Review: 'The Shed Crew' at Red Ladder Theatre

Adam Bruce

Red Ladder Theatre have been creating radical, unforgettable and socially engaged theatre for nearly fifty years. They aspire to give back to the communities they engage with, but also give them voices and tell their stories. Their latest production, The Shed Crew, adapted by Kevin Fegan from Bernard Hare's memoir Urban Grimshaw and The Shed Crew, is no different. On a cold and rainy Wednesday night in Leeds, I huddled into the Albion Electric Warehouse and prepared to take my seat, or rather a perch on some scaffolding after being guided inside by the show's two protagonists. 

The Shed Crew brings us hurtling back into the late 90s, on a rough estate in Leeds. We meet Chop (Jamie Smelt), a man scraping by in life, who one day meets self-confessed ragamuffin Urban Grimshaw (Adam Foster). Seeing Chop as the father figure he never had, Urban indoctrinates him in the ways of The Shed Crew, a group of likeminded young people who while away their days drinking, abusing drugs and causing chaos, a poetic thank you to the system that let them down. We're guided through the highs and lows of the group, including the underage pregnancy of Trudi (Liz Simmons), the drug-fuelled descent of Skeeter (Lladel Bryant) and the abandonment issues of Urban's mother Greta (Tanya Vital). These are just a few of the stories from the rich landscape that Red Ladder brings to life.

It all sounds a bit intense, doesn't it? Well, it is - but, very much like the lives of the real people in the original Shed Crew, that's where the beauty lies. Director Rod Dixon evocatively captures the energy from the intensity pulsating beneath the angst and aggression of the characters, so much so that even when we see them sniffing glue and crashing vans into bus stops, we understand their wants and desires. Adding to this poeticism is Fegan's text, which is itself in verse, which really excels at presenting us with a strange yet familiar world that we have no choice to accept as utterly real and natural - the same way we might have looked upon the real Shed Crew.

There are some beautiful characterisations from the whole cast, particularly from Smelt as Chop, who conjures up a likeable outsider and hero who occasionally drifts into the territories of an anti-hero. This makes Foster's Urban the real hero, a young, misguided and mistreated young lad who can't bear the responsibility of informing people of the horrors he's grown up alongside. Yet, Foster reminds us that his actions being retold, as Hare would have undoubtedly intended, do exactly that and, as Chop does in the piece, we liken him to the noble knight casting Excalibur into the lake. We are reminded of his existence in the world every day - he's become part of the cultural landscape itself.

There is actually a lake in the piece - not a real one, of course; we are in a warehouse after all. But cleverly, set designer Ali Allen makes exceptional use of the environment, and with the lake, uses concealed mirrors that beautifully reflect Tim Skelly's lighting design to create an endless pool that we sit around, collectively sharing the retelling of this vital story. That's just one instance of how the scenography comes together; the audience is carefully guided into the main sitting position from the play's opening, and we occasionally turn outwards to witness different happenings in arranged sections of the warehouse. The creative team behind this piece do a wonderful job of creating a dynamic, engrossing environment along with the superb cast.

At the end of the piece, silence fills the performance space after the last word is spoken. We're invited to reflect on Urban - whose real name is Lee - and his life, and his unfortunate death at the start of the rehearsal process. As we tentatively come together and clap, shattering the silence, one thing is clear to me: Urban would have been proud of this company. The whole team does a truly stellar job of bringing Hare's memoir to life. We celebrate it, revel in it, and I have no doubts that we will certainly continue to tell the stories of The Shed Crew after being inspired by this exceptional piece of theatre. 

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