Ben Musgrave’s new play, Crushed Shells and Mud, is an exploration of how we cope with disease. Lydia (Hannah Britland) has fallen victim to an unspecified infection that draws its biggest parallels with HIV. Abandoned by her parents and chased out of Sussex by a fanatical vigilante group called the “League”, she is taken in by a community of what she must now identify as her “people” and rehoused with a guardian in a remote coastal town. This is where she meets Derek (played to awkward perfection by Alex Lawther, of The Imitation Game fame); lovely, unassuming Derek who wants to save her.
It is Britain, post-1995 (we know this as indie classic ‘Girl From Mars’ is playing) and London is the epicentre of the lawlessness that has, according to the League, caused the unnamed epidemic. Wherever it came from, the disease is gathering victims and turning god-fearing folk against each other, or rather against the infected “other”. But we’re nearer to Leigh, by the unidentified bit of coastline that Derek calls home and where he hides out in an abandoned caravan writing stories about the sea “and also characters, and things I’m feeling”.
The arrival of Lydia – the beautiful stranger who hails from some unknown place (either nasty old London or perhaps Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) – turns the unassuming Derek’s world upside down. Sound familiar? Musgrave’s play is a patchwork of familiar tropes. As well as boy-meets-girl, it is also an apocalyptic narrative, a 1980s AIDs play; a fairy-tale; a cautionary tale; Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and the story of Cain and Abel (Lydia is spotted reading East of Eden). This all adds up to a serious sense of déjà lu that neither we nor Lydia can entirely escape. Now marked out by the disease she cannot have her own story; she must tell the story of her people (there’s that phrase again).
The first act, which concentrates on the three younger characters, is a heartwarming and heart wrenching portrayal of teenage relationships. Derek and Lydia are joined by Vince, a native of the nowhere town and a bully-come-friend to Derek who endures this double-edged friendship because of Vince’s troubled relationship with his father (everyone has a humanising backstory). The dynamic between the group and between the various pairs is spot on. When Vince “playfully” knights Derek with a machete I was reminded all too well of countless scenes of playground violence disguised as tomfoolery and fooling no one. The love triangle that quickly emerges is predictable (even Lydia’s switch from Vince to Derek is anticipated) but, in the first act at least, is utterly convincing. Derek rehearsing how to casually hand Lydia a mix CD was a subtle touch but a highlight. Although Lawther deserves much of the praise for this production, Arnold should be lauded for his portrayal of the volatile Vince – I was both drawn to him and scared to look directly at him in case he uncoiled – and Britland’s performance gathers strength.
Even before the mentions of “the time to come” and “shrinkies”, the swathes of plastic that surround Ellan Parry’s beautifully crafted set warn us that this bucolic world is wrapped in sinister mystery. The menace unravels quickly. Derek discovers Lydia’s secret when he sees her injecting herself with a shot through the window of the caravan. Somewhat ashamedly, I craned my neck with his as I eagerly tried to confirm what I had expected all along. Britland as Lydia begins to shine from here. At first she rages against the discovery but then confides in Derek, as an outsider. She dismisses her guardian as being “very political” and she also shuts down the rumour Derek has heard of a magical old lady (more on that later). But try as she might, Lydia cannot survive without embracing one of the narratives, be it political or fantastical, that are on offer to her. One can imagine her guardian handing her pamphlets on the support networks available. The arrival of another stranger, Peter (Simon Lenagan), chief whip for the religiously conservative League, offers the counter narrative. To survive such an epidemic, Musgrave points out, you must identify as part of a group: the network or the League. Pick a side; pick a dogma, because no one can exist on their own. But Lydia’s side has already picked her.
Lydia’s guardian, Sarah, was also abandoned by her family after developing “the mark”. A mysterious old lady in a Moris Minor arrived to save her from her self-loathing and with that she was reborn into the network. But whereas Derek, Lydia and Vince talk in dialogue, the adult characters that dominate the second half of the play talk in slogans; Sarah with her new age belief in “rebirth” and Paul with his cowardly hatred. The half of the play felt far more rushed than what had come before. The world that Musgrave has so carefully set up in the first half can’t quite hold the weight of all that follows. As Lydia says of Sarah, and the network: it’s a bit much.
There were still some fantastic moments here. In a scene change we see Derek wipe the stage make-up from Lydia’s apparently beaten face to reveal an unbruised one (the League found her). Whilst a neat device for denoting the passage of time, it also draws our attention to the fakery at play. Despite what the character of Lydia might say, her mark and her bruises are not real. They are the work of fiction.
Ultimately, I felt that the play fell foul of the problem it discusses: it replaces people with fictions. Watching Lydia lose her voice to the larger community narrative of the infected other was made that much sadder because I also missed the character-led first act and the personalities and relationships that gave it life.