Hard Graft

Ovalhouse, London

© David Sheppeard

© David Sheppeard

What an amazing institution the Ovalhouse has become. Now in its fifth decade, like the Windmill theatre of old, it never seems to close, even under the most trying of circumstances. Recently, like the Battersea Arts Centre it’s suffered a major fire requiring complete replacement of its electrical and computer equipment, floors and acting spaces.

Yet barely a couple of months later, here they are in full swing, re-painted, swished up, modernised. And as ever open to new voices. Many venues make much of their role as supporters of `emerging’ artists. But the Ovalhouse has been quietly getting on with it for most of its active life, their latest `new voice’ being one David Sheppeard.

Part of their spring Public/Private season, Sheppeard’s Hard Graft is a mixed `homage’ to his Welsh born father, a journey back to his roots in the mining village of Ynysybwl, closed in 1988 in the Thatcher mining meltdown.

For Sheppeard, brought up in Poole, Dorset, it’s a journey fraught with ambiguities and discomfort for a performer who calls himself a `lanky poof’, subject to depression and self-absorption.

Who is he, where did he come from, how can he get close to this strange being, his Dad are the urgent questions he keeps asking himself about his identity and where he `belongs’. They are the nub of a show that skates perilously close to self-indulgence but Sheppeard is too articulate, too canny a performer to fall into the trap which is avoided with charm, self-deprecation and originality.

Both narrator and commentator, one moment he’s in third person description mode, the next chatty-confessional at the mic. Most original of all, he creates a wonderful floor installation – the conjuring of the past generations of coal and steel workers, now consigned to the scrap heap – through a painted hand adorned with bits of coal and rusted metal.

© David Sheppeard

© David Sheppeard

`We are different, Dad’, he painfully exclaims and in his attempt to square a family circle and understand himself and his `complex’ relationship with his elderly parent Sheppeard has produced a lovely 50 minutes of astute and moving political, social and sexual analysis fleshed out with humour and great honesty.

First published in Reviewsgate, April 2015