As a début play, Kieran Knowles’s Operation Crucible at the Finborough Theatre captures the hours around the Sheffield Blitz in 1940 with urgency and a pounding energy. Like the fire-fuelled machines, and the rhythmic thud of steel being shaped in the mills, Knowles’s play is well-stoked to burn a path to your nervous system. Evoking a heartfelt story of four factory workers as they contribute to the war effort with steel and anvil, the eighty-minute playing time slips past in the capable direction of Bryony Shanahan and the four exceptionally talented cast members.
There is a distinct quality within Knowles’s writing that gives Operation Crucible a firm and just portrayal of Sheffield life during the Second World War. The quick-fire exchange of dialogue between the characters beats a rhythm that is rooted in history and localisation, greatly aided by the pace and precision of Shanahan’s powerful direction. At times it’s like you can feel the strain of muscles as the men work the steel, and the burning against your skin as the furnaces lick their fiery tongues across the faces of the workers. In the confines of the Finborough Theatre — small in an average performance, but made even smaller by the extension of the seating area — it’s hard to get distracted.
Within the cast there’s a sense of brotherhood and love that seeps into the acting. Joshua Mayes-Cooper particularly stands his ground as Arthur, who we watch over several years throughout his adoption into factory life, whilst Salvatore D’Aquilla is undeniably loveable as the simple and sweet Bob, who always seems a moment behind the rest. They’re supported excellently by Paul Tinto and playwright/actor Knowles, who give fine portrayals of working-class Sheffield men.
Perhaps the finest achievement of Operation Crucible is the manner in which it gets the audience swiftly onto the writer’s side and into the lives of the characters. By giving the audience a level of empathy and humour, we’re readily giving ourselves into the narrative, before (as to be expected from a play dealing with the Blitz and war time) we’re quickly catching our breath as the story hurtles down into the tragic consequences of war. Never do we feel used, or as if the action overplayed, as there is a balance that keeps the play from tipping over.
In the confines of the Finborough Theatre, Seth Rook William’s lighting is brilliantly atmospheric, but strikingly simple, and there’s some real tugging-at-your-heart music from sound designer Dan Foxsmith. In all, it feels difficult to fault Operation Crucible: it hits the mark perfectly. A brilliant and gutsy début.
Operation Crucible is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 17 December. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.