When I read the title, Shed: Exploded View, I immediately thought of Cornelia Parker’s extraordinary piece, Cold Dark Matter. It’s an actual garden shed, blown up by the army. The pieces hung in mid-air, mid-explosion. It turned out to be a good clue to this elusive and elliptical piece at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in which writer Phoebe Éclair-Powell does to three couples what Parker did to her shed. 

There is no set, just a bare circular revolve with three concentric sections on which the actors perform, dance, and chalk what appear to be scene titles on the floor. There are two TV screens opposite each other at balcony level which show the year the particular scene is set in. Given that the scenes move between 1993 and the present day, and not in chronological order but jump around, a bare stage is the only solution. 

The acting is excellent – especially so, as learning the piece must have been a nightmare. Usually you have narrative hooks which remind you, the actor, of where you are and what’s next. Not so here. Each scene seems independent of the last as the action moves back and forth in time, and there are some soliloquys that, in themselves, are semantically disjointed. But Lizzy Watts and Jason Hughes as Naomi and Frank, Hayley Carmichael and Wil Johnson as Lil and Tony, and Norah Lopez-Holden and Michael Workéyè as Abi and Mark, make it look easy. They are a pleasure to watch. Six stars for them. 

Photo by Johan Persson

The play is a more difficult call. Winner of the 2019 Bruntwood prize, it has an excellent pedigree. But I found it difficult to follow. I love going to plays where I am made to work out what’s really going on, where much is hidden, and where you wonder what’s going to happen next. That’s not possible here as what is going to happen next actually happened before what you have just seen. And you do have to keep an eye on those screens. I was sitting between them, as it were, so had to turn my gaze away from the action to note the year. Perhaps more screens? 

At the end, you do find out what is really going on, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say it seems to be a play about male violence, another connection to Parker who had a physically abusive father. But the narrative is so fragmented that, even once you have made sense of it, it’s difficult to know why a particular character does a particular thing, which is, I think, much of the point of drama. So, the violence seems to come out of nowhere.  

As for the shed, it sits centre stage at the beginning, which is really the end, and is soon deconstructed. But there is a key line that, if you miss it, will leave you clueless. For me, the play is too disjointed to be emotionally or intellectually satisfactory. Perhaps younger, sharper minds than mine will find it invigorating. Go and see it. In any event, go for the acting which is superb. 

By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

Main image by Johan Persson

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Shed: Exploded View is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until March 2,2024. For more information, click here