In 2013, Riverside Theatres commissioned a play for the Centenary of ANZAC. Former Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director, Wayne Harrison, was to be at the helm. World-renowned playwright, Justin Fleming, had a conversation with Harrison, who told him about a tortoise, now the oldest living survivor of the Gallipoli campaign.

It is around that tortoise that Fleming has created a highly imaginative, humourous, thought-provoking and ultimately very moving piece.

Shellshock tells the story of the Lindsay family, who live on a farm in a rural Australian town. Fourteen-year-old Tom (Benson Jack Anthony) lives with his father Jack (Jack Finsterer) and his very spirited grandmother, June (Sandy Gore). Tom is the caretaker of tortoise, Herman, who was bought back to Australia by his great grandfather, Matthew, after fighting in the Gallipoli campaign.

On the eve of a family trip to Gallipoli to attend the ANZAC dawn service in the centenary year, a mysterious Turkish woman, Adile Goymen (Francesca Savige), visits the Lindsay farm with a keen (and largely masked) interest in Herman’s story. What follows is a series of events that not only succeed in generating laughs but in prompting considerable audience reflection on the true impact of war on those who survive it.

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Jack Finsterer and Francesca Savige in Shellshock (Photo courtesy of Heidrun Lohr)

Anthony is wonderful in his portrayal of Tom. His Tom is a hugely likeable, uncomplicated teenager whose love and respect for Herman are profound. Finsterer is equally believable as Jack, a father having to deal with the challenges of single parenthood, having lost his wife to illness three years earlier.

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Benson Jack Anthony in Shellshock (Photo courtesy of Heidrun Lohr)

But the standout performance of the evening came from stage and screen legend Gore, who was hugely entertaining throughout and commanded the lion’s share of laughs. Hers is a feistiness that every member of the audience will identify in members of their own family and friendship circles. She’s brutally honest, but you only love her for it!

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Sandy Gore in Shellshock (Photo courtesy of Heidrun Lohr)

Another impressive performance in this high calibre troupe came from Savige. She never falters in her characterisation of Goymen for a second, including pulling off the difficult accent. Whether she’s friend or villain at any given moment in the show, she and her point of view are always sympathetic, something that would be beyond the capabilities of many actors to achieve.

Yalin Ozucelik completes the cast as narrator. He commands the space well, and his performance is energetic and versatile. And despite achieving a believable Turkish accent, he delivers every line with crystal clarity and demonstrates impeccable comic timing.

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Yalin Ozucelik in Shellshock (Photo courtesy of Heidrun Lohr)

If there’s room for improvement for the cast between now and the end of the limited run, it would be impactful for them to work to slightly increase their emotional intensity at climactic moments in the piece, in order to ensure their audiences get the truest sense of each character’s anger, their frustrations and their sense of loss (borne of various reasons).

Humour is beautifully incorporated into the piece and the narrative development feels natural, bar one scene towards the end of the piece involving Tom and soldiers at an army barracks in Gallipoli. Whether it needs inclusion, in order to move the piece logically to its ultimate conclusion, is questionable. Otherwise, this is a well-paced work.

As to the production aspects, Harrison has utilised Turkish shadow puppets (also known as ‘Karagöz’) as a means of ensuring both an ANZAC and a Turkish perspective are encompassed in the piece. The use of puppetry is appropriate in achieving that purpose, as well as simply being an entertaining device.

At the core of this piece is a theme of hope, and while it’s conveyed well via dialogue, the use of Stanley Spencer’s 1929 artwork, ‘The resurrection of the soldiers’, is powerfully used to promote that theme. Interestingly, the artwork itself served as inspiration to Fleming in the process of his writing the text.

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Jack Finsterer and Francesca Savige in Shellshock (Photo courtesy of Heidrun Lohr)

There’s also a skillful use of lighting to effectively convey both physical climate and mood, and a use of projection technology that is never jarring or over-the-top.

Shellshock is a well-written, well-directed and well-performed piece that could conceivably find itself joining the growing collection of Australian classics. At the very least, it should find its way into school curricula across the country, as a means of not only educating future generations about the Gallipoli campaign, but as a resource for giving them a higher appreciation of the ongoing impacts of war.

Shellshocked plays at the Riverside Theatres (Corner Church and Market Streets, Parramatta) until August 8. 

Tickets start from $20 and can be purchased here.

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