A a year before the lockdown, Chris Bush, artistic associate at Sheffield theatres, penned a searing tribute to the city, fueled by music from Richard Hawley. Standing at the edge of the sky, which will make its delayed appearance at the National Theater next year, has proven that the more local and particular it is, the more reach and resonance it has. Now, Bush and Sheffield Artistic Director Robert Hastie is celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Crucible with another Steel Town subject – the contested future of a former scissor factory. With an extra wheeze.
Three theaters occupy a Sheffield Square. Three plays, all written by Bush, produced simultaneously on each stage with the same cast. The plays are intertwined, telling the same story in the same time frame from a different point of view: a minor character in one might become the lead role in another, with actors trotting down sidewalks to insert in different dramas. Alan Ayckbourn had intertwined two pieces in Accommodation & Garden (first at Scarborough, then at the National); three would be even more of an adventure.
Rock, Paper and Scissors look at history and families (a factory owner died leaving competing claimants to his business) and how change happens, in individuals and society. Tribute is paid to the industrial past but there is no consecration. The dialogue constantly refers to transformation, the second law of thermodynamics and Ecclesiastes. Do not panic: there is also a formidable discourse that castigates the whole notion of metaphor.
The total interweaving of characters and plots became evident the afternoon I saw Paper, when a stage manager suddenly shows up to drag two actors off stage. About five minutes later, while I was still trying to figure out if the lull was part of the action, she reappeared, explaining that the interruption was due to the characters being needed in the plaza in another room. . Things got out of sync because of a small fire: “If you saw Scissors you will understand.
And you do. There are real sparks in Scissors, the crown jewel of the trilogy, where apprentices sharpen, polish and grind blades that shine like sources of light. Elin Schofield’s production is Fleet. Four terrific young actors – Dumile Sibanda, Jabez Sykes, Maia Tamrakar and Joe Usher – are uptight, hidden, fierce. The character of Sykes, a mardy who claims to have no subconscious, is one of the most fascinating creatures I’ve seen on stage this year.
Other games have less attack. Anthony Lau’s production of Rock – in which a former rock chick aims to turn the factory into a concert hall – often feels too small for the big Crucible, despite some great features. Denise Black clad in leather struts around brilliantly; Ben Stones’ huge iron design is imposing and evocatively lit by Richard Howell with shimmering fluorescence and dusty rays of daylight. In Hastie’s staging of Paper, Natalie Casey and Samantha Power play closely together as lovers who, wanting to convert the place into apartments, find themselves examining their own semi-detached lives. Subplots involving a photographer and a dippy singing duo falter, but seen together the pieces become something ample. The characters accumulate secret aspects; when they disappear from your scene, you know they are playing nearby; when they come back, they are old friends with hidden stories.
Roy Williams, author of Sucker Punch, has regularly dealt knockouts at the idea that British drama is necessarily white and wordy. More strongly recently with its two Death of England pieces written with Clint Dyer. Williams’ new play, centering on two sisters whose parents belonged to the Windrush generation, is more expansive and less incisive.
The association addresses the interesting question of whether it makes sense to talk about a “black community” (you don’t hear many commentators talking about a white community), and what does it take to feel treacherous in their midst. A sister, who became a lawyer and has a filthy white boyfriend, is considered by relatives to have sold out; the other, in the best speech of the play, a kind of coming out, lists his white guilty pleasures, which include thinking Phil Mitchell is a sex god. Her son accuses his mother of racism when she calls his girlfriend ‘white trash’.
These are not scenes likely to end cleanly. The association had to drag sometimes, especially since it is full of additional plots. What matters is that he lacks dynamism. Paulette Randall’s production is disconcertingly paced: often slow, then wavering in volume. The evening seems to have no natural arc: 20 minutes before the end, half the audience (myself included) started to applaud, thinking that it was all over.
The production had some bad luck, requiring last-minute casting replacements due to illness. Both Cherrelle Skeete and Yasmin Mwanza are strong in their new roles. Neither is helped by Libby Watson’s oddly corporate design, which floats a circle of neon lights above the waiting room furniture. As if it weren’t a play about individual struggle and family taste.
Star ratings (out of five)
rock Paper Scissors ★★★★
The association ★★★