"Beware them, beware them, for they are coming!" A deadly epidemic is scaring the life out of people in England. Mass hysteria means sufferers of the disease dare not reveal themselves for fear of being persecuted. People like God-bothering, borderline psychopath Peter harangue 'normal' members of the public to unite and smoke out the sick, "who mask their contamination," because they threaten national security and purity. Developed at the National Theatre Studio, Ben Musgrave's intriguing new play is a morality tale set in familiar English surroundings (including a topical reference to the Royal Free Hospital) but conceived following a trip he made to Uganda. The unnamed illness brings Ebola to mind, but also the fallout from HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and, come to that, all plagues throughout history and anxious human responses to them.
The super-sensitive, conflicted reactions of the central character, Derek, are a perfect match to the many talents of youthful star Alex Lawther, who made his West End debut a few years ago in David Hare's South Downs while he was still at school. Lawther has been compared to Ben Whishaw, and on this evidence I predict his career will be just as successful (plus he has already appeared in his first major movie, playing the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game). The cosy yet stark set comprises a battered caravan on an English sea shore where Derek likes to hang out on his own, writing, when he's not at his parents'. Lawther brilliantly conveys Derek's awkward excitement, repressed horniness and terror when a beautiful girl, Lydia, suddenly arrives as if out of the sea and disturbs his peace. But later when Derek spies Lydia injecting herself with drugs, their entangled story -- played to a soundtrack of 1990s pop music -- reaches a whole new level.
Excellent acting rises to the challenge of ratcheted emotions as the increasingly tense plot unfolds. Hannah Britland's Lydia is confident, flirtatious and seemingly carefree at first, but over time her devastating secret drives the drama of her relationship with Derek and the other main character, his friend Vince (the compelling Alexander Arnold). Vince is, on the surface, a joshing mate of Derek's but a bit of a bully underneath. In the first half of Crushed Shells and Mud Vince is the one who poses the biggest threat to shy Derek's quickly-evolving relationship with Lydia. In the second half, the biggest obstacle is something else entirely.
Simon Lenagan is frighteningly good as Peter, the religious, pseudo-BNP nutter who refers to Derek and Vince's bare chests as "good clean English trunks" and people afflicted with the blood-borne disease as "cockroaches" and "earwigs." Charming he is not, and the question is how far will he go to rid England of this plague. His crusade sometimes appears to be not just against inferior physical specimens, but inferior moral ones too. In Peter's cringeworthy presence, as in scenes throughout this troubling but thrilling play, Alex Lawther's captivating body language communicates far more than words can. His fingers fidget behind his back, his eyes flicker, his head bows and lolls, his legs slacken and toes turn inwards, his voice is timorous. He smiles, but mostly looks fraught. It is a performance that will stick with you.