Operation Crucible

Kieran Knowles
Sheffield Theatres
Crucible Studio

Salvatore D'Aqilla, Kieran Knowles, Paul Tinto, James Wallwork in Operation Crucible at Sheffield Theatres Credit: Mark Douet

This is live theatre at its best. A brilliantly written play of enormous appeal to its local audience, superbly directed and performed with huge energy and sensitivity by a cast of talented actors with exceptional rapport.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but, given the subject matter, a group of steelworkers trapped in the basement of a collapsed building during an air raid in 1940, I thought I might be in for a searing evening, possibly leavened by humour.

Writer Kieran Knowles, who also performs, uses the opportunity to celebrate the stoicism, doggedness and humour of the group, when being seriously burnt or losing part of a thumb is part of the work experience and coped with.

The structure of the play is particularly impressive, short scenes jumping forwards and backwards to establish the camaraderie of the work group, to enlighten us in monologues about their previous history, to show their Sheffieldness in support of one or other of the local football teams, or how the apprentice copes with the demands of a tough group of female workers.

The language of the play is also interesting, often short phrases presented in a kind of choral rap supplemented by rhythmic movement. Actors become narrators as well as engaging with one another. Humour is dominant, but there are also moments of extraordinary poignancy, as when Phil delights in the tiny finger nails of his newborn baby.

Director Bryony Shanahan takes the play at a cracking pace, uses the small stage space to advantage and is full of invention when exploring the comic potential of the play. Sound and lighting effects are discrete, suggesting the overflights of German bombers, the collapse of the building and welcome daylight when it is needed.

The four actors are impressive in different ways. Salvatore D’Aquilla is a comedian. As the young apprentice, Bob, he has superb timing and inflexion and holds the audience in thrawl. But it is also interesting that he, of the group, delights in the countryside around Sheffield, and is also the ‘poet’ of the group when he tries to explain steelworking as Art: "You need the big strokes and also a fine brush for detail".

Kieran Knowles takes on the role of Tommy, who is the mature member of the group. His distant memory is of a father he met once who died in the trenches of WWI. He is the one who knows the others and how they will deal with entombment and loss.

James Wallwork as Arthur is delightful as the young lad who is taken to the steelworks by his father and has to duck to escape danger. His farewell kiss to his father is memorable.

Paul Tinto probably has the most emotive part in the play and is very moving in all aspects of his performance.

I have not been to a play in the Crucible Studio when a usually quite inhibited audience has risen to its feet to applaud. Casting my eye around the audience, I was particularly interested in the response of elderly men who may have lived through the Sheffield Blitz or been steelworkers. They were deeply involved.

This is such a good start for Robert Hastie who has just taken over from Daniel Evans as Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres. Book now, punters. It’s a small space.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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