Review: Shed: Exploded View, Royal Exchange

Published in The Telegraph on February 16, 2024

It’s a lesser-seen sort of stage adaptation – but occasionally, playwrights take inspiration from great works of art. Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree drew on Michael Craig-Martin’s artwork. Sondheim riffed on Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George. And in Shed: Exploded View, Phoebe Eclair-Powell was inspired by Cornelia Parker’s installation of a blown-up garden shed to explode her own theatrical form.

Three couples of different ages move around each other on a set of revolving, concentric circles. Their conversations overlap, echo, and repeat in new contexts, with new meanings. Time skips around for each short scene, with screens helpfully informing us which year, from 1993 to 2024, we’ve landed in. And those scenes are themselves fragmentary, coming at you like sharp little shards; the script says they can be performed in a different order. (It’s no surprise to read that Eclair-Powell is a Caryl Churchill fan.)

Shed won the prestigious Bruntwood Prize in 2019, and it’s easy to be impressed by Eclair-Powell’s hewn, honed dialogue – there’s a cleverness to the construction, and wit as well as gritty truthfulness in the relationships that emerge. Atri Banerjee directs with elegant control that occasionally feels just a little stark or chilly.

But around halfway through, I started to wonder if it might not all be a teensy bit too clever: an exercise in form, the slashed-up structure a justification for never really developing a character, a scene, a theme. And there are many big subjects flying around, from eating disorders to gambling addiction, infidelity and dementia, Covid and cancer, motherhood and marriage, men’s fragile egos and men’s insecurity and men’s wounded pride and men’s need to control women and…

And so, the overall picture does come into view. The dots make up the painting. The shards reveal their total shape. As Eclair-Powell twists her three stories tighter together, Shed becomes an intense, and intensely moving, account of domestic violence.

While a couple of movement sequences don’t feel fully integrated in Banerjee’s staging, a repeated dance to Britney Spears’s Baby One More Time – which should be far too on the nose – warps till it becomes chilling. And every time a character smashes a glass, Bethany Gupwell’s nastily glittering lighting made me wince.

The material is met by an assured cast, too. Hayley Carmichael is wise and tender as the older woman, Lil, and Wil Johnson as her sick husband is devastating in new scenes set during the lockdowns of 2020, unable to comprehend why he can’t go outside. Both funniest and most gut-wrenching, however, is the relationship between Naomi and her daughter Abigail. Norah Lopez Holden is sensational at flickering from teenage exasperation to blossoming adulthood to shrinking, freezing fear within an abusive relationship, while Lizzy Watts’s last monologue as her terrified mum surely sends shivers round the whole auditorium.

As a final speech, it is honest, and raw, and left me in bits. Rather appropriate, really.

Where next?