The drink and drug guzzling young protagonists of Bernard Hare’s memoir Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew are, as this new stage adaptation puts it, Thatcher’s children. Growing up on a Leeds estate in the 1990s, forgotten by the government and let down by social services, they’re a glaring indictment of economic and social policies that widened the gulf between rich and poor. Today, under another Tory government, it’s hard to believe that their lives would be any better. If anything, they’d, probably be worse.
Like recent revivals of plays by Jim Cartwright and Andrea Dunbar, the telling of this story at this moment in time is implicitly political. And this is absolutely the sort of story that Red Ladder, a theatre company boasting decades of radical work, should be sharing. How this story has been transformed for the stage, though, doesn’t always do justice to the real people whose lives it captures.
Hare’s book recounts his time with the eponymous Shed Crew, a bunch of kids who have slipped through the cracks of an uncaring state. They retreat from the cruel world of useless adults into – you guessed it – a shed, where glue is sniffed, booze is swigged and tall tales are shared. Returning to his hometown of Leeds after a stint as a social worker in London, ‘Chop’ – as Hare’s affectionately known – falls in with this gang, attempting to create some kind of safety and stability for them while battling his own penchant for drink and drugs.
Kevin Fegan’s adaptation renders this true story in half-hearted verse, a nod to Hare’s love of poetry and the interest in the arts that he tried to pass on to the Shed Crew. The gesture makes sense in theory, but in practice it’s clumsy and stilted, removing us from the action just as Rod Dixon’s in-the-round production draws us into it. Little exchanges of simple tenderness are poetry enough, without the clunky adornment that Fegan’s writing often tacks on.
The production also struggles to condense its source material. What is (as far as I can tell without having read it) an incident-packed book becomes disconnected and episodic on stage. It’s just one thing after another after another, with little sense of coherence. No doubt it reflects the structureless lives of kids without school or parents, but as a theatrical experience it’s scattershot and often bewildering. Scenes flash by before you can get a grasp on their characters. Costumes change. Names succeed names. It’s hard to keep track.
There are, though, some arresting moments. Ali Allen’s striking design, assembled from various scraps of debris inside the skeleton of the Albion Electric Warehouse, allows for genuine surprises. Characters appear seemingly from nowhere, suddenly clambering through the audience. The opening in particular makes a startling change from the usual shuffle into the auditorium, as we’re all ushered into the warehouse and the action begins from an unexpected direction (I won’t give away any more). The location of the show also suggests the precarious, temporary homes carved out of the post-industrial spaces of the city by lost souls like the Shed Crew.
There’s heart here, along with the necessary grit and a deeply political anger. It’s just a shame that, as a piece of theatre, it never quite lives up to the promise of its tantalising opening moments.
The Shed Crew is on until 1 October 2017 in Leeds. Click here for more details.