“I’m not an island, and you’re not wearing a funny hat. Stop trying to discover me”. It’s a funny line, one of many in Stuart: A Life Backwards, but one which is also revealing of the characters and their motives. Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Alexander Masters’ sort-of-biography is many things: an account of an extraordinary character, a play about friendship and a mediation on the act of story-telling itself.
The eponymous Stuart is a self-described “chaotic homeless” who suffers from muscular dystrophy, a condition made worse by his drug and alcohol abuse. Stuart first encounters Alexander at a campaign meeting to free two charity workers who have been jailed for allowing drugs to be dealt in a homeless hostel and reinvigorates the campaign with his charisma; Alexander is so inspired by him that he decides to write a book about his life.
Despite its title, the play’s chronology is not reversed, but Thorne does play with structure and form in many other subtle ways. Thorne’s adaptation unpicks the source material, turning it on its head, while asking uncomfortable questions of its narrator (and, by extension, the audience) and absolutely refusing to dilute Stuart or turn him into the sort of saintly figure that cliche might dictate.
For Stuart is a complex, volatile character: one moment witty and profound, the next violent and threatening. At times he becomes hard to sympathise with. It takes a talented actor to bring him to life (Tom Hardy took the role in the TV version of Masters’ books) and here Fraser Ayres gives quite an extraordinary performance in the role. Ayres captures everything from Stuart’s awkward, lurching gait to his vulnerability, hidden as it is under a defensiveness that sometimes threatens to explode into violence.
As Alexander, Will Adamsdale has the less flashy role, but he is equally important to the play’s dynamic. A performer whose work straddles comedy and theatre, Adamsdale brings his familiar air of middle-class diffidence and distant anxiety to Alexander, giving him a kind of restless charisma that plays extremely well against Ayres’ more explosive personality. The duo are supported by four other actors who take on a variety of roles (Stuart’s family, fellow campaign workers, police officers), but it’s only when Adamsdale and Ayres share the stage that the production really clicks.
That double-header element results in some outstanding scenes such as Stuart reacting to reading Alexander’s dry first draft of his biography by beseeching him to turn it into a Tom Clancy thriller (“you make joyriding sound boring!”). Such outward humour hides a deeper, sadder meaning though as it turns out that Stuart just wants to be the subject of a book that his son – who he last saw when he was a baby – could be proud of.
Thorne balances the funny and poignant moments very well indeed, which makes the sudden upsetting of this balance in the scene in which Alexander interviews Stuart’s sister and discovers a brutal secret of sexual abuse all the more powerful. It’s one of those scenes that causes a hush descend over the audience, reminding us of the true horrors that hide behind some people’s lives.
Admittedly, there are times during the start of the play that the pacing begins to drag and the production takes a while to find its feet. But director Mark Rosenblatt makes good use of ingenious and versatile set, in which scaffolding is spun around and rearranged to create various offices and homes; the scattering of debris around the set reflects the chaotic nature of Stuart’s life, another nice touch that doesn’t fully register until after watching.
Strong as the play is in terms of entertainment and performances, in a time when disabled and homeless people are being ever more marginalised, this also feels like a very necessary piece of theatre, one of importance.