Shell Shock

11/08/21

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

Shell Shock is an all-too familiar tale. As a society, we fail our military veterans at every turn. We pick them up, often at sixteen years of age (the UK is, apparently, the only country in Europe that routinely recruits under-eighteens), then thrust them into the most dreadful situations. What we ask of them is immense: to live apart from their families, to risk their own lives – and to kill others, should the need arise. And then, when we’re done with them, we just turn them out, expecting them to function without support in our cosy, civilian world. Surely we can do better than this?

Neil Watkin’s diaries, adapted and performed by Tim Marriott, offer us a glimpse into the troubled life of an ex-soldier. ‘Tommy’ has served in the army for thirty years, and he’s looking forward to a bit of normality, to renting a house with his girlfriend, Shell, and finding a new job. In the meantime, he’s staying with his mum and dad, and spending a lot of time at the job centre. Work is proving elusive, because he hasn’t got any qualifications, and his experience doesn’t seem to count. He’s angry all the time: if he could just get rid of the nightmares, get some sleep, maybe he’d be able to calm down? But he doesn’t want to take pills or talk to anyone, because he’s a real man, isn’t he, and real men cope…

This is an important story. If at times it feels a little stale, well maybe that’s the point. This is a commonplace situation; Tommy’s struggles are, sadly, far from rare. Still, it seems fair to say that the script might benefit from a little updating: in places, the references feel outmoded. Of course, as the piece is based on a real diary, this makes sense, but observational commentary about Big Brother and Friends falls flat, and the lengthy speech about IKEA is pretty hack. There are some genuinely affecting moments, not least at the very end, as Tommy’s suffering reaches its peak. The soundtrack is beautifully curated, and I like the use of mime alongside the sound effects: the level of understated detail Marriott achieves is impressive.

It’s good to see a decent-sized crowd in for this lunchtime show – and to be reminded that the Daparian Foundation exists, offering support to the thousands of Tommys out there.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

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