At the knotty core of Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Alexander Masters’ backwards biography is a lingering question mark around structure and emphasis. As the name suggests, Masters’ account of the life of self-labelled “chaotic homeless” Stuart Shorter is told in reverse chronology, starting with his troubled adult life and tracing back his experiences in an attempt to discover what brought him onto the streets. The struggle that Thorne faces in bringing this story to the stage – and the same struggle that Masters grappled with in the writing of the book – is balancing Stuart’s life with that of his biographer.
As a result, this stage version feels a little front heavy. Much time and energy is invested in establishing the relationship between Stuart and Alexander, an unlikely friendship that begins when they are both campaigning for the release of two wrongly imprisoned homeless workers. Stuart (brilliantly and compassionately portrayed by Fraser Ayres) is unpredictable, intermittently violent and oddly charming; Alexander has all the awkward reserve of middle-class angst. An immediate, unexpected connection develops into affection and fascination, as Alexander is more and more drawn to Stuart’s life, leading eventually to the decision to document his friend’s experiences. It’s a task, however, that becomes increasingly challenging and all-consuming.
As though a tad uncomfortable with its own attempt at representation, there is an air of slight awkwardness that pervades the piece. This finds itself channelled through Will Adamsdale’s Alexander, to whom the actor lends his particular and strangely appealing brand of jittery anxiety and middle-class discomfort. There is a sense in which the piece can’t win; it will always tell this story, as Stuart sardonically accuses, through “middle-class modes of discourse”. It’s a challenge not to patronise or unconsciously impose a certain language, injecting it with a profundity that appeases the cultural superiority of theatremakers and audiences alike. The only way of negotiating that challenge, as this production does, is to deconstruct and problematise as it goes, unapologetically flagging up its own failings.
There is also an effort on the part of Mark Rosenblatt’s production to draw attention to the constructed nature of this version of a life. In a nod to the authoring of the book, Alexander frequently steps out of events in an attempt to make sense of them, while overlapping memories, thoughts and experiences swirl around him. Jon Bausor’s set design, meanwhile, takes the form of a set of empty metal scaffolds that can be manipulated at will, surrounded by the messy, scattered paraphernalia of a life. The suggestion is that any existence is fragile, chaotic and impossible to make sense of without the artificial imposition of some kind of order.
And Stuart himself understood better than anyone that the attempt to truthfully capture the complexity of an individual is essentially futile. After reading a dull and drily academic first draft of Alexander’s book, he demands something with more mystery and excitement – something in the style of a Tom Clancy bestseller. His biographer has obliged with a chronicle that must always be part fiction. Because you can’t “discover” a person or bottle the essence of their life like a specimen. As Stuart realised with startling eloquence, there are some things that just can’t be explained.