The Shed Crew at West Yorkshire Playhouse

By September 29, 2017

Theatre & Dance. Leeds.

The Shed Crew Jamie Smelt Chop and Tanya Vital Greta&Pinky. Photo credit Anthony Robling

Photograph credited to Anthony Robling

I was still engrossed in Bernard Hare’s book, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew when I heard about The Red Ladder Theatre Company’s production of Kevin Fegan’s stage adaptation, The Shed Crew. It is the story of a disparate group of children and young people left to their own devises; abandoned, let down by the system, skipping school, and often ignored by parents unable to care for themselves, let alone their kids.

The main characters are Urban, the twelve year old son of a heroin addict, and Chop, the token grown up in the crew, who has an on-off relationship with Urban’s mother. Chop is a former social worker, and becomes a provider of inspiration, culture, politics and guidance to the crew, a positive role model in their lives, while his flat became an occasional sanctuary of relative sanity.

I wondered how a stage adaptation could convey the story and message of the source material. The book has a fast-paced narrative, as befits a group of whirlwind off the rail kids, with many location changes, arson attacks, burnt out cars and road trips. My mind boggled at the logistics involved with staging all this, and fitting it into one hour, but the adaptation works; retaining that high adrenaline feel. By writing the script in verse, the dialogue remains tight and flows, while tipping a nod to the poems written by various members of the Shed Crew that introduce each chapter in the book.

This is not a conventional story and it suits the unusual theatre setting, Albion Electric Warehouse being an operational warehouse, converted into a theatre space especially for the performance.

The performance begins outside the building with the audience following the central character, Chop (Jamie Smelt) into the street, where he knocks on the sliding shutter door, as though trying to gain entry to ‘the shed’. As the shutter slowly rises, the audience is bombarded with banging drum and bass and shrill voices, dim lights illuminate the slightly grimy environment, recreating the shed. A motley assortment of ‘shed crew’ stand around (many of whom are cast from the local community, chosen from workshops conducted in Leeds).

Urban, played by the believable and natural Adam Foster, sits on the roof talking to us from above. From here, we move speedily into the main warehouse. The opening action involves Sparky (Jamie Lewis) stealing a car with Urban and Chop. Sirens and engines roar, the audience stands on scaffolding surrounding a central performance area and are encouraged to move around to find a space. It was initially confusing; I couldn’t really see what was happening at this point, and the noise and music was riotous. Maybe this was the point, to create an anarchic environment. If it was, it succeeded, but once the cast members shepherded us to seated spaces on the scaffolding, it was less chaotic.

I’m a big fan of immersive theatre and, in The Shed Crew, the action takes place throughout the whole warehouse. Greta, Urban’s wayward mother, convincingly played by Tanya Vital, has her flat on one side of the space, whilst Chop’s is on the other, and action flits between the central area (the shed) and both flats. This meant the actors walked around us, sat amongst us, stepped over us, sat on us, even handed over a bong to an audience member at one point. Boundaries between actors and audience blur in the same way as the boundaries between Chop and the Shed Crew fade over time.

There are moments of humour to lighten the essentially tragic story, for example the use of an old slide projector, to shine photos on to a screen, accompanying Chop and Urban’s road trip to Scotland. In reality, this is a gut-wrenching tale of the societal neglect of real people, and many moments in the story remind us of this; for example, when Trudi, played skilfully by Liz Simmons, gives birth to her heroin-addicted baby. The play is creative and sensitive, but it is also a cacophony, and the crew is deftly portrayed by a completely believable cast.

The evening was made more poignant as the real Chop and members of the Shed Crew were in the audience that night.

This play will leave you thinking about it long after you have left the performance. It runs until the 1st October at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Review by Denise Baker