A year before lockdown, Chris Bush, artistic associate at Sheffield Theatres, wrote a soaring tribute to the city, fuelled by the music of Richard Hawley. Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which makes its delayed appearance at the National Theatre next year, proved that the more local and particular, the more far-reaching and resonant. Now Bush and Sheffield artistic director Robert Hastie celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Crucible with another steel-city subject – the disputed future of an old scissor factory. With an extra wheeze.
Three theatres occupy one Sheffield square. Three plays, all written by Bush, produced simultaneously on each stage with the same cast. The plays are intricately linked, telling the same story in the same timeframe from a different viewpoint: a minor character in one could become the lead in another, with actors scampering across the pavements to insert themselves into different dramas. Alan Ayckbourn had interwoven two plays in House & Garden (first in Scarborough, then at the National); three would be still more of a venture.
Rock, Paper and Scissors look at history and families (a factory owner has died leaving competing claimants to his business) and at how change occurs, in individuals and society. Tribute is paid to the industrial past but there is no enshrining. The dialogue persistently refers to transformation, to the second law of thermodynamics and to Ecclesiastes. Don’t panic: there is also a tremendous speech railing against the whole notion of metaphor.
The total interlocking of characters and plots became apparent on the afternoon I saw Paper, when a stage manager suddenly turned up to summon two actors off the stage. Five minutes or so later, with me still trying to work out if the lull were part of the action, she reappeared, explaining the interruption was because the characters were needed across the square in another play. Things had got out of sync due to a small fire: “If you’ve seen Scissors you’ll understand.”
And you do. There are actual sparks in Scissors, the jewel of the trilogy, in which apprentices sharpen, polish and grind blades that gleam like sources of light. Elin Schofield’s production is fleet. Four terrific young actors – Dumile Sibanda, Jabez Sykes, Maia Tamrakar and Joe Usher – are taut, concealed, fierce. Sykes’s character, a mardy chap who claims he has no subconscious, is one of the most fascinating creatures I’ve seen on stage this year.
The other plays have less attack. Anthony Lau’s production of Rock – in which a one-time rock chick aims to make the factory into a music venue – often feels too small for the big Crucible, despite some big features. Leather-clad Denise Black swaggers with brio; Ben Stones’s huge iron design is imposing and evocatively lit by Richard Howell with flickering fluorescence and shafts of dusty daylight. In Hastie’s staging of Paper, Natalie Casey and Samantha Power play tightly together as the lovers who, wanting to convert the place into apartments, find themselves examining their own semi-detached lives. Subplots involving a photographer and a dippy singing duo falter, yet seen together the plays become something ample. Characters accumulate secret aspects; as they disappear from your stage you know they are starring not far away; when they bob up again they are old friends with hidden histories.
Roy Williams, author of Sucker Punch, has regularly delivered knockout blows to the idea that British drama is necessarily white and wordy. Most strongly recently with his two Death of England plays written with Clint Dyer. Williams’s new play, centring on two sisters whose parents belonged to the Windrush generation, is more expansive and less incisive.
The Fellowship tackles the interesting question of whether it makes sense to talk about a “black community” (you don’t hear many commentators talking about a white one), and what it is to be made to feel a traitor to your background. One sister, who has become a barrister and has a foul white boyfriend, is deemed by relatives to have sold out; the other, in the best speech in the play, a kind of coming out, enumerates her guilty white pleasures, which include thinking Phil Mitchell is a sex god. Her son accuses his mother of racism when she calls his girlfriend “white trash”.
These are not scenes that are susceptible to neat endings. The Fellowship was bound sometimes to straggle, the more so since it is bursting with additional plots. What matters is that it lacks dynamism. Paulette Randall’s production is unnervingly paced: often sluggish, then lurching into loudness. The evening seems to have no natural arc: 20 minutes before the end, half of the audience (me included) started to clap, thinking it was all over.
The production has had bad luck, requiring last-minute cast replacements due to illness. Both Cherrelle Skeete and Yasmin Mwanza are strong in their new roles. Neither is helped by Libby Watson’s weirdly corporate design, which floats a neon circle above waiting-room furniture. As if this were not a play about individual struggle and family taste.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Fellowship ★★★