effect. Guy Masterson’s direction keeps the action and dialogue moving so that, despite the actors’ continual complaints that they’ve been waiting around forever, the play’s 90 minutes fly by. As they bicker, there are knowing nods to the future of film – sequels and remakes and remakes of sequels – and of the future political landscape – after all, what politician could ever be worse than Nixon?

Ian Shaw, Liam Murray Scott and Demetri Goritsas. Photo: Helen Maybanks

At first glance this is purely a lovingly reverential comedy about a blockbuster film but under the surface this is a tender and moving play about fathers, as these three very different men discover common ground – ‘It’s hard for any man to walk in his father’s shadow,’ says Robert, talking about his alcoholic father, as they share stories about their fathers and the expectations they hadn’t lived up to.

Shaw hasn’t shied away from his own father’s flaws, such as his alcoholism, when bringing him back to life. Nor does he glorify them – his drunken breakdown when attempting to complete the film’s Indianapolis speech is heart-wrenching and his eventual completion of it is a moment of catharsis. Instead Shaw has created an honest and touching portrait of his father – one that we can all enjoy.

The Shark Is Broken is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 15 January