“So what’s changed and what still needs to change?” – Chris Bush on Steel
Chris Bush is deeply proud of her Sheffield heritage. From appearing on the Crucible’s iconic thrust stage as a child (“never performing seriously”) to writing back-to-back plays for the venue, her connection to the Steel City and its world-renowned theatre has drawn her back time and time again. “I’ve had something on, of some description, every year since 2012.” she says cheerfully. “That’s not bad going really!”.
As to why her relationship with the theatre is so powerful, Bush affirms suspicions in suitably partisan terms. “It’s the best theatre in the country. I’m absolutely biased when I say that but I stand by it. I grew up here and I was taken regularly as a child to see shows here … I think it’s a mixture of the programming, the people and the dynamic of the stage itself.”
If this early exposure to the arts defined a lifelong love, the decision to focus on writing came later on. As a teenager choosing between acting and writing, Bush found that, as always, her mum knew best. “After my A Levels, I said I’m interested in acting and I’m interested in writing. My mum said, ‘You know what, I think writing’s the thing that you’re good at,'” she laughs. “To her credit, she was absolutely right!” Years later, Bush’s consistent reputation for quality plays at the Crucible now attracts the best talent to her work. “We’ve got a great cast, and Rebecca Frecknall is one of the exciting directors in the UK now. It’s brilliant that she’s here and making Steel.”
The latest chapter in Bush’s prolific career, Steel explores the evolving role of women in politics by following two timelines 30 years apart in 1988 and 2018. In the former, Josie attempts to gain a seat on the local council, while the present day story focuses on Labour candidate Vanessa during the metro mayoral elections. Though events are fictionalised, the story was written as a realistic alternative to Sheffield’s own elections earlier this year. “Hopefully it’s a story with universal themes that could be told anywhere, but also one that applies to the city right now.”
According to Bush, Steel’s social urgency means the play has more “substance” than a standard comedy. However, humour is still of great importance to her. “I could never imagine writing anything without jokes,” she admits. “Humour’s such a crucial writer’s tool, even in the bleakest dramas, because it makes you connect to a character. If a character can make you laugh, they’re far more likely to make you cry as well.”
Hopefully, though, the play will encourage more discussion than laughter. “I hope it can make people think about how our political landscape has changed over the last 30 years, and in particular it shows the role of women within the Labour party,” Bush says. “We’re on our second female Tory prime minister and Labour are yet to produce an equivalent.”
For women in politics then, Steel represents not just the progress made, but the progress still to be made. “Things have undeniably gotten better,” she agrees, “but also you could argue not quickly enough and not far enough. So what’s changed and what still needs to change?” How far off are we from gender parity in parliament, then? “Who knows how far off we are. We need a generation of girls to grow up with gender parity and say, ‘Actually, a politician does not look like a white man’ – that’s the point we need to get to. I think we’re still quite far away from that.”
Flitting between rehearsals for Steel, with its intimate cast of two, and those for her 220-person adaptation of Shakespeare’s Pericles at London’s National Theatre, Bush seems more driven than ever by the challenging workload. “It’s been an incredibly significant year for me and I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the variety of the projects I’ve gotten to work on,” she says humbly. With such a diverse body of work, and the Crucible connection continuing to bear fruit for both her and the city’s burgeoning arts scene, it seems the talented playwright’s career is only just getting started.
Catch Steel at the Studio Theatre between 13 September and 6 October.
More info at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk