Kevin Fegan

The playwright has two shows being staged in Yorkshire – The Ruck in Huddersfield and The Shed Crew in Leeds

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I know it sounds like London buses, but I have four new commissioned stage plays being produced in September. Truth is, it’s pure coincidence, because theatre shows often take years from development to production. The shows are all very different and reflect the breadth of my work as a playwright. You have to be versatile and prolific to survive as a writer for contemporary theatre. Two of these plays are being staged in Yorkshire and are very regional stories.

The Shed Crew is an adaptation of Bernard Hare’s popular true story book, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, which was a big hit with readers in 2005. The play is produced by Red Ladder and is a powerful account of the lives of feral kids living in inner-city Leeds in the 1990s. Bernie found himself the token adult in the Shed Crew and writes with glorious passion and brutal honesty about his experiences with them.

The Ruck is a play about girls rugby league, inspired by UK champions Batley Bulldogs Girls Team and their tour of Queensland Australia in 2015. I was commissioned by Creative Scene, which promotes the arts among ordinary people in the Kirklees area of West Yorkshire. The show is produced in association with Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, where it will open in September, followed by a tour of other Yorkshire theatres for a week.

It was my partner Julie who first passed on to me a copy of Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew. She works with similar kids and knew I’d like the book. I met Bernie and the real Urban Grimshaw, Lee, before I started work on the adaptation. I told Bernie I wanted to take his book and adapt it all in verse to capture the energy of these kids. It also seemed in keeping with the book, where each chapter starts with a poem written by one of the Shed Crew. It’s not that Bernie was able (or expected) to save anyone, but he did bring to their lives poetry and art and chess and his passion for the writings of Lao Tzu.

The result is a fast-moving, entertaining play driven by the verse. The book read to me like a strange kind of buddy movie between this middle-aged man, “Chop”, and this 12-year-old boy, “Urban”, whom he ends up adopting. They are our guides to the secret lives led by the Shed Crew, invisible to most people, in the underbelly of the financial centre of Leeds. After I had written the first draft, and before rehearsals started on the play, tragically Lee (the real Urban) died. After everything Lee and Bernie had been through, for it to end so cruelly, I knew I had to rewrite the beginning and end of the play. I wanted to acknowledge the reality of their lives and Lee’s death and not pretend that all was well with the world. The truth is that some of the Shed Crew have gone on to lead equally tragic lives and others have achieved great successes. The book doesn’t stand in judegment and neither does the play.

 The latest recruit to the team, an Asian girl called Iffy, throws a curve ball into the all-white working-class team

The Ruck is a play in two halves. The first half deals with the lives of teenage girls growing up in Batley. The latest recruit to the team, an Asian girl called Iffy, throws a curve ball into the all-white working-class team. Like most former mill towns, Batley is struggling with its identity as it tries to re-invent itself after years of migrant families moving into the area to work in the mills and the old industries dying out. The second half compares and contrasts their lives with those of teenage girls in Queensland, Australia, where sports like rugby league are a way of life for many diverse communities. I was invited to go on tour with the team as part of the research for the play – “no dramas”, as the Aussies say.

The play is a physical, entertaining family drama, written in a mixture of verse and prose, including songs and raps. The verse allows me to capture a sense of the epic – Kirklees is the area of origin of rugby league – and to get inside the minds of these girls. Their families raised tens of thousands of pounds to make the tour happen. On tour, I was able to spend time getting to know the girls and their extended families and they welcomed me with open arms into their world – even knowing that I would be using their experiences as inspiration for the play. I was genuinely struck by the way in which rugby provides for these girls a second family – not unlike the Shed Crew for those feral kids in Leeds. Not that there is anything wrong with their first families, but it made me wish I’d had that kind of support growing up in Mansfield. I’d have got myself into a lot less trouble for sure.

The Ruck opens at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield on 15-16 September and then tours until 22 September. The Shed Crew is at the Albion Electric, Leeds from 21 Sept to 1 Oct. Photo of Kevin Fegan: Amy Charles Media

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