Rod’s Blog 01.09.17
Every so often a book is published which becomes a best-seller – not just because it is well written but because it becomes almost notorious … readers from all across society talk about such books avidly: in middle class dinner parties, over a pint of bitter in the pub, in English Literature classrooms – all kinds of readerships. Dog-eared copies are passed amongst friends with the tag “I know you don’t read many books …but you’ve got to read this.”
Bernard Hare’s book, ‘Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew’, is definitely one of those books. I read it over a weekend. I’m usually a slow ponderous reader, I like to re-read passages that are beautiful or poetic or exciting. This book wouldn’t let me pause …it was a manic read, and the cliché of not being able to put it down was actually the case for once. I knew when I read it that it would make a fantastic play but I also knew that the fact that it is a true story, about real Leeds people, would mean that whoever was brave enough to adapt this incredible tale would have to be very careful how they staged it.
For ten years or so I forgot all about the book. Playwright Kevin Fegan then sent me an email asking if I would be interested in his stage adaptation, developed for mid-scale stages. As soon as I read Kev’s adaptation I was gripped by it in exactly the same way as I had been by the book. The book offers the theatre director many challenges – not least because at one point it is a road trip from Leeds up to Aberdeen and back! Add to this the fact that Kev has written the play in verse and suddenly the heightened almost Shakespearean language takes the audience into an almost magical world. Despite that added complication the characters seem larger than life and yet gritty and real at the same time.
I knew straight away that this exceptional play would not work on an ordinary stage. I knew that I didn’t want audiences to sit passively in a velvet space watching the story unfold from the distance of an auditorium. Audiences need to walk alongside these characters and share exactly the same space as them. I knew that I didn’t want this to be voyeuristic with a “this is how these people live” response. The very opposite is what I want to achieve – I want to respect the story as a true story which some of the characters survived and tragically some didn’t.
The only way to bring audience and characters together was to perform this piece in an immersive space where the world of the play merges with reality, where there is no “fourth wall” dividing audience from actors. Kev was excited by this and agreed immediately that he would adjust his script to make it play in a found space. Albion Electrics warehouse where we store old sets and theatre equipment was the obvious choice – as urban an environment as you’ll find anywhere!!
And then – only a few weeks ago – we were told the very sad news that the real Urban Grimshaw, the real central character of the story, tragically died. I was fully expecting Kev and Bernard to cancel everything. Productions like this take over a year to plan. Funding has to be applied for and in place before any of the work can begin. So much of this groundwork had already begun – our stage production was underway. But this was not the reason for going on with the work. In Bernard’s view, and in Kev’s, Urban’s story needed to be told more than ever. The play would now be a tribute to Urban – dedicated to him and to others who had passed on before him.
We’ve taken so many things into consideration; views that it could be seen as “poor taste” to stage the lives of The Shed Crew – I would argue the very opposite is the case. The Shed Crew were forced by poverty and extreme circumstances to fight together for their very survival – their story teaches us a great deal about how resilient young people are when they need to be. Equally, I am very aware that there are people who live in East End Park today who are very proud of their community and they feel the book stigmatised the whole district as a no-go area; two decades have passed since the events of this memoir.
But it’s a story that we need to tell, still. The Shed Crew asks important questions about how our society treats those who feel they do not ‘fit’. It asks us all to empathise and to imagine how we would survive such extreme poverty. It asks us to look at the human side of this story and the way they act, and it challenges assumptions. Sections of our media are cruel and intolerant: some tabloids relish attacks on the poor and vulnerable – as if to be poor is the fault of the victims, that to be in receipt of state welfare is a failure. The Shed Crew challenges these views. Like all Red Ladder plays, the production provides no answers – but asks many important questions.
We go into the warehouse in rehearsals this week; our world has been built and the company of eight actors has the exciting task of bringing the script to life. Each night a company of community actors will join us so that there will be up to 15 actors in and around the audience, as we bring audiences into the heart of The Shed Crew.
This play will be an unforgettable experience – like the book we hope it will be talked about for years to come!
About Rod: Rod became Artistic Director of Red Ladder Theatre Company in 2006, following his role as associate director at the Barbican Theatre in Plymouth. He has also ran The Hub Theatre School in Cornwall and been an actor with several companies including Kneehigh Theatre. Directing credits for Red Ladder include Where’s Vietnam?, Forgotten Things, Riot, Rebellion & Bloody Insurrection, Ugly, Sex & Docks & Rock ‘N’ Roll, Big Society! and Promised Land. Rod is both a life-long Liverpool supporter and a believer in Proudhon’s principles of anarchy – the two might be connected.