Sunday, July 14

Shed: Exploded View – Royal Exchange Theatre

Back in 2019, in those halcyon pre pandemic days, Phoebe Eclair-Powell won the biannual Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and with it the opportunity to develop ‘Shed: Exploded View’ for production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Now, after an enforced hiatus of nearly four years, we finally get to see the startling and thought provoking theatre she produced, a piece of writing that will both challenge and engage its audience.

The play follows the lives of three couples over a thirty year period from the mid-nineties to the present day as they negotiate the vicissitudes of married life, from the early promise of new love to the dark reality of a relationship breakdown, all the troughs and peaks are explored. We meet Frank (Jason Hughes) and Naomi (Lizzie Watts) in 1994, honeymooning in the Maldives where cracks are already beginning to show; Tony (Will Johnson) and Lil (Hayley Carmichael), ostensibly happy as they give marriage another try; finally, Abi (Norah Lopez Holden), shifting forward in time 25 years, as the student daughter of Frank and Naomi, negotiating the perils of first, new love with Mark (Michael Workeye).

The three intertwining stories each have their strengths, but what really holds the audience attention is the non-linear narrative structure that Eclair-Powell has employed to gradually reveal the horrific characteristic that all these relationships share. If you’ve read William Faulkner or seen Quentin Tarantino movies you will quickly catch on; we dance between short scenes across the entire timeframe, each episode prefaced with a title chalked onto the three concentric circular floor that constitutes the set, revolving to echo the mixing of time and shifting focus of the narrative. It is a beguiling structure and initially confusing, but quickly rewarding the rapt press night audience with a slow dawning realisation that domestic abuse and violence is at the heart of all these relationships.

The fractured structure is the ‘Exploded View’ that forms the subtitle of the play, it is further enriched by the layered nature of the dialogue that utilises repetition of phrases by the couples to show the commonality that abuse shares. ‘My life is shit’ ‘It won’t happen again’ are two amongst many refrains that we hear repeated by all three of the male protagonists in the course of the hundred minute production; the lack of interval reinforcing the overlaying of the dialogue and concentrating the dramatic tension to a shocking conclusion.

Bringing this complex theatrical piece to life on stage requires a director of uncommon clarity and skill, fortunately we have Atri Banerjee at the helm. I have watched his work develop over the last five years in this theatre and beyond, and now has firmly established his reputation as one of the leading young directors in British theatre. He brings clarity to the complexity present in this piece, his trademark graceful movement (Sung Im Er) and choreography lends a balletic dexterity, especially poignant during a dance sequence with Abi teaching her mum the steps to ‘Hit Me Baby, One More Time’ by Britney Spears.

The writing and direction of this piece are exemplary and are matched by the performances, each of the cast of six being given ample opportunity to shine with such dense monologue and dialogue. It is fair to say the men in this play fare badly; Hughes displays Frank as a narcissist wrapped in his own world and adulterous in the face of his wife’s illness and daughters mental health struggles; Tony is selfish and feckless, a gambler who succumbs to Alzheimer’s and displays his inherent violence when frustrated; Mark is initially charming and geeky, gradually controlling and ultimately cruelly and homicidally violent towards Abi. These are not stereotypical cyphers of violent domestic abusers but well drawn and horrifically plausible.

Conversely, the women display dignity and quiet strength; Lil patiently waiting for the Alzheimer storm to pass, memories of her previous violent relationship being stirred in the process; Abi changing from confident teen to subdued young woman, parroting ‘Mark says…’ and developing an eating disorder, subtly indicating his creeping control over her; finally Naomi, seeing all this in her daughters nascent relationship and powerless to stop it whilst simultaneously battling abuse and illness in her own life. Watts, Carmichael and Lopez Holden are truly heartbreaking in bringing these characters to life, the eponymous Shed acting as a symbol of love and a mausoleum to the victims.

The play forms part of a wider exhibition within the Royal Exchange with photographs by Allie Crewe detailing the lived experience of intimate partner crime. There is also a Reflection Space to allow the audience to process their thoughts around what they have seen, I utilised this to take time to ring my daughter, a sure sign that my reaction to the  play was genuine and profound.

This is the second new production staged in Manchester this week with a theme of violence against women, ‘BlueBeard’ by Emma Rice was excellent, this was equally memorable and deserves to be watched and discussed by a large audience.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 15th February 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.