Operation Crucible review – Sheffield steals the show in lively wartime tale

Crucible, Sheffield
The cast offer a high-spirited depiction of male camaraderie in this play about the Sheffield blitz of 1940, but the show most impresses as a portrait of a city

Kieran Knowles’s debut play, about four steelworkers who are trapped in a bombed hotel during the blitz, is Sheffield to the core. Curiously, the play wasn’t first produced in the steel city but in the heart of Chelsea, where the Finborough theatre took a punt on a piece that a little-known actor-playwright had written for himself and three colleagues to perform.

That impressive away win has now been rewarded with a home leg for a play whose characters are united in all but footballing loyalties. The city’s two teams are among the subjects of the high-spirited discussions in Knowles’s brisk, strenuously physical depiction of male camaraderie. The play also demonstrates how the bonds formed in the foundry begin to crumble beneath the rubble of the Marples hotel, which suffered a direct hit during a night of bombing on 12 December 1940 that the Germans codenamed Operation Crucible.

Bryony Shanahan’s high-tempo production is forged from molten flashes of industrial choreography, but does well to keep the individual characters in focus. Knowles himself plays Tommy, a displaced Scot; James Wallwork is a true son of steel and Paul Tinto a family man terrified that he might never see his wife and child again. Best of all is Salvatore D’Aquilla as the hapless butt of the jokes required for any group of males to bond together; the one who is forever being despatched to the stores in search of a long weight, and still under the impression that the cooling process is known as “analing”.

Above all, it’s a rare play that chooses to show Sheffield at its industrial peak rather than picking over its inevitable decline; and Knowles’s close observance of the steel-making process is enough to make even riveting seem a riveting prospect.

  • At the Crucible, Sheffield, until 24 September. Box office: 0114-249 6000


Alfred Hickling

The GuardianTramp

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