Stuart: A Life Backwards is a moving exploration of friendship, resilience and the moments that can irrevocably change a life. Based on the book of the same title, it explores the development of an unlikely friendship between well-meaning, slightly awkward Alexander Masters and irreverent Stuart Shorter, whom Alexander meets whilst doing volunteer work with the homeless in Cambridge and whose biography he begins to write. In Stuart’s own words he is a “Spagger. Victim. Attacker. Addict. Lover. Priest” but also, and more importantly “one of those sorts who is impossible to explain”. The play’s greatest strength lies in the way it makes the latter quality clearer, showing the difficulty of ‘explaining’ a human being, though they may superficially be stereotyped as a ‘victim’, an ‘attacker’ or a ‘homeless’.
Though much of the publicity surrounding Stuart draws attention to the plight of the homeless in Cambridge, the play’s success is hinged on its ability to transcend labels. Ben Leitch is remarkable as Stuart, nailing everything from the tics of Stuart’s muscular dystrophy to his jocular verbosity so well that the original Alexander Maters and Stuart’s mother and sister, who were in the audience watching, said after the show how faithfully Leitch managed his portrayal.
Jamie Robson as Alexander provides the perfect complement to Leitch’s Stuart, self-effacing where Stuart is effusive, methodical where Stuart is intuitive and perhaps most critically, prescriptive in his view on Stuart’s life where Stuart is more holistic. This leads to some amusing conflicts, including one where Stuart points out Alexander has managed to make even the inclusion of joyriding – “Joy. Riding. the name implies fun” – boring through his enumeration of its various varieties in legal jargon. Further interactions of this kind, fueled by the differences in the worlds Stuart and Alexander occupy, provide both comic fodder but also bring the characters into sharper relief, interrogating Alexander’s motivations for working with the homeless and Stuart’s chequered past. Ultimately however, the compelling chemistry between Robson and Leitch is at its best when it showcases the mutual understanding between Stuart and Alexander, which gives the play its humour as well poignancy.
This combination is most evident in the speech Stuart gives, heard both at the start and end of the play, attempting to describe himself in three words. Initially amused by Stuart’s meandering yarn, by the end of the play the same speech is striking as it reminds one that, despite everything, Stuart manages to retains a sense of humour and vitality. Here, as throughout the play, director Dan Sanderson navigates the non-linear structure well, making some inspirited decisions that ensure the temporal transitions and flashbacks are not jarring, and occasionally making use of the more immersive space at Corpus.
I was lucky enough to catch a Q&A at the end of the show with the real Alexander, Stuart’s sister and Barry, the Community Outreach officer at Jimmy’s, which provides sheltered housing for the homeless, and was struck by something Alexander said; Stuart didn’t suffer ‘homelessness, he suffered from ‘Stuartness’. This sums up one of the things the play attempts to depict; that no homeless individual can be defined solely by their homelessness and that usually it is a combination of other, latent issues that cause a person to become homeless. Homelessness is shown to be just the visible manifestation of underlying issues and, as Stuart: A Life Backwards shows, does not efface the individual humanity of Stuart and the many, many others who like him, happen to find themselves on the streets.
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