A Life Backwards – Review

Sometimes it’s not just the stories we tell, but also how we tell them that matters. Stuart Shorter knew that. He was a homeless man living in Cambridge feet were largely fungal, whose alcohol-fuelled life was chaotic and sometimes violent, whose gait was affected by muscular dystrophy, and whose capacity to cut through liberal bullshit was unparalleled.

Shorter got involved in a campaign to free two jailed charity workers, and through that became friends with Alexander Masters, a PhD dropout. Then Masters – played here with just the right air of diffidence by Will Adamsdale – decided to write Shorter’s biography. In this stage version of the award-winning book, Shorter savagely critiques Masters’s first draft with the adroitness of someone who has been practising literary criticism all his life. He then offers sage advice: “Write it backwards,” he says. “You’ll find the clue.”

Stuart: A Life Backwards

So that’s what Masters did and Jack Thorne’s adaptation and Mark Rosenblatt’s production make a good attempt to play with form and structure, too. The edges of the stage are filled with junk, as if reflecting the chaos of Stuart’s life, and the production itself boasts a deceptive messiness. Characters pop in and out of the narrative with cartoonish energy.

Fraser Ayres’s remarkable, edgy performance ensures that it is Stuart’s story that remains centre-stage – even when he is absent from it – but the craftiness of the piece is the way it dissects storytelling itself. In spinning Stuart’s tale, Masters, living in the shadow of his high-flying family’s success and expectations, discovers as much about himself as he does about Stuart’s tragedy. “You love all this homeless stuff because it feels real, and your real life feels pretend,” says Masters’s long-suffering girlfriend, Phoebe. One might say that sometimes theatre feels more real than life, too. But the show prods at the blurred lines between truth and fiction, questions the way stories are mediated, and asks who and what is a story really about. Is it the subject, or the storyteller?

  Fraser Ayres in Stuart: A Life BackwardsStuart: A LifeBackwards

      Underbelly Edinburgh
      Until 26 August
      Box office: 0844 545 8252

Venue website

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Written by Lyn Gardner
Taken from The Guardian