The bombing of Sheffield in 1940 saw the city reduced to rubble and more than 600 people killed, but the steely fortitude of its people remained as strong as ever.
That display of courage and defiance is remembered in a remarkable play that opened this week at London’s Finborough Theatre.
Operation Crucible (from the name given to the onslaught by the German Luftwaffe) is Kieran Knowles’ debut play but you’d never know it. The powerful narrative is confidently told and the simple structure and verbatim style delivers 80 minutes of visceral drama.
There’s no set other than a single light but the sounds, sights and smells of that terrifying night are recreated thanks to the work of lighting and sound designers Seth Rook Williams and Dan Foxsmith (and occasionally, almost on cue, sirens from passing emergency services’ vehicles).
Arthur, Bob, Tommy and Phil are four lads who work in the famous steel industry. They’re full of life, exchanging banter, playing jokes on each other, talking football. “Four lads who made magic out of steel,” they chorus.
The gang recreate the rhythm and music of steel production, their arms imitating the machinery that forges vital munitions in the factory.
Bryony Shannahan’s brooding and atmospheric production takes us from the white heat of the furnaces to darkness and abject terror when the lads are caught in the bombing raid at the end of their shift and are buried alive in the cellar of a hotel.
This gutsy drama keeps you on the edge of your seat as the men try to lift each other’s spirits in a bid to make it through.
Of the four young men we only really learn about Phil (Paul Tinto giving an intense performance). The shy Scot, married with a small son, thinks only of them when the bomb hits, consumed by that terrible fear that he may never see them again.
Knowles himself plays the cocky Tommy who declares: “We invented the bloody crucible, we invented modern steel, we’re made of it! You can bomb this place to pieces, it don’t mean nothing.”
James Wallwork is the charismatic Arthur and Salvatore D’Aquilla is the new boy, the put-upon and ponderous Bob who is subjected to pranks from the other three.
All four actors give compelling turns, seemingly having the close familiarity of comradeship of their characters.
There are times when the lads’ exuberance is a bit too much in the very intimate space of the bijou Finborough but the auditorium works well during the final part of the play when we’re jointly entombed in the claustrophobic darkness of the bombed out hotel.
Operation Crucible is an enthralling story, wonderfully told. Running at the Finborough until August 22.
Operation Crucible, raw, visceral drama at its best from debut playwright and actor Kieran Knowles, tells the true story of the night in December 1940 when Sheffield was blitzed by the German Luftwaffe.