BWW Review: OPERATION CRUCIBLE, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 8 September 2016
World War II. Four young men develop a friendship whilst working in Sheffield's steel industry. Then one fateful night, on their way home from work, they are caught up in the devastation of the Sheffield Blitz - a night of sustained bombing on 12 December 1940 that left 2,000 citizens killed or injured and 40,000 without homes.
Kieran Knowles's play Operation Crucible takes us to the heart of the Blitz - and the heart of a city - through the eyes of the four friends. The play debuted at the Finborough Theatre last year, but finally arrives in the city of its setting - and will continue on tour around the country throughout the rest of 2016.
Under the direction of Bryony Shanahan, Operation Crucible is a powerful and energetic piece, plunging the audience into the blazing centre of the steelworks and the darkness of the bombed-out hotel's basement, with clever choreography and simple yet effective lighting changes.
Dealing with issues of love, family, friendship, identity and community, the story is retold by the four leads, across multiple time shifts. We see them working in the steel industry, at home with families, enjoying nights out at the pub and developing their camaraderie before the fateful night of the bombing. These scenes are interspersed with ones of them caught up in the bombing of the Marples hotel in Sheffield city centre - the site of the biggest loss of life on the night the city was bombed.
The four young actors (Salvatore D'Aquilla, Paul Tinto, James Wallwork and Kieran Knowles himself) are uniformly excellent in their performances, all remaining onstage constantly throughout the one hour 20 minute duration. Their very physical performances really contribute to the atmosphere of the piece and they move effortlessly between the different emotional states of the characters.
Although the play isn't telling new stories per se, it skilfully blends its focus on those who worked in the steel industry with its depiction of the war. Indeed, it makes explicit from the outset that the men are creating, in the steelworks, the very kinds of weapons that devastate the city on the night of the Blitz. In doing so, it just about avoids romanticising the industrial past too much.
The production is accessible enough to appeal to teenagers studying the war at school - indeed, it would make for a brilliant educational trip - and well-researched enough to resonate closely with those who remember the times and events depicted. Whilst it packs an emotional punch, it rarely gets swamped in sentimentality - after all, this is a play about Yorkshire folk!
Operation Crucible is at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield, until 24 September and is touring nationally throughout 2016. For dates, visit http://www.from-ground-up.co.uk/2016/03/15/operation-crucible-2016/
Photo by Ben Macintosh