Steel review – sharp-witted political drama from Chris Bush

Crucible, Sheffield
Bush tackles sexism and racial prejudice in a cross-generational commentary on contemporary politics

In Chris Bush’s new play, steel is a multi-faceted metaphor. It’s resolve. It’s the unbending tenacity needed to break into a world designed to exclude you. And it’s Sheffield, the never-named but ever-present backdrop to her sharp-witted political drama. In 1988, a young woman of colour fights to get elected to the local council. In 2018, her present-day counterpart is the ambitious candidate parachuted in from London for the metro mayor contest – or, at least, so her Yorkshire-born-and-bred antagonists believe.

Amid the plastic chairs and scuffed wooden fittings of Madeleine Girling’s beautifully observed set, both time frames stage a meeting of new blood and old guard. In the 80s, steelworks engineer and union rep Josie is taken under the wing of old hand Dai; in the present, Vanessa forms an uneasy working partnership with her election officer Ian, a proud local and old-fashioned Labour man. Alongside sexism and racial prejudice, the two women confront generational differences and, in Vanessa’s case, the north-south divide. “You don’t fit here,” says Ian, meaning Sheffield – though he might as well be talking about the male-dominated world of politics.

Snapping between roles, Rebecca Scroggs and Nigel Betts perform in both eras, their consistent presence stressing how little has changed in 30 years. The young black woman is still having to appease the older white man. The self-styled “good guys” still have an ugly streak of misogyny. In both of her roles, Scroggs captures the tension between speaking one’s mind and holding one’s tongue, while Betts tacks between condescending benevolence and wounded pride.

At times, the play verges on editorialising, but the arguments that dart across the stage always feel deeply rooted in the beliefs of the characters. And they are debates that we still need to be having. As Vanessa and Josie know, representation matters. In Vanessa’s words, “if you represent you can inspire”. For all the petty disagreement and lost faith that characterises contemporary politics, Steel makes it rousingly clear why some battles remain worth fighting.

Contributor

Catherine Love

The GuardianTramp

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