If you ask people to think of an historic event that took place during the Second World War in the month of December, most minds will automatically fly to the Bombing of Pearl Harbour. But, just about a year before the Japanese attack on attack on America, The German Luftwaffe turned their sights on the town of Sheffield and launched Operation ‘Schmelztiegel’, which can be translated as “Operation Crucible”, the title of Kieran Knowles’ play about the events of that night currently playing at the Finborough Theatre.
The 12th of December 1940 was an ordinary day for the lads heading off to the dreaded 2 till 10 shift at the steel mill. Arthur (James Wallwork) said goodbye to his dad, Bob (Salvatore D’Aquilla) had another run in with the family over the dog, Tommy (Kieran Knowles) locked up his house and Phil (Paul Tinto) played a final game with his young son and reminded his wife that if an air raid happened she was to go to the public shelter down the road. The lads met up and started working, turning out bits for weapons designed to help the war end. As they work, they talk of normal things, good naturedly joshing about football (two Sheffield Wednesday and two Sheffield United fans are never going to fully agree), their lives and the rumour the grocer will have oranges next Tuesday. A normal evening at work. Until the yellow warning light comes on – enemy planes in the vicinity. The lads aren’t that bothered, the light often comes on, but tonight, it soon goes out to be replaced by a red light and a warning klaxon that an attack is imminent. The guys rush out into the street planning to get home to their loved ones but the attack starts and they have to head into the nearest building, The Marples Hotel, where they take cover in the basement waiting for the raid to be over. As the bombs rain down outside, the hotel takes a substantial hit and collapses, leaving our four trapped with under fifteen feet of rubble waiting for whatever the future will bring.
Based on real events “Operation Crucible” is an amazing play about ordinary people involved, against their will, in momentous events. The raid on Sheffield was devastating for the city with over 650 people killed, 1,500 injured and over 78,000 homes destroyed or damaged and it is so easy to just look at the statistics and be appalled by what happened. However, having met Arthur, Bob, Tommy and Phil, I really feel like I was there with them on the night Hitler came to Yorkshire. Kieran Knowles really knows his characters – I believe he spoke with steelworkers from the period as part of his research. Over the course of the production, the audience gets to know each one of them intimately. Through flashbacks and monologues, we learn about Tommy’s dad on the Somme, Bob’s relationship with his dog, Arthur’s boyhood experience of visiting the factory for the first time and the lengths Phil was willing to go to in order to protect his wife and son. Kieran’s writing is really strong in evoking not just the spirit of the age but also the pride these men have in being themselves – Sheffield through and through. There is both realism and poetry in their words – just as there is when folks get together and talk – and you instinctively know that if something were to happen to one of them, the rest would step up and help without hesitation. Ultimately, these guys were not just statistics but real life human beings that I came to care about and want the best for as they went through that horrible night. .
The writing alone is not enough to portray this – though I did read the script again this morning and it really is superb – and the four actors just struck me, and other members of the audience, as having exactly the same relationship with each other in the ‘real’ world as our four steelworkers do in the fictitious one. Just as there can be no favourite character, there is no favourite actor. This is a real case of one for all and all for one and the whole is made perfect by the individual components. Director Bryony Shanahan doesn’t rely on a complex set to convey time and space – four wooden panels at the back of the stage and four small stools are all that is needed – but credit has to go to both Lighting Designer Seth Rook Williams and Sound Designer Daniel Foxsmith who provide all the non-acting portions that make “Operation Crucible” such a real story.To sum up, “Operation Crucible” was fantastic from start to finish which manages to humanise an inhumane event perfectly. I met and loved the four ‘heroes’ and suffered every moment of the horrific events of December 12th 1940 with them as I learnt more about the effects of war on real people than can ever be taught in a history class.
I know the guys really want to take the show to the Sheffield Crucible and I have to say that it would be a travesty if it doesn’t make it up there. This really is theatre at its absolute best and I heartily recommend that you get yourself a ticket today.
Review by Terry Eastham
by Kieran Knowles
Directed by Bryony Shanahan
Cast: Salvatore D’Aquilla, Kieran Knowles, Paul Tinto, James Wallwork
“You could hear the planes at night sometimes, overhead. Couldn’t always see ‘em but you could hear ‘em.
A hollow sound. Like you’re whizzing something around above your head. Went through me.”
Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Sheffield Blitz, and the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Operation Crucible, the debut play by Kieran Knowles, opens for a four week limited season at the Finborough Theatre from Tuesday 28 July – Saturday 22 August.
A story of four ordinary men in extraordinary times… On the 12 December 1940, more than 600 people lost their lives in over seven hours of continuous bombing by Germany’s Luftwaffe. Their objective? Wiping Sheffield’s world famous steel works – the heartland of Britain’s munitions manufacturing – clean off the map. The ruthless attack left Sheffield in ruins – destroying families, shattering a way of life, and changing the city forever.
At 11.44pm on the night of the raid, a single bomb reduced the Marples Hotel, which stood proudly in Fitzalan Square, from seven storeys to just 15 feet of rubble. Only one of the 10 compartments in the hotel’s cellars withstood the blast. Within it, trapped, were four men. This is their story, from beginning to end…
118 Finborough Road
London, SW10 9ED
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Tuesday 28 July – Saturday 22 August