It’s the centenary of stainless steel production in Sheffield, and as part of the celebrations, Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield Theatres have taken the opportunity to collaborate in this production.
Well. full marks for ambition. The playwright is the estimable John Godber; the director is Neil Sissons, the founder of Compass Theatre Company. Plus there’s a small but starry cast of professional actors working alongside students and staff from Sheffield Hallam University. Which is a pretty prestigious line-up for a production that’s all about - to quote John Godber - “making theatre in Sheffield for people in Sheffield.”
The play combines family drama with Sheffield’s industrial past: steel, city, a father - Jack Steele - and his two “chalk and cheese” sons. The setting is an ex-steel mill, now refurbished for corporate events. It’s the setting, too, for Steele’s 70th birthday party - which just happens to fall on the day of Maggie Thatcher’s funeral.
Splendid stuff, and all very promising, but, overall, as a piece of theatre, it just doesn’t gell. Of course there are some striking set-pieces such as Steele’s lament for the demise of the steel industry, which once “fuelled the world” - and for the loss of community. The tub-thumping politics are leavened by some witty one-liners.
However, the characterisation is thin and predictable, with the actors often no more than mouthpieces. Which is a real shame - as is the way the second half fails to take off and just fizzles out.
Still, Fine Time Fontayne is wonderful as Jack Steele - an exceptional performance that breathes real life into the role. Robert Angell is excellent as Nick, and there’s sound support from Susan Cookson (Louise) and Ian Reddington (Chris). The students acquit themselves well, too, with some fine ensemble playing, and Laura Betts is a cracking Crystal.
Set design (Neil Irish) is stunning, and, to be fair, the play was very warmly received by the press night audience.