Steel review – sisters beaten by the system

Crucible Studio, Sheffield
Thin characterisation and half-formed scenes mar this play about women, race and Labour politics set in a northern city

Chris Bush’s new play, directed by Rebecca Frecknall, is based on the premise that, as the playwright puts it in the programme, women in politics are “struggling against a system that fundamentally wasn’t designed for them”.

The action is set in a northern city whose fortunes were based on the production of steel. Strong performances from Nigel Betts and Rebecca Scroggs convey four characters across two time zones. In 1988, Josie, a black, female engineer at a local steelworks, is persuaded to stand as a Labour councillor. Attitudes of the time are represented by a Labour party audience mistaking Josie, who has come to deliver a talk, for a tea lady; also, by a note written on the back of her election leaflet and tied around the brick thrown through her parents’ shop window, telling them to “go home”.

In 2018, London-based former MP Vanessa returns to her home town to stand as Labour candidate for metro mayor. Ian is her election officer; a local and deputy leader of the council. Present-day attitudes are represented by some rather good jokes about cafe latte and the fluctuating fortunes of fashionable drinks in trendy areas of London.

The idea, though, is never fully addressed. Scenes illustrate, rather than dramatise, ideas. Both time zones contain concluding revelations that unconvincingly indicate hidden motivations behind the men’s previous actions. Through no fault of the actors, characters appear thin and improbable. Would someone as smart as Josie really attempt a Mrs Overall impression using soup bowls instead of tea cups? Would anybody want to put Vanessa forward as a candidate when her only campaign pitch appears to be telling the city that there is no financially viable future in steel? There’s an iron purpose behind the text, but it needs the equivalent of a Bessemer converter to transform it into something truly sharp.

At the Crucible Studio, Sheffield, until 6 October

Contributor

Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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