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A heart-felt human tale of Sheffield's great Blitz tragedy.
As any proud Sheffielder will tell you, steel is to that city what hammer is to tongs. So it’s fitting that Kieran Knowles’s ‘Operation Crucible’ goes at such a breakneck pace. His sharp script and Bryony Shanahan’s dynamic, textured production blast onto the Finborough’s intimate stage, communicating the historic tragedy of the Sheffield Blitz while also serving as a fond tribute to the spirit of the city.
On 12 December 1940, the German Luftwaffe carpet bombed Sheffield, razing its factories to the ground. Entire buildings collapsed, including the swanky Marples Hotel where Knowles’s script focuses on four trapped munitions workers.
An episodic, non-chronological structure allows us to jump into the workers’ lives, to enjoy their bombastic work banter and watch tender family portraits. The underlining sentimentality is shot through with no-nonsense humour, which saves it from being saccharine.
Although this personal route into a mass tragedy is a well-worn one, Knowles also touches on a sense of British pride that prompts complex feelings. Just as Sheffield’s name is branded into its famous cutlery, so is it stamped onto the hearts of each of these men. They have a camaraderie in the face of a united foe that is hard to imagine existing today, and while I expected to feel empathy for them, I didn’t expect to feel a little envious, too.
Shanahan’s cast – including Knowles himself – give gutsy, muscular performances that mingle sweat with tears. They push themselves physically and are also psychologically compelling, with the bellowing pace giving way to moments of silence that are emotionally deafening.