Stuart: A Life Backwards

Rating ***
Reviewed by Alex Foott

Hightide Festival Theatre
Written by Jack Thorne (adapted from Alexander Masters’ book of the same name)
Directed by Mark Rosenblatt
Performance date – Sat 17th Aug 2013

Creating a theatre adaptation of a celebrated book or film is always an exciting process. It gives a company huge scope to reinvent the story’s beloved characters while still remaining loyal to the originals. Likewise, Hightide Festival Theatre makes a commendable effort to recreate the remarkable character of Stuart Shorter, a homeless alcoholic with a rather devastating past. Thorne’s script, lifting several quotes from Alexander Masters’ pioneering work, successfully rehumanises the regularly disregarded figure of the vagrant, placing it in a position of esteem. Though the message is strong and clear, the direction of the play wanders slightly, at times losing focus and making it difficult for an audience to concentrate on its poignancy.

The story depicts real events that took place between the 1970s and the early 2000s. Stuart is a homeless man who becomes involved in a campaign to free two people who are imprisoned after it is unveiled that, unbeknownst to them, the shelter they ran was being used as a drug den. During this activism, Stuart befriends campaign leader Alexander Masters, a comfortable member of the middle class. Due to Stuart’s involvement, their crusade succeeds tremendously. The friendship progresses swiftly and Alexander steadily discovers Stuart’s shocking past. Inspired by his bravery and resilience, he offers to write his biography.

Thorne’s script very sensitively balances the comedy and tragedy of Stuart’s character and elevates him in the audience’s eyes, encouraging us to reassess our preconceptions of the homeless. He also unveils the avaricious nature of the middle class, demonstrating that Alexander’s wish to document Stuart’s past is actually an attempt to create a purpose for his own meandering life. Fraser Ayres, as Stuart, is outstanding. Expertly displaying the complex physicality of muscular dystrophy coupled with mumbling incoherence, he is unnervingly convincing yet utterly endearing. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. While Will Adamsdale is appropriately stilted and awkward as Alexander, the rest of the cast are somewhat redundant. It feels as though this should be a two-hander, with the pair alternately playing the smaller roles. Instead, the four supporting actors are used only minimally and remain on stage at all times, creating an unintentional distraction.

This is a worthy adaptation of Masters’ original work. Although there are a few moments of awkward dancing and unwarranted physical theatre, the audience still understands the fundamental themes of the piece. The cast are likeable and talented (when used), though Ayres’ performance alone provides reason enough to see this show. A refreshing stance on one of society’s taboos.