On December 12, 1940, in the middle of World War II, the Sheffield Blitz began. For three nights, the Luftwaffe air force targeting the steel work factories based in Sheffield, England under the German code name of Schmelztiegel, or “Crucible”. In Kieran Knowles’ compelling drama, Operation Crucible, the story of four steelworkers and their incredible escape from death is told with brilliant flashes of light and sound under the unsteady arches of its faulty structure. The British import for 59E59 Theaters’ #BritsOffBroadway series, attempts to pull us into the dark dungeon of war and fear, as these four desperate souls try to find safety and salvation. Bombs fall without mercy all around their town, as they scramble through the streets finding shelter in the basement of the grand Marples Hotel, only to become trapped in the one cellar that doesn’t collapse, alive but buried deep under the rubble with no obvious way out.
This is the story of these four souls as they do battle with the overwhelming fear for their lives and the lives of their families and friends. It’s dramatic and powerfully engaging as it flutters about, sometimes confusingly, jumping forward and backwards in time, trying to construct this moment in history as solidly as possible. Unfortunately, the formulation is not as structurally sound as the cellar these four find themselves trapped in. The men portray this team of four as a unity of souls constructed with precision like integral parts in a larger machine that is more like a family then anything else. Salvatore D’Aquila (NT’s War Horse) is tremendous as the simpleton Bob, the youngest and surprisingly, the most poetic of the group, saying the cleverest thing in his one moment of glory, while simultaneously being teased by the others that he couldn’t spell the word, A-R-T if he tried. But it’s all in good fun, as this band of merry men are filled with brotherly love for one another. Embracing him and this unity is the loner of the group, Tommy, warmly played by the playwright Knowles (RSC’s The Winter’s Tale), the handsome and strong Andrew, beautifully played with a boyish charm and outward mature confidence by James Wallwork (Bunker Theatre’s 31 Hours), and the family man, Phil, played most engagingly by Christopher McCurry (Belfast Lyric’s The Long Road). McCurry’s Phil is the emotional heart of the story with his sweet tale of love and connection to the world outside of their work, bringing tears to my eyes and an ache in my heart, unlike any of the others.
In the telling of their story, Operation Crucible, utilizes all of their muscle and power, shaping their story both forwards and backwards. Each of the four have their moment in the saving grace of the spotlight, even when it is jumbled and juggled about in a manner that is sometimes more convoluted than connecting. It is within this unique directorial game of cards where their stories becomes harder and harder to follow, failing to let the story tell itself clearly and concisely. The nostalgic commentary that comes after the rescue from their future selves fail to do anything but create distance and complexities. It is in those present and past singular moments of engagement when the four actors truly shine, sweating through the smoke and the haze to find the “bloody magic” in their story. It’s a chore that they all seem to relish, especially under the light of a flickering flame, working together like cogs in a machine. The choreography of the work is beautifully done, and the actors solidly do their labour with the precision and energy of those same steel workers they inhabit. The camaraderie is strong and born out of the “hard pissin’ work“, wiping the sweat from their heat blasted foreheads. In general, their stories work wonders, pulling us in to a warm hearty and manly hug, but it’s in the overall direction, singular pacing, and the arch of storytelling that causes the walls to collapse in and around these four, leaving them stranded in the dark, looking for a way out.
The yellow alerts come regularly in that town and in that factory, so frequently that they all start to ignore the warnings. But on that night at 6:15pm, the yellow one felt different to these men, then the purple one came thirty minutes later, and the red alert was sounded at 7pm. That one was not ignored, but spiked their adrenaline and made their hearts collectively race. They scrabble through the streets and into that hotel basement, and at 11:44pm that same night, a 500 kg bomb is dropped onto the Marples Hotel, killing most who found themselves there. These four miraculously survived, trapped below tons of rubble, but alive. On that fairly bare stage, with a metallic back wall to frame their position, costume and set designer Sophia Simensky (Arcola Theatre’s Moormaid) presents a well thought out palette of shades of grey to shape our construction of these four. A single light bulb hangs protected over the center of the stage, foreshadowing what will be coming our way, and although the lighting that is designed by Seth Rook Williams (Young Vic’s trade) and the sound design by Daniel Foxsmith (Soho Theatre’s Blush) does the stage proud, it is within the quiet darkness that the direction of this whole endeavor falters. Much like the characters, the director leaves the actors trapped in the blackness of their rubble cage for far too long, forcing them to play out this dynamic and claustrophobic burial in the dark. The sounds of war that surround add dimension, but the blackness minimizes the connection. Cinematically, this would be an appropriate choice, as film finds light even in the darkness giving us a glimpse of the fear on their eyes, but here in the theatre, something more is required, a theatrical way into their souls without leaving us all in the dark for so long with only the sound of their voices to carry us through to the end.
As directed by Bryony Shanahan, the Associate Artistic Director of The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and Co-Artistic Director of the Snuff Box Theatre, the story is packed to the rim with emotion with a slightly too obvious structure of heightening stress, but the pacing doesn’t match the progression. The shuffling of the time frame doesn’t help in the way it should, feeling more like a deck of cards thrown in the air than a thoughtful shuffling. Some of the connections land convincingly into our hearts and minds, but much gets muddled in this haphazard approach, confusing the events while keeping us at an arm’s length from their dramatic story. The tale is strong, just like these men and the actors that portray them. Let them emerge into the light, without the fuss and confusion of their future selves disorienting the survivors. The story in itself is their salvation and the strength of Operation Crucible. Let that be the archway that saves us all.
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