“I think it’s a story that Sheffield needs to hear right now” – Operation Crucible writer Kieran Knowles on the play’s return to the Steel City

This story of four ordinary men in extraordinary times comes home after a sell-out run at the Studio in 2016. Exposed spoke to Kieran Knowles, who both wrote and performs in Operation Crucible, about his gripping Sheffield-based WWII drama ahead of its return to the stage.

It’s great to see the return of Operation Crucible, which had such a fantastic reception here last time around. For those who might’ve missed it back then, could you briefly fill them in on the story?
Operation Crucible is a story of four steelworkers who get caught up in the Sheffield Blitz. They don’t mean to be heroes, but they end up at the centre of a major event. They take shelter from the air raid in the Marples Hotel, only for the building to take a direct hit. The play is really about friendship in the darkest of times and community spirit and coming out of something stronger than when you went in.

What made you want to make a play set during the Sheffield Blitz?
It was an accident really. I wrote the play after developing the idea with three other actors who I trained with at LAMDA. We wanted to tell a story of when being working class was a badge of honour, when doing what your dad did was seen as passing on the mantle, not failing. 1940s Sheffield was booming, the steel they made was world-renowned and because of the war effort the factories were producing as much as they ever had. As two of the actors were from Sheffield, that seemed like the perfect setting.

“The play is really about friendship in the darkest of times and community spirit and coming out of something stronger than when you went in.”

Do you think there’s a message in the play’s themes of hardship, sacrifice and unity that could be relevant to the problems we’re facing today?
We’ve done the play for eight years now. We opened in 2013, and every time we’ve done it, there has been a way to tie it to current events, which is actually a little depressing. In 2013, a helicopter had just hit a nightclub in Glasgow and the building came down. In 2016, when we last came to Sheffield, we were six years into austerity measures and remembering working class roots seemed vital. In 2018, we took the show to New York and obviously that city can tie the events to living memories. It now sort of seems more pertinent than ever; there’s something in reminding ourselves that we can get through this, and we can do that by sticking together.

How important are the characters’ roles as local steelworkers to the story?
It’s fundamental. They are old school characters; they shouldn’t really be on stage. They are four versions of my Grandad – almost monosyllabic, but profoundly loyal, and fiercely proud. Their profession is their life. They live on the same streets, drink at the same pubs, work in the same factory, on the same floor. They are as intertwined as it is possible to be, and that weaves itself into the narrative.

Finally, can you sum up what it means to you and the rest of the cast to be bringing this story back to life in front of a live audience?
I don’t really know whether I can. This play means so much to everyone involved. Some of the team are from Sheffield and some of us have memories with this venue, so there’s a lot of emotional history with the play, with our journey to get here. I think it’s a story that Sheffield needs to hear right now. We need theatres so that people can laugh and cry and enjoy a chink of hope and light in dark times. So – no, I don’t think I can sum it up or coherently and eloquently express it, but – it means a lot, a massive amount; it means everything.

Operation Crucible runs at Crucible Theatre Thu 2 – Sat 25 Sep. Tickets and more info available at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

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