Shed: Exploded View review – formally daring drama lacks conviction

<span>‘Fragmented events’: Lizzy Watts in Shed: Exploded View.</span><span>Photograph: Johan Persson</span>
‘Fragmented events’: Lizzy Watts in Shed: Exploded View.Photograph: Johan Persson

“An explosion in action” is how Phoebe Eclair-Powell describes this, her 2019 Bruntwood Prize-winning work (production delayed by Covid). The inspiration for the piece, she says, in a note to the text, was Cornelia Parker’s 1991 artwork Cold Dark Matter: Exploded View.

Installation and the performance both feature a wooden garden shed. Parker blew hers up, photographed it as it exploded and then suspended fragments of shed and contents, as if in mid-event. By contrast, in Eclair-Powell’s work a character constructs a shed in the course of the action, which opens and closes with an offstage act of explosive violence. Most of the fragmented events presented, in the course of the following 50-plus scenes, are not a result of this act but form the lead-up to it.

On designer Naomi Dawson’s bare stage with its three concentric, revolving rings, we are presented with three couples, from three generations, at moments in their lives spaced across three decades, up to the present. As in Alan Ayckbourn’s 2022 play Family Album, which also explores cross-generational trauma and gendered violence, scenes ranging across time and space are played concurrently. Eclair-Powell’s text offers another formal twist: scenes can be played in any order. The particular sequence decided on by the Royal Exchange’s company for this particular run, for instance, may never be repeated.

Formally, then, the piece is complex. Dramatically, though, it’s oversimplistic. Verbal patterns (characters in separate scenes speaking the same words at the same time, for instance) are given precedence over character development. Relationships come across as schematic and the overall emotional impact of the piece depends on our sharing underlying assumptions about men’s aggression and women’s lack of agency. Director Atri Banerjee and his cast deliver a clear and well thought-out production but cannot detonate the potential drama encased within the construct.

Shed: Exploded View is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 2 March