TALKING ABOUT SHELL SHOCK... ON THE DUBBO STAGE
BRITISH sitcom actor turned drama teacher, Tim Marriott, never saw himself playing a career soldier when he adapted a one man play, from the Neil Blower book, “Shell Shock: The Diary of Tommy Atkins”.
However fate had different ideas when, 48 hours before a key performance for 300 veterans, an actor hired for the role announced he’d taken another job.
After a quick script rewrite, the show went on with Marriott in the hot seat and today the play plays an important role in educating and helping sufferers of Post-traumatic Stress.
Marriott is performing “Shell Shock” on the Dubbo RSL Club Theatrette stage on Thursday, October 4, as part of the Lightning Bolt Invictus convoy supporting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That will be followed by performances at the Invictus Games.
What was that first night like for you, playing Tommy?
I had no choice but to rewrite the script as an older man – and having not been on stage for 17 years, and to go on stage and do it myself was challenging.
To say the penny dropped, however, would be an understatement. At the end there was a standing ovation. (Though my lovely wife says they all got to leave as quickly as they could – laughs).
Throughout all my research into PTS and that subject matter, I hadn’t really twigged that this hits people when they’re typically seven to nine years out of the service; later in life, when you get older, even into retirement age, and you reflect; that’s when the ghosts come to haunt you.
When I looked out at the audience I realised a lot of these guys were actually my age. The voice of the career soldier isn’t really being heard.
What do your audiences say to you after the play?
People do like to talk to me which is fantastic. There was an evening there one night when a guy opened up to me, in front of his relatively recent girlfriend, and he started telling me about being blown up in Northern Ireland. His girlfriend, who he’d been with for 18 months, said she’d had no idea.
After that he said he hadn’t spoken about it in 25 years.
Are you trying to start a conversation about PTS?
That’s the object. That’s what we’re trying to do. Just get people to talk.
It’s not the guys who put their hands up and say, look at me, I’ve got a problem, it’s the guys who, like Stand Tall for PTS founder Tony Dell, didn’t think they had a problem. These are the guys we need to get to.
The play doesn’t end when the curtain goes down, is that right?
We tour with a counsellor, so for each show we do talkback sessions with them, and I’ve also got PTS veteran Gemma Morgan (quite well known in the UK). She’s part of the Invictus Choir.
She’s taking part in the Q&A as well. The show doesn’t end with the end of the show. It continues afterwards.
How did “Shell Shock” attract mental health project funding?
I had a young lad who had been at the school where I taught and he was a brilliant young actor, and I thought (he could help make) the play appeal to a slightly younger school’s audience and that I would do it as a young soldier. We took it to Edinburgh last year and did very well. We got a grant from the government to develop it as a mental health project with the military community and beyond. Then, being a young lad, he went travelling.
You’ve done a bit of travelling with the play yourself?
I took it to Adelaide Fringe where I won The Sunday Mail Best Solo Show. We then got picked up by the British Army and we went to the Edinburgh Fringe just recently, and did it in an army venue which was great.
What’s the tone of the play?
We engage through humour. Somebody once described it as Michael Mcintyre ramped up to 11. My character Tommy comments on the absurdities of everyday life. He talks about Ikea, post office queues, driving, stuff that everyone recognises and is frustrated by, and it’s comic to begin with but very quickly the audience can see this is not quite right.
When I read Neil’s diary I really liked his “squaddy” humour and the balance with humour even in the darkest moments. Neil writes as Tommy Atkins but it’s his diary, it’s his story.
He doesn’t want it to be about him, it’s about everyone who’s ever experienced stress and trauma; military, first responder – in life.
Is there something in the play for anyone with PTS, not just people from the military?
This is a military story but it’s a metaphor.
It’s not about the war, it’s about what can happen when people come home when their war is over. It’s a glimpse into a world of confusion, doubt and disconnection.
Anybody whose experienced stress and trauma, and been through loss, will understand the story of Tommy’s frustration and where he goes with it.
The great thing is it doesn’t end where people think it’s going to end. It ends on an upbeat.
How did you come to write this play?
For 20 years I was an actor in a sitcom on TV on the BBC, and after that I found myself doing pantomime, “oh, where are my trousers gone?”, that sort of stuff, which wasn’t making me terribly happy. I got out, I had two small children and I loved seeing them and hated being away from them.
As a family man I got a fantastic job as a drama teacher in an independent school. I thought I’d do that for a couple of years and ended up doing it for 17! I did a bit of writing to keep myself going.
Writing this play was just by accident. I had written another piece, about Joseph Mengele, that got a bit of attention and because of that I got approached by a military publisher, who also published Neil’s diary. He asked did I think it would make a stage piece. I read it and thought it was cracking, it was gold dust.
` It’s not about the war, it’s about what can happen when people come home when their war is over. It’s a glimpse into a world of confusion, doubt and disconnection... a
Tim Marriott will perform his play “Shell Shock” in Dubbo on Thursday, October 4, before taking the performance to the Invictus Games. PHOTO: SUPPLIED.