When it all went bad down south for social worker Bernard Hare he naively thought coming home to Leeds would help him turn things around but his life just went more and more downhill.
He fell through the cracks ending up running with a bunch of local feral kids who were living wild in a shed led by a charismatic 12 year old nicknamed Urban, and he turned his experiences into the best-selling Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew.
Now Leeds based radical theatre company Red Ladder have adapted Hare’s book into The Shed Crew, which has its world premiere in an inner city warehouse on Thursday 21st September.
“Bernard ended up living in a garden shed with a gang of teenagers back in the 1900s, but his argument now was that a lot of those young people would not have survived without him because he basically adopted them, and become like a surrogate dad,” says Red Ladder Artistic Director Rod Dixon. “He lived within their anarchy, and their below the system existences. I’m really avoiding the word underclass, even though he uses it in his book, but it is basically what the media would call the underclass,”
Red Ladder always had an eye on this show as a Leeds story, but at one point it was in development with experienced playwright Kevin Fegan working on it with Pilot Theatre and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. But the Playhouse’s Artistic Director James Brining felt it shouldn’t be put on in a conventional theatre, so the ball was back in Red Ladder’s court who found a warehouse in Leeds where they will stage The Shed Crew.
“The first thing I said to Kevin was I didn’t want it to be in a theatre. I wanted it to be immersive and I wanted people to walk alongside the characters, rather than look at them from a distance, so they could really appreciate and understand what happens when you live in extreme poverty.
“We’ve decided the warehouse will be the shed, and the hideaway, so rather that hiding that fact, and turning it into a theatre, we’re just going to use all the stuff that is in there.
“We’re encouraging the audience to feel as if they’ve broken into the warehouse with us, and we’re having this night out, almost like we’re breaking the law, which is the feel we are trying to get.”
The Shed Crew are all grown up, but as you might expect their different routes from living in a shed to adulthood has not always resulted in a happy ending.
“Some of The Shed Crew, who are now in their thirties, have gone on to be quite successful in society’s view as property owners and working full time. One actually works as a TV researcher, but unfortunately several of them have been victims of drug addiction and several of the characters in the book have died.
“Very, very sadly the lead character Urban only died a few weeks back, and Bernard had tried so hard to get him into rehab, and there was actually crowd funding to get him into rehab, but he was in and out.
“That kind of addiction is an illness, so it is tricky doing this piece of work when there are still people who remember The Shed Crew, or who were part of it. We have to be really careful how we do it and show respect for people’s lives.”
The death of Urban has served as a reminder to everyone involved in The Shed Crew that the problems those lost kids faced in the 1990s have not gone away in this age of austerity,
“With Lee only recently dying that has been brought back to the forefront even more by Kevin and the production. It is a modern tragedy, but one that is being acted out somewhere today in Leeds, and in every city,” notes Dixon.
“Small country towns have problems with heroin and other drugs so the way we are looking at it is how traumatic it is to live with the pressures of the 21st century. Although it flashes back to 1995 to 1998 it’s really about us now.”
So there are all sorts of challenges for the cast, and Fegan has set another one as the whole script is delivered in verse partly because each chapter in Bernard’s book opened with a poem written by one of The Shed Crew.
“The challenge for the actors is not to play teenagers but to play thirtysomethings remembering their teenage years which is a massive challenge.”
“It’s sort of Shakespearean, but is has a heightened feel to it which is exactly what Kevin wants. It means that the ninety odd pages of the script absolutely fly by and runs at about an hour.
“It is really, really pacey which is a challenge for us as we don’t want it be so pacey that the audience don’t have clue what is going on.”
The Shed Crew runs from Thursday 21st September – 1st October at Albion Electric Warehouse in Leeds. To book ring West Yorkshire Playhouse 0113 213 7700 or www.wyp.org.uk