Shell Shock, performed at the Exeter Northcott Theatre on Sunday 5th November, is an account of what happens when the war is over and a soldier is forced to return to ‘normality’. Based on Neil Watkin’s autobiographical novel of the same name, this play presents a realistic and shocking portrayal of the very prevalent and important issue of the stigma surrounding mental health in the armed forces.
The play is for all intents and purposes an extended monologue, seen through the eyes of the character Tommy as he recounts, from his personal diary, the events that follow his retirement from the armed forces. The audience witness his battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), how this causes his mental health to deteriorate and the affects this has on his relationships with those closest to him.
Throughout the play, Tommy refers to the fact that his friends and family saw him as a hero when he was in the armed forces, but as soon as he came home and found himself unemployable and relying on his parents and partner to support him, he was deemed a failure. This is something that many veterans encounter, and this sudden lack of purpose and inability to adjust to their new life is one of many examples of the affects of PTSD. Other symptoms that Tommy displays are his negative outlook, inability to maintain positive relationships, flashbacks, nightmares and feelings of hopelessness. Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, a visiting professor at the Veterans and Families Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, states that it is the portrayal of these symptoms that makes Shell Shock a very accurate representation of this condition and its effects.
In past productions that have been touring across the UK, Tommy was played by Tom Page. However, the Exeter audience were informed that Tim Marriott, the director and producer of the production, would be reading in for the character, due to Page informing the theatre of illness at “laughably short notice”. Despite reading from a script, Marriott continued to make the character authentic and engaging throughout. Although I empathised and believed in Tommy’s story, I can not help but wonder how different it would be if I had seen Page perform instead. His characterisation may have been more convincing. A one-man show has nothing to hide behind, and therefore it was somewhat disappointing that we missed out on the full experience.
The set of the production consisted of a sofa, an arm chair and a single bed, meant to represent the house of Tommy’s parents, where he finds himself living after leaving the army. Although the set did not detract from the play itself, it was not used a huge amount and therefore seemed almost unnecessary; it was there simply as an extra visual aid for the audience. However, it could have potentially been made better use of if performed by the original actor.
There was also a large screen at the back of the stage, on which video was played at certain moments. For example, Tommy would describe how he and his partner went for drinks with her work colleagues, and subsequently a generic bar scene would appear onscreen for 5 seconds. Similarly, a trip to a shopping centre resulted in a projection of just that. I presume that the intention behind this was to immerse the audience in the world of Tommy further, as well as engaging them more with visuals and sound rather than just dialogue. Unfortunately, I felt this it missed the mark slightly. It seemed forced, and somewhat distracted me from the seriousness of the piece as some of the footage was poor quality and seemingly out of place. However, Tommy’s nightmares projected onto the screen was very effective, as the vivid lights and sounds of warfare brought to light the harsh reality and traumatic experience of living with PTSD.
It is the writing that truly make this play. The autobiographical nature of the speech creates an incredibly believable character, and his experience surrounding mental illness is clearly something that is shared by so many veterans. Most importantly though, it also focuses on Tommy coming to terms with his state of mind and discovery of sources of help, showing that there is hope for sufferers.
The Shell Shock Project is partnered with various organisations that focus on providing mental health services for members and ex-members of the armed forces. These include Help for Heroes, Combat Stress, Walking with the Wounded and SSAFA. Therefore, this play is particularly important in the eradication of the stigma surrounding mental illness in the armed forces and the vital need for services that provide a way out for those suffering.
– Claudia Lace
ALL IMAGES FROM: https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/shell-shock-the-play/