In a prop store housed in an old electrical warehouse in a slightly unlovely corner of Leeds something odd is happening. Make your way past half a dozen mannequins propped up in this rabbit warren of a place and inside there is a stage.
It’s not the usual auditorium – it’s largely made of scaffolding. When they arrive, the audience will be encouraged to move around rather than sit in one place, and it appears as if the set has been made from bits and pieces which were already lying around.
There are various wooden pallets, sun loungers without cushions – or many springs – a collection of cardboard boxes, a few old tyres, you get the picture. It might not be a traditional theatre setting, but then there is nothing mainstream about the tale of Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew.
It’s based on the book written by Bernard Hare in the early 1990s. Disillusioned with life as a social worker in London he returned to Leeds and the tough East End Park estate where he had grown up. There he befriended a group of children who had been forced to be wise beyond their years.
Urban – real name Lee Kirton – was the central character of Hare’s memoir. Bright, sharp and witty, he was also addicted to drugs and the adrenalin rush of living on the wrong side of the law. The new theatre adaptation by Red Ladder has been a long time in the making and director Rod Dixon admits that it now has added poignancy.
“Earlier this summer we found out Lee had died,” he says. “We had already decided to do the play, but we did wonder whether it was appropriate. We spoke to a lot of people, but in the end we decided that this was a story which deserved to be told.”
Given that the play will be staged just a stone’s throw from where The Shed Crew call home and some of them will be in the audience, Dixon is aware of the sensitivities. A film of the book, starring Anna Friel and Fraser Kelly, was shot on the estate a few years ago, but has yet to see the light of day. Dixon, however, hopes that he has done both Hare and Lee justice.
“When you are dealing with real people and their lives of course there are difficulties, but we have been very clear that what we are staging is not fact. It’s not an actual representation of their lives, but it does, I hope, have a vein of truth running through it.
“We showed we could do it with the stage adaptation of David Peace’s Damned United and while it’s obviously a very different story, the principle is the same.
“Bernard’s book is a spring board to tell a story about the kind of people who are rarely represented on stage.
“That’s why we wanted to put it on here. This isn’t a play that you put on at a theatre, the surroundings are really important and this seems like the perfect home for it.”
The Shed Crew is in many ways not an easy watch. It’s a story of children whose hope for a better future has all but been snuffed out by the time they reached their teenage years and even in rehearsals the ending had those watching in tears.
However, Hare’s book and Red Ladder’s production also succeed in portraying every single character as three dimensional rather than some easy stereotype of austerity. It’s also very funny.
“When I first met Lee he was just 12 years old and was already dependent on drugs,” says Hare, who still lives in Leeds. “Seeing him made me realise all that was wrong with the care system. Social workers go in for a bit, they do whatever they need to and then they disappear.
“These kids need long term help. They need someone to rely on in their lives. When I heard that Lee had died I was obviously sad, but I wasn’t surprised. It was a call I had been expecting for years. When he was clean he was great, full of plans, full of hope, but the old life always snatched him back.”
Most of the cast of actors in the Red Ladder production are from Leeds which Dixon hopes will further add to the play’s sense of authenticity.
“Even with a week and a half to go to opening night it felt like we were in a good place,” he says. “Written in verse, it’s not the easiest script for actors to deliver, but Kevin’s words are just brilliant.”
The Shed Crew, Albion Electric Warehouse, Leeds, to October 1. Tickets are being sold via the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 0113 213 7700 or online at www.wyp.org.uk