Jack Thorne’s stage adaptation of Alexander Masters’ biography of Stuart Shorter is simultaneously sweet and violently hard-hitting.
The performance tells the true story of Stuart, a charismatic, aggressive drug addict with muscular dystrophy. He met Alexander when he appeared at a meeting of a campaign to fight for the liberty of two wrongfully imprisoned charity workers in 1998 and the mild, bookish academic working on the case was intrigued by him. As the pair developed a close friendship, Masters wrote down his story in Stuart: A Life Backwards, a riveting novel which answers Stuart’s question ‘What murdered the boy I was?’ The book was very successful, winning the Guardian First Book Award and being converted into a BBC film starring Benedict Cumberbatch in 2007. As this story meets the stage, however, it takes on a new dimension which makes it even more compelling.
Directed by Mark Rosenblatt, the piece as a whole has a beautifully polished quality. The set, consisting of a rotatable structure of metal bars and doors, allows the plot’s movements back and forth through time to have a comprehensive fluidity. This also provides a wonderful backdrop for the fantastic work of the actors. Fraser Ayres brings an incredible physicality to Stuart which clearly conveys both the pitiable nature of his life and the magnetic power he holds over the people he meets. This bounces perfectly off Will Adamsdale’s portrayal of Alexander’s anxiety and compassion.
There is a minor scriptural flaw whereby some scenes of dialogue between the two are overextended in places, meaning that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that Stuart’s story also exists in conjunction with the other characters in the play. This is, however, mostly counteracted by the strong performances of the other cast members who succeed in immediately refocusing the energy of the piece as they begin a new scene.
Ultimately, the truth behind this show never fails to shine through and audiences everywhere will be stunned by its ability to showcase harsh reality in such a poignant way. Stuart: A Life Backwards is a stunningly personal piece of theatre which incorporates the odd comic flourish and fully justifies its 90 minute running time.