Think of the forces that shaped modern Britain and what comes to mind is heavy industry: mining, chemicals, oil … We tend not to think of scissors. Why would we? In our era of mass production, scissors are too commonplace to be noticed; not so much noble as comic.
Yet here in Sheffield, the city of steel, the production of scissors was once the province of as many as 60 companies. And in her audacious trilogy of plays performed simultaneously in three adjacent theatres, Chris Bush uses these everyday objects as a symbol. They stand for permanence in a world in flux.
Her setting is the fictional Spenser and Son, one of the last remaining scissor factories, where the value of a quality product, built to last, remains doggedly enshrined. Even the machinery on which the scissors are fashioned is decades old. Everything from the chemical composition to the curvature of the handles is finely judged, the domain of experts who have perfected their trade over long years.
This is in contrast to the ephemerality of today. The ailing factory is staffed almost entirely by apprentices who, for reasons of economy, will be discarded after a year. Dropping in for a photoshoot are a pop duo, going by the name of Co-codamol, who have just enough self-awareness to know their sell-by date is nearly up. The sister and stepdaughter of the recently deceased factory owner have opposing schemes to redevelop the site, but whether it is a nightclub or a trendy residential quarter, their plans have the air of impermanence.
Not that Bush’s three plays are a reactionary paean to the good old days. Rather, in making repeated reference to Einstein’s assertion that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, a thought bolstered by the line in Ecclesiastes about there being a season for everything, they accept the inevitability of change and transformation. Instead, Bush takes a step back to ask what kind of change is desirable – a question she extends in particular to the role of women in an industry, and indeed a world, that has historically privileged men.
These ideas swirl around in Rock in the Crucible, Paper in the Lyceum and Scissors in the Studio, each running to the same length, right down to the time of the intervals, and each involving the same excellent 14-strong ensemble.
In outline, they tell the same story about the struggle for ownership of a dead-end business, the drama of one becoming the gossip of another, but in detail, they reveal hidden contours. A romance that seems superficial in Rock becomes touching in Paper. A peripheral figure in Paper is the centre of attention in Scissors. Where middle-aged punk Susie (Denise Black) dominates Rock, directed by Anthony Lau, it is the edgy relationship between Faye (Samantha Power) and Mel (Natalie Casey) that drives Paper, directed by Robert Hastie. For the voice of an exploited young generation, you need Scissors, directed by Elin Schofield.
The logistics of all this are mindboggling. Alan Ayckbourn’s simultaneous double-bill of House and Garden is modest by comparison. In its ambition, an all-day marathon is exhilarating – and not a little exhausting – for actors and audience alike.
The downside is that of the three, only Paper justifies its running time; both Rock and Scissors are prone to treading water, as they repeat ideas or settle into idle chat. That, though, is in between passages that dazzle and delight, be they Rock’s comedy of confusion, Paper’s romantic exposure or Scissors’ sizzling political rage.
Rock/Paper/Scissors is at Sheffield Theatres, until 2 July.