Stuart: A Life Backwards (Watford Palace Theatre-review).
They were, perhaps, an inevitable partnership, uni dropout and bleeding-heart liberal Alexander Masters and the disabled, volatile, former addict, and homeless Stuart Shorter.
What is remarkable is that their uneasy, and, at times, troubled relationship, has gone largely unnoticed for so long – unless, perhaps, you’re a native of Cambridge.
Stuart: A Life Backwards was a TV movie starring a novice Tom Hardy (as Shorter) and Benedict Cumberbatch back in 2007, but this year the story has come into its own, scoring a huge hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and now touring the country in a powerful and, at times, emotionally disturbing, drama.
Jack Thorne stage play has been playing at Watford Palace Theatre this week (final night today) and I’m so pleased to have caught last night’s performance.
Think of a dozen derogatory adjectives and they all applied to Shorter - and then some. He was profoundly disabled, through muscular dystrophy, and living on the streets of Cambridge, when he met Masters as the latter tried to drum up support for a campaign to free two charity workers from prison.
It’s worth Googling Stuart Shorter because his story makes fascinating reading. As a child he had been sexually abused by his brother and others, and later turned to drink and drugs to blot out the memory. He ended up living on streets and died, under a train, in 2002 aged just 34.
He was violent, unstable, a career criminal, unloved and unwanted by society – until he met Masters and the motormouth vagrant found and unlikely someone he could relate to.
Masters came from a family of high-achieving writers but dropped out of university before completing a Phd. Like Stuart, he struggled to make sense of life until he finally decided to write a book about his friend and the words finally fell into place.
The play leaves a lasting impression thanks to a powerhouse performance by Fraser Ayres as its central character. So convincing was the shaven-headed Ayres that I thought that they had hired a disabled actor to play the part. It’s an astounding performance – a rich blend of street philosopher, victim, comic and critic.
There’s not an ounce of pity in the actor’s interpretation. Despite Shorter’s shocking past (he was jailed for attempting to murder his son) Ayres brings out the man’s dignity and powerful personality. Shorter had no time for do-gooders – unless they actually produced results.
Stuart may have been plagued with demons but he was, as Masters believed, essentially a “good man.”
Unusually, for an alcohol and drug abuser, he was profoundly erudite – more so than the frequently tongue-tied Masters – and, was never afraid of speaking his mind. He fronted the campaign to free the social workers and led another to stop the homeless being driven from Cambridge city centre.
Stuart seemed fearless and blessed with a wicked sense of humour. When he was invited to Masters home he struggled for the right etiquette to letting a filthy homeless man in onto cream coloured carpets.
“My feet are largely fungal,” he shamefully admitted. He later gave the writer a crash course on making a chicken curry and admitted being a fan of Jamie Oliver.
He was Masters’ worst critic when he read the first draft of his biography and denounced it as boring. “I’m not an island, stop trying to discover me,” he complained. He urged the fledgling writer to go back to the beginning, to find out what made the man, to unearth the clues behind his chaotic life.
Thorne has done a great job bringing 90 minutes of engrossing and utterly compelling story-telling, ripe with earthy comedy, to the stage.
But one scene was so emotionally devastating and unexpected – Stuart’s relationship with his brother - that it left a lasting and profound impression.
Will Adamsdale does a great job with Masters but I couldn’t help thinking it surprising that this shambling, indecisive, inarticulate character, who was so incapable of expressing a cognitive thought or idea, could eventually become an award winning writer.
Get along to WPT tonight to catch something special. Not suitable for the under 14s.