In the waters off Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, three men in a boat – droning Roy Scheider, grizzled Robert Shaw and neurotic Richard Dreyfuss – are waiting for a mechanical shark named Bruce to start working. The second-best thing about The Shark Is Broken, a three-hander by Ian Shaw (son of Robert) and Joseph Nixon about the making of Jaws, is Duncan Henderson’s dramatic set. The fishing boat to which the play is confined is shown in cross-section against Nina Dunn’s video backdrop of ocean and sky, affording the actors room to breathe while making it appear as if Bruce has taken an almighty bite out of the side of the vessel.
The highlight, though, is Shaw’s loving and eerily evocative portrayal of his own father. A handful of self-referential asides land well. Asked if any of his brood want to be actors, Robert grunts, “Christ, I hope not.” The father-son frisson has an emotional kick, too. It stings to hear Shaw, in character as Robert, hoping that he lives longer than his own father, who killed himself at 52. (The actor never got his wish: he died of a heart attack at 51.)
Far from being maudlin, the tone of the show is boisterously comic. Shaw has said he worshipped his father, and it shows: he gets the shark’s share of the gags. Liam Murray Scott captures the twitchy Dreyfuss but the hardest task falls to Demetri Goritsas as the stolid Scheider, about whom the writers show little curiosity. His co-stars brag and fret about their careers but you would never know from watching this that he was already an Oscar nominee for The French Connection.
Too much of the humour hinges on 21st-century hindsight: predictions about Nixon being the worst president the US will ever have, or that Jaws will sink without trace. Scheider swears he won’t appear in the sequel (he did), and Robert scoffs at the subject of Steven Spielberg’s next picture: “Aliens? What next, dinosaurs?” More effective is Shaw’s delivery of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, in which the phrase “heaven’s gate” alludes to the shark-infested waters on the Hollywood horizon.
The Shark Is Broken is at the Ambassadors theatre, London, until 15 January.