Operation Crucible, The Capitol, Horsham, Sunday, February 8
Sometimes, when presenting huge historic tragedies, it’s best to focus on just a few people’s stories.
Oliver Stone’s film World Trade Centre, for example, focused on the tale of two police officers trapped in the rubble on 9/11, while Paul Greengrass looked at the passengers of United 93 during the same disaster.
Operation Crucible takes a similar approach towards The Sheffield Blitz and the destruction of the Marples Hotel, which was bombed on December 12, 1940.
Throughout the play we get to know four men – Bob, Arthur, Phil and Tommy – who were trapped in one of the hotel’s cellars after the blast.
We also rely on these four characters to reveal the sights, sounds and society of Britain during World War II. The performers do this beautifully, using vocal sound-effects, mime and first-rate acting to show their characters’ lives, especially the exhausting work they do in a steel mill.
Their job is demanding but from the outset, the actors present men who are capable of overcoming challenges with a cheery can-do spirit. They even play jokes on new employees, sending one into the store room to search for a ‘long weight’.
However, when the bombs start falling we see a very different side to the characters.
Phil (Paul Tinto), an attentive father and all-round nice bloke, is reduced to fist fighting with kind-hearted Tommy (playwright and actor Kieran Knowles) after realising that he can’t get to his family. It’s a scary moment when Phil, desperate to escape the cellar, starts pounding uselessly on the walls of his prison.
However, this sequence isn’t as terrifying as the scene where the frightened workers run for cover as the attack begins. Music, sound effects and acting combine to convey the sheer chaos of dashing through central Sheffield as it’s being ripped apart by explosions.
It all sounds a bit depressing but amid the horror of the story, there are moments of warmth and even a few laughs. The dim-witted youngster Bob (the wonderful Salvatore D’Aquilla) gets some of the funniest lines, comparing what steel workers do to ‘painting’ as his amused friends listen.
Flashbacks to happier times are scattered throughout the production as well and give the audience several breaks from the darkness. They also allow the performers, especially Jamie Wallwork as the enthusiastic Arthur, moments to present their characters’ back stories.
This is vital in a production like Operation Crucible. A writer can present a small tale from a huge disaster but can’t expect to create intimacy unless the audience understands the characters. This show has no such problem, thanks to the excellent performances on display and the superb script.