Actor Fraser Ayres found that his own friendship with a homeless man helped him to create the title role in the play Stuart: A Life Backwards.
Fraser is currently starring in the world premiere of the hard-hitting play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The production is being co-produced by Sheffield Theatres and Edinburgh company HighTide Festival Theatres and comes to Sheffield next month.
I saw a preview in Edinburgh at the new Topside studio venue and thought it was beautifully written and well acted, with Will Adamsdale and Fraser Ayres brilliantly re-creating a strange friendship. It’s an intense tale with some sad revelations near the end and should be gripping in the Crucible Studio, which will be a perfect space for it.
Fraser plays Stuart Shorter, a real-life “chaotic, violent, motormouth homeless man”. He met the bookish, middle-class writer Alexander Masters (Will’s role) when they were involved in a defence campaign for two homeless shelter managers who were jailed for alleged drugs offences.
The pair formed an unlikely friendship and Alexander wrote Stuart’s biography after his friend’s death after being hit by a train.
Fraser, who starred in the TV comedy The Smoking Room, said: “ I had quite a long relationship with a homeless guy called Mark. I met him outside Tesco’s at the Angel in Islington. I’ve known him for 12 to 15 years.”
Fraser eventually helped Mark to set up in business as a painter and decorator in Brighton. That gave Mark the chance to see to his son.
He said: “I’m quite aware of the intentional liberalism that goes with it. It’s about being open and warm and there is a tourism aspect about being friends with a homeless person, as is clear in Alexander’s case.
“But eventually the tourism stops and a real relationship begins. Looking back at that process, we were both working each other out.
“You’re being really open and trying to help and they’re suspicious of you. All these things come out and then you get to the other side of it.”
Fraser said that the writer of the play, Jack Thorne, the director, Mark Rosenblatt, and the cast were very aware that they were portraying a real story.
He said: “Alexander is still living and Stuart’s family are still living. Alexander was very keen to honour the memory of Stuart, which is why he wrote the book.”
Stuart had cerebral palsy and Fraser captures wonderfully the way that affected how he spoke and moved.
He said: “I have to get my body to do things I don’t do. Before I go on stage I do shapes and listen to loud music and jump around to free up the body.
“I have to get into an incredibly receptive place. Nothing gets missed with Stuart. Nothing escapes his attention.”
Fraser said that it helps that he has done physical theatre and he is also a yoga teacher.
The play makes clear that Stuart was a very difficult person to be around a lot of the time. Fraser said: “The experiences he had made him very scaly because of the need for survival that he talks about.”
Alexander, who had a very privileged upbringing, is very insecure and troubled and Fraser thinks that similarity is what drew the pair of them together.
“Alexander could have been in a care home and, boom, he would have spent the next 15 years in absolute misery like Stuart. It’s that moment that changes everything.”
He added: “Mark has been so ambitious as a director. It’s fantastic being part of a process like that where someone has a real vision for the play. It’s very good to be part of that vision.”
Fraser said he only watched the 2007 TV version of the play, starring Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, villain in The Dark Knight Rises, after he knew how he was going to approach the role himself.
He said: “I think Benedict and Tom both do an amazing job. Tom’s just beautiful as Stuart. I’m a big fan of Tom. It was great watching it afterwards and seeing what those boys did with it.”
He knows Benedict Cumberbatch as their paths crossed when they were working on different plays at the National Theatre in London.
Fraser, who has filmed recently in Sheffield with city-based filmmaker Colin Pons, is looking forward to returning to the city. He said: “I love Sheffield. Every time I’ve been I’ve had the most amazing time. I love the friendliness of people there. It has all the culture of London without all the nonsense.”
Stuart: A Life Backwards comes to the Crucible Studio Theatre from September 11 to 28. Tickets are on sale now from Sheffield Theatres’ Box Office. Call 0114 249 6000 or visit sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.
The play is at the Underbelly’s new Topside venue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until August 26. Tickets: www.hightide.org.uk