Sunday, 8 December 2013

Theatre review: Operation Crucible

The demise of Sheffield's steelworks will be a big deal in the West End next year when The Full Monty comes to town, but for now here's a group of (sadly) more conservatively-dressed men from the days when the city's industry was not just flourishing, but crucial to the country's survival. The manufacture of knives and forks left Sheffield's two local football teams fighting over the nickname "Blades," but during the Second World War knives were replaced by more dangerous weapons as the city became the heart of Britain's munitions manufacturing. Despite being the place where Spitfire parts were made, the only time German planes were heard overhead was when they were on their way to bomb another city. But on the 12th of December 1940 Germany finally realised the strategic importance and Sheffield got its own Blitz, leaving it almost flattened.

Kieran Knowles' Operation Crucible is about four steelworkers on a night shift, whose attempt to shelter from the bombs in the basement of a hotel sees them the only survivors when the building's reduced to rubble - but also trapped in the darkness, left to wonder if and when they'll be rescued.

Although nominally set in the bunker-like basement that both saved and trapped them, Operation Crucible actually takes up the men's story much earlier, building up a picture of their lives. Tommy (Knowles) and Arthur (Joshua Mayes-Cooper) are local men who've been working in the heat of the crucible since their teens, Phil (Paul Tinto) is from Edinburgh but moved South when he met his wife, and Bob (Salvatore D'Aquilla) is the apprentice following in his father's footsteps. We get an idea of who they are, their relationship to each other, their work, choice of football team and their place in the war effort: Because their day jobs are essential for the war, they're exempt from having to fight, but they still nurse niggling doubts that staying behind might make them cowards.

The play paints an interesting picture of Sheffield's unique place in the War, and of a devastation we don't often hear much about. As the quartet build up their characters they also create the environment they live in through mental pictures and comic portrayals of the people around them, and director Bryony Shanahan has got some pretty spectacular performances from the actors.

Ironically though, this contributed to me feeling a sense of disconnect from the material: A first play from actor Knowles, the writing has moments of real spark but it feels rather too much like a piece written by an actor to showcase his abilities and those of three of his fellow drama school graduates. Writing characters with a specific actor in mind can really play to their strengths and make for something special, but there's something almost cynical about how well-tailored this is to show off the full range of each cast member. Too often I found myself mentally stepping back and admiring the Good Acting on show rather than getting absorbed in their characters. If this is largely an attempt to get the actors work elsewhere I hope it's successful, because they really are excellent performers I'd like to see in other things. And there's an obvious interest in the subject matter that lends heart to the finished article; just not quite enough.

Operation Crucible by Kieran Knowles is booking in repertory until the 17th of December at the Finborough theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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