It has been ten years since American university student Matthew Shepard was murdered by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, bringing the issue of gay hate crime to an international level. The brutal way in which Shepard was tortured, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, and then left to die shocked the world, and prompted Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project to create this theatrical piece based on interviews with people directly involved with the events.

It is, undoubtedly, a devastatingly moving script. I have seen it tackled many times by an ensemble cast who take turns to both narrate the story, plus inhabit various interviewees. In the original Tectonic production, eight actors played more than sixty characters, in this version by Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts from Dundalk, Maryland reduces the actor count to seven – four boys and three girls, but we lose none of the story.

The direction, from Lauren Spencer-Harris, is clearly well-considered from the outset. The usual traps of ‘youth theatre’ (standing in lines, staring at the floor, anticipating cues) are thankfully avoided. Instead, Spencer-Harris uses the space and levels well, creating fluid movement between scenes. If one thing is letting her vision down – at least in the early stages – it is the sparse number of lighting cues. I couldn’t help thinking a few pools of light to isolate dialogue and focus on the important action would have really polished what are already great performances. The lighting also has a minor problem in that it is all very much from above (and I’m sure this is out of the theatre company’s control), but the shadows from caps and even foreheads creates a slightly sinister dynamic which I doubt was Spencer-Harris’ intention.

Minor lighting quibbles aside, the cast are excellent. In particular, I have high praise for Gregory Acree, who’s characterisation where an absolute joy and found moments of appropriate humour in this piece that I’ve never seen another group nail before. Sean Kelly and Paul Davis were also both outstanding in their beautifully delineated multiple roles. I doff my cap at such raw talent performing important work like The Laramie Project. Go see them.

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Church Hill Theatre. 15th - 18th August. Various Times.

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