David Sheppeard describes his solo performance Hard Graft as being “inspired by my relationship with my father, who grew up in South Wales in a mining village…I am a queer-identified playwright – on the face of it we couldn’t be more different.” He explores the difficult terrain of this father-son relationship through a monologue, hoping that it will come across as “funny, personal and honest.”
Indeed, throughout Sheppeard draws laughter from the audience through his self-deprecating insights. He repeatedly says, “if I was brave or a real artist…,” before emphasising that he is neither. Yet he’s equally capable of moments of true self-reflection and discernment. After he recounts his visit to the mining village and the way in which he immediately judged the people there, he observes quite poetically that his “prejudice is like a pre-emptive strike.”
The most memorable part of the show, though, is perhaps one particular story about Sheppeard’s father – one that has been repeated many times in the family and become a kind of legend. At the age of four, his father wandered out of the house. He ended up at a railway station, landed headfirst on a track and cracked his skull open. He then had to spend three months recovering in a hospital. To Sheppeard, “this is part of his mythology”, and, as he macabrely puts it, his father’s “dress rehearsal of dying.”
Sheppeard makes the point that this is a detail of his father’s life that won’t make it on to a family tree. Additionally, towards the end of the performance, Sheppeard says he doesn’t see himself getting children, claiming that he’s too selfish. This gives his father’s story – and, in fact, his family’s whole history – an air of poignancy, as the family line will therefore stop with Sheppeard. There will be no one to pass such stories on to when his parents die.
Despite Sheppeard’s claim of the seemingly irreconcilable “on the face of it” disparities between father and son, what becomes clear as this monologue progresses is that they are alike in some respects, after all. For example, one of the few connections between Sheppeard and his father is that they have both experienced depression – and the ways in which they have coped with it are similar too. Sheppeard’s father went through depression after the collapse of British steel in the early 90s, which left thousands unemployed. Sheppeard candidly admits that his own depressive breakdown came at the end of university, and he can’t help feeling that, in contrast to his father, his own depression was somehow not as deserved. He questions whether it was an “honest depression” or just middle-class angst. But Sheppeard does feel that the fortitude he found to keep going during his depression is something he inherited from his father.
Nonetheless, it is made clear that the relationship between the two abounds with words unsaid, awkward moments and embarrassed silences, as both struggle to find a common ground. Sheppeard proves adept at taking the audience on an engaging and, at times, poignant journey into the intricacies and complexities of his relationship with his father.
Hard Graft is playing at the Ovalhouse Theatre until 11 April. For tickets and more information and tickets, see the Ovalhouse website.