BWW Review: STEEL, Crucible Studio, Sheffield
Sheffield Theatres' production of Chris Bush's Steel is a masterclass in how to stage a two-hander. This new play is about the role of women in politics (and, in particular, the Labour Party) in two settings: 2018 and 1988.
In the present day, Rebecca Scroggs' Vanessa is in the running for the Metropolitan mayoral elections in Sheffield, advised by party stalwart Ian, played by Nigel Betts. In 1988, Betts plays local councillor Dai and Scroggs plays Josie, a steel engineer whom Dai encourages to get into politics.
The play switches between the two eras frequently throughout, with blasts of reimagined Arctic Monkeys and Human League songs differentiating between the two settings. The actors undergo a transformation - sometimes with costume, but mainly through accent, posture and body language.
In the present day, Ian is from Sheffield, whilst Vanessa is Sheffield born, but has lived in the south for much of her life; in 1988, Josie is from Sheffield whilst Dai is a Welsh man who has moved to the city (indeed, accents and regional identity become a core site of battle, as mixed-race, well-spoken Vanessa is repeatedly criticised for not being 'from' Sheffield, whilst white, heavily accented Dai is never criticised for being an outsider).
The accents are faultless, and the actors shift effortlessly between roles. Both give immaculate performances and deftly balance the comedy and serious notes within the play. Scroggs, in particular, gives a star-making turn in the roles of Josie and Vanessa.
A combination of Bush's script, the performances and Rebecca Frecknall's direction ensure the characters feel like fully realised people; it's small details, such as the way they move their hands or inflect their words, that make the difference.
The set, designed by Madeleine Girling, takes us to a very familiar village/church hall-type environment - right down to the wooden stages with handy storage underneath them and the once ubiquitous orange plastic chairs that most audience members will be familiar with. The pacing is very quick; dialogue flows rapidly and naturalistically, and scene changes are minimal and swiftly executed.
The storyline is fairly simple (although there are some twists thrown in), but the experiences, feelings and tensions that drive the story are hugely complex. The play deals with the way women, especially women of colour, have been (and are presently) treated in politics, and the different levels of struggle, discrimination and conflict they encounter - from the overt racism of a brick through the window with a message to 'Go home' to the more subtle and insidious.
That this play is set within the Labour Party makes it all the more interesting and relevant, highlighting the challenges Labour faces as it tries to appeal to younger, multicultural and gender-diverse voters whilst retaining the support of its traditional white, male, working-class voter base.
The tensions between the old and new are foregrounded with a recognition that these issues cannot be resolved by glib sentiment - but that there is hope and possibility, despite the challenges.
Steel, as the title suggests, is the backbone of the piece - both as a metaphor for strength and robustness, and in relation to Sheffield's steel industry. Interestingly, the four characters in the play all have a slightly different take on steel and the future of the industry, and it becomes a core site of gender- and class-related battles.
Bush is cementing her reputation as one of the country's most interesting playwrights - Steel is hilarious, yet its serious messages packs a punch. This is a fantastic new play, expertly crafted in its language, setting, performance and direction - and one that speaks clearly to 2018. Highly recommended.
Steel is at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield until 6 October
Photo by Mark Douet