Steel

Chris Bush
Sheffield Theatres
Crucible Studio

Rebecca Scroggs as Josie in Steel Credit: Mark Douet

Chris Bush’s superb new play is receiving its première at the Crucible Studio. Set in two time periods, 1998 and 2018, it follows the experience of two aspirant young female politicians, both black, their search for identity, commitment to challenging the status quo in local Labour government ideology and practice and the prejudice they have to overcome as young women of colour.

The structure of Bush’s play is particularly interesting. Four characters are represented by two actors and scenes between the pairs—one male, one female—are generally alternated with swift costume and minor set changes, although there is subtle elision as the play proceeds.

In the earlier period, we meet Josie Kirkwood, junior engineer at a local steelworks and union activist, and the Welsh, much older, Dai Griffiths, a seasoned Labour councillor and cabinet member. Dai persuades Josie that she would be a suitable person to stand for an empty Council position and takes on the role of her mentor.

This is not without its difficulties as the spirited Josie strongly objects to having been mistaken for ‘the tea lady’ at an early meeting and is not persuaded that this was a joke rather than a deliberate racial put-down. An attempt to retrieve the situation leads to further humiliation. As the play proceeds, Dai’s mentorship is increasingly suspect and ends in an encounter which is ill-judged and cruel.

In the present day scenes, we encounter Vanessa Gallacher, a former MP who lost her seat in 2017 and is now putting herself forward as Labour candidate for Metro Mayor. Born in the steel city, she has mostly lived in London. Supporting her is Ian Darwent, a local man, deputy Leader of the Council and Vanessa’s election officer. There is considerable friction between the two characters largely based on Vanessa’s determination to modernise the party and Ian’s conviction that old values should be adhered to. Her identity is also an issue. Does she really belong?

The play is complex and fascinating. Different points of view are presented in passionate speeches spiced with wit and humour, stories provide analogies which anchor the action in real experience and the frequent device of reading critical or uncomplimentary comments from newspapers, e-messages and other sources people the play with characters who don’t otherwise appear.

Rebecca Frecknall’s direction is exemplary. The use of the stage area allows the action and the many changes of scene and character to move forward effortlessly, punctuated only by well chosen music and effective sound and lighting effects. Madeleine Girling’s set convincingly recalls shabby church halls as well as providing an extra dimension for the more formal political speeches.

But at the heart of the production are two outstanding performances by Nigel Betts and Rebecca Scroggs. Betts convincingly distinguishes between the two roles he plays, not only by the convincing use of accents, but by nuances in characterisation which include a scene of vitriolic unpleasantness and a rousing delivery of a public speech in the best tradition of Welsh oratory.

Scroggs’s performance is mercurial, edgy and emotional in some scenes, very funny in others, occasionally angry and resentful, but always with an underlying strength and courage that draws the audience in. Her public speeches are delivered with conviction and passion. In one she quotes her mother: "A woman is like a teabag: you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water."

This is a splendidly coherent production, enabled and inspired by the quality of the writing.

Reviewer: Velda Harris