★★★★★ | A Life Backwards (The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield)

After meeting at a protest to support two homeless charity workers, Alexander (played by Will Adamsdale) and Stuart (played by Fraser Ayres) develop an unlikely bond. Stuart becomes intrinsic in the organisation of Alexander’s public campaign and the two men find they have much more in common than they ever thought they would. But for Stuart, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, the reality of life on the streets is never far away and his psychological problems gradually get the better of him as his physical and mental health start to deteriorate. Alexander, who had promised Stuart that he would write a biography that Stuart’s son would want to read, starts to speak to those who knew Stuart growing up. He uncovers a troubled past for Stuart, and starts to understand the impact and implications of Stuart’s family, schooling and disability.

Based on the biography of the same name, which chronicles the true life story of Stuart Shorter, this play was an outstanding piece of theatre. The intelligent writing of the piece shone through, having the audience laughing out loud one moment and sitting with teary eyes hanging on every word uttered the next. The unravelling of Stuart’s life was beautifully written; with the latter half of the play deconstructing the complex character it had so carefully crafted in the first half. Stuart is portrayed as likeable, funny, resilient and sensitive, yet at the same time violent, volatile, unpredictable and unstable. The script itself was, in equal parts, genuinely funny, moving, warm, touching and upsetting as you learn who Stuart really is and you are left wondering whether you should or shouldn’t actually like him.

The acting in the play was of a very high standard all round with the minimal cast drawing in the audience with their performances, meaning that you could feel definite shifts in the atmosphere of the studio theatre as everyone became absorbed in the story.

But undoubtedly, the primary focus was on Fraser Ayres, who gave one of the best performances I have seen in the theatre for many years with his exceptional portrayal of Stuart. His convincing, sensitive and genuine performance of a man tormented by his inner demons and his failing body was quite frankly brilliant, moving, accurate and wholly believable.

The setting of the Studio Theatre, an intimate performance space at Sheffield Theatres, only added to the total immersion in the play. The production values were basic with a very simple, but astutely utilised, scaffolding set, but the real draw here is the story, performances and emotions of the piece.

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This extraordinary play, produced by Sheffield Theatres and High Tide Festival Theatre is an outstanding piece of work. It was wholly engrossing in terms of its performance, writing and characters and left the audience feeling as though they had been through the full spectrum of emotions with the characters on stage. The thought provoking nature of the play was perfectly balanced with the soul, warmth and humour that punctuates it and provided an incredible opening to Sheffield Theatre’s autumn season. A must see.

Stuart – A Life backwards is currently playing at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until the 28th September 2013. Details can be found at http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk