The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield is a part of our dramatic landscape – whether for theatre or for snooker – but how often do we stop to think about its name, which takes us back to the grimmest night in Sheffield’s recent history – 12 December 1940? This was the night of ‘Operation Crucible’, when the Luftwaffe bombed the city for seven hours with the aim of knocking out the contribution of the steel works to the war effort. Getting on for 700 people were killed and 40,000 were left homeless. At the centre of the destruction was the seven-storey Marples Hotel, which crumpled under a direct hit. While 70 people died in the ruins, a small section of cellarage gave sanctuary to a small group of steel workers who had taken shelter there. After a long wait they were rescued and this play tells their story.
When you take your seat at the Finborough there is little initially to look at….a small paved stage, four stools at the corners, a basic workshop lamp suspended above and three discoloured steel panels that in another kind of play would make you think of Rothko. It is through the quality of ensemble acting, movement and writing that this play stands or falls, and by and large it succeeds admirably.
The play first ran at the Finborough in 2013, and it returns now with just one change in cast. There are four actors, and the author Kieran Knowles himself plays Tommy, who is closest of all to a narrator or commentator on the action. The play runs straight through for 80 minutes in which the central episode in the cellar is bracketed and interpolated with episodes from earlier on the day of the bombing, and other points in the lives of the characters. Thus we receive the back-stories of the four steel men at the same time as we see them interacting in the moment. We also get to know them and their context through vivid re-enactment of industrial processes from the steel mill and football rivalry between the two leading Sheffield teams. From the outset the pace is set fierce and furious with pages of rapid-fire inter-cut dialogue and fizzing interactive physical energy, all the more impressive for taking place within such a tightly constrained space. There is plenty of rough, joshing humour and then pools of repose where each character in turn is allowed more inward moments of self-reflection.
This is very assured and mature writing for a first play. How much do you show in real time, and how much in flashbacks? How do you reveal the back-story of the characters without losing narrative thrust? How do you write dialogue that convinces for scenes in darkness with little to look at for minutes on end? These questions require a sense of dramatic judgement, balance and control that is rarely found and yet in all cases the writing convinces. The scenes of male bonding, strenuous work and joyful play swiftly set up a plausible camaraderie that prepares us well for the anger, frustration, pain, fear, and ultimate retreat into private worlds that characterize the episode of confinement and injuries. We know enough by this time to care about the characters and understand and empathise with their reactions and actions at the moment of ultimate challenge. Their family lives, hopes, fears and values are fully established before they are put to the test. There is a further level of achievement in the beautifully modulated ending where themes established earlier return with added power as the impact of the night of bombing is calibrated differently on all four protagonists. Survival is both more and less than it seems in a blasted city that is memorably captured before and after in a resonant set of pictorial images.
It is not too much to make a comparison here with Frank McGuinness’ well-known play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme. Indeed there are both structural and stylistic parallels between the two works. There is the same alternation of rapid overlapping dialogue with scenes of gentle repose, a similar focus on male camaraderie coming under extremes of pressure, the same verbal wit and ribbing humour, the same unflinching unpitying confrontation with the destructive impact of war on the psychological as much as the physical survival of participants. It is also worth noting that Knowles makes very perceptive use of the lessons and parallels with World War One in a drama where awareness of what went before is integral to the formation of who people think they are in 1940.
The performances are uniformly fine. All the actors distinguish compellingly between the bravado of their outer lives and the vulnerability within. On a technical level, accents, stage movement and ensemble work cannot be faulted in a work that is clearly very physically draining to perform. Tommy (Knowles) and Bob (Salvatore d’Aquila) are delineated in slightly more detail than the other two characters – Tommy is the more sensitive and thoughtful member of the group who self-consciously looks out for his friends, and Bob is the gauche, awkward younger man, who remains something of an outsider. If I have a suggestion for minor tweaking of the text it would be a matter of offering a little more background insight into the mental worlds of Phil (Paul Tinto) and Arthur (James Wallwork) who are more conventional on the surface but arguably have to travel the longest emotional journeys in the course of this harrowing drama.
This is a noisy and shouty play and in many ways that is necessarily so – industrial processes, bombs, football matches, drinking in the pub – these provide the necessary loud framework around the still centre of the men trapped both literally in the cellar of the Marples Hotel and figuratively by their own fears and terrors. In some respects therefore this is too big a play for the Finborough’s tiny space. Some plays draw you into them – for example Stony Broke in No Man’s Land, which played at this theatre so well earlier in the summer; while others burst outwards towards you with irresistible physical force. The pace of the exchanges was at times almost too fast and full-on to follow. Director Bryony Shanahan should really reduce the scale of the performances a little to recognize the needs of the audience at this point, and one hopes this adjustment will be made as the run progresses.
Not all pub theatres are the same. While the subject matter of this fine work is highly fitted to the Finborough’s current focus on the commemoration of war, larger studio spaces such Arcola Studio 2 or the Southwark Playhouse would in truth be better suited to allow a play of this emotional and physical scale to soar unencumbered. This major achievement needs a larger showcase, preferably in the round rather than under a proscenium arch, and it is greatly to be hoped that it will find it. Why not the Crucible Theatre itself?