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Shed: Exploded View

Phoebe Eclair-Powell

Royal Exchange Theatre production

Royal Exchange, Manchester

February 9-March 2, 2024; 1hr 40min (no interval)

Wil Johnson as Tony in the Royal Exchange's Bruntwood prize-winning Shed - Exploded View. All pics: Johan Persson
Wil Johnson as Tony in the Royal Exchange's Bruntwood prize-winning Shed: Exploded View. All pics: Johan Persson

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The winner of the 2019 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting has finally seen her winning work reach the stage. Shed: Exploded View by Phoebe Eclair-Powell is an intense, captivating examination of our closest enduring relationships, with an underlying then exploding core of domestic violence – male violence. It’s a worthy prize winner.

Eclair-Powell is a fan of the artist Cornelia Parker, whose work Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View – often referred to as exploding shed – was a significant part of the reopening of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery in 2015. The same concept is applied in this episodic and non-linear play, allowing the audience to slowly discover the relationships between the characters. Are they friends, family, or possibly the same people at different stages in their life?

There’s something to be gained by viewing the play without, initially, being aware of the relationships between the characters, so I’ll leave that for you to discover, and will simply say that each of the six actors – Hayley Carmichael, Norah Lopez Holden, Jason Hughes, Wil Johnson, Lizzy Watts, and Michael Workeye – is outstanding, individually and as part of the team. A reappearance by anyone of them would bring me straight back to the Royal Exchange auditorium, and I would travel to see them.

This is the director Atri Banerjee’s third piece for the Exchange. His work includes one of my favourites, the reworking of Hobson’s Choice to a more modern Northern Quarter (a trendy Manchester district) and the tribulations and triumph of an Indian family expelled from early 70s Uganda. That was a triumph. So is the very different "Shed".

Phoebe Eclair-Powell has worked extensively, including as a script writer for Hollyoaks. The core material of every scene we see in "Shed" is likely to have appeared in one of our TV soaps at least once. ‘Shed’ is no soap. The normality, combined with the unusual and initially-unsettling, non-linear approach forces the audience to continually alter its perception, pushing us to deeper questions, as well as to shifting predictions.

Set design is stark, outwardly unsupportive, yet internally providing a growing map of structure as scenes, travel forward and backwards in time. We’re guided by chalked scene names added during performance, and also, crucially, by a light display on the auditorium structure displaying the year of the scene. From some seats this is easy to miss; I’d advise looking out for it early on.

The play asks questions and encourages its audience to do the same. The play offers commentary, but doesn't offer solutions, except perhaps the joy and importance of enduring love, respect and suppor

Direction and performances are mesmerising throughout, and haunting. The stillness of the Royal Exchange press night audience during the 100-minute, interval-free performance spoke volumes.

Given the intimacy and design of the Royal Exchange, audience appreciation can be shared both inside and outside the performance capsule. Throughout, there was a sense of a shared experience, deep engagement, a need to stop, digest and discuss what we’d just seen.

This play stays with you. A slight distancing enhances the experience. Had I written this review last night I would have scored it four stars. This morning, it’s a definite five stars. Go. Maybe don’t take the children

More info and tickets here


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