Writer: Kevin Fegan
Book: Bernard Hare
Director: Rod Dixon
Designer: Ali Allen
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Red Ladder’s production of The Shed Crew in the Albion Electric Warehouse is a remarkable evening of what Rod Dixon terms “immersive” theatre. It works brilliantly on its own terms, but a doubt remains as to the clarity of story-telling for those unfamiliar with the original book.
Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, written by Bernard Hare in 2005 and dealing with events of up to a decade earlier, is a fascinating, perplexing and disturbing book. Hare, an educated man in his late 30s, a drop-out from conventional society where he had been a social worker, somehow became involved with a group of feral youngsters known as the Shed Crew. Using the nickname “Chop”, he was dangerously laisser faire about their sexual activity, drug habits and delight in “twocking” (taking without owner’s consent) which led to cars ending up in flames on the East End Park estate, but increasingly he attempted, with some success, to lead them away from hard drugs and to educate them. The claim of the paperback edition that he was their “saviour” may be a bit much, but he certainly helped some of them “find” themselves – and in the process probably “found” himself.
In particular, he formed a friendship with, and eventually oversaw the moral and intellectual development of, “Urban Grimshaw” – Hare used false names – initially a 12-year-old tearaway whose mother had an on-off sexual relationship with Chop. At the age of 21, about the time of the book’s publication, Urban was formally adopted by Hare; sadly, he died just before the play went into rehearsal 12 years later. Kevin Fegan added a short and moving last scene and the production went ahead.
At the Albion warehouse, there is no settling comfortably in your seats. The audience waits, crammed into the bar until Rod Dixon leads the way to the main warehouse. Urban, perched above the inner door, and Chop, almost lost in the crowd, debate who will begin the narration, then the inner door rolls up and you’re in Ashtrayland. In Ali Allen’s stunning designs a wooden walkway surrounds a large many-sided cockpit where much of the action takes place. Other areas of action are marked out by boards or steps or whatever furniture or industrial objects are available – a settee perched above one side of the walkway proves to be Chop’s flat – and the audience stands or (if lucky) sits wherever space permits, probably with a member of the play’s community cast as a neighbour.
Kevin Fegan’s text, obviously heartfelt in its identification with the book, is an ingenious mix of verse (the opening Ashtrayland poem is a gem) and lines from Hare’s original. If anything, it is too faithful to the book in Fegan’s desire to retain as much as possible. To distil 300 pages into 75 minutes probably requires more ruthlessness. The result is that the background to scenes and characters can be unclear or absent. For those who know the book, the story comes to life with awesome authenticity; it might be a bit harder for newcomers to the Shed Crew to follow.
However, what there is more than compensates, a production and performances full of energy, imagination and potential for danger. Jamie Smelt is remarkably convincing as Chop, a character so contradictory that in the book he is difficult to visualise. Adam Foster’s volatile Urban – leaping and brooding, violent and principled – is equally believable. Surprisingly, given that the main cast is composed of young adults – six more, playing 15 parts – the extreme youth of the gang comes over more strongly than in the book. The pace has something to do with it; also details of posture, such as lying down, chin on hands, listening to the grown-up telling a story.
Runs until 1 October 2017 | Image: Contributed