Special ingredients in writing Chicken Soup

Ray Castleton, left, and Kieran Knowles, the writers of new play Chicken Soup, premiering at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield
Ray Castleton, left, and Kieran Knowles, the writers of new play Chicken Soup, premiering at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield

A conversation in Crucible Corner led to the formation of the writing partnership behind Chicken Soup which is about to premiere in the Crucible Studio.

If that’s not enough mentions of the word that gives the theatre its name, it was the play Operation Crucible which brought writer and actor Kieran Knowles to Sheffield and a meeting with local writer Ray Castleton.

Beginning five days after Orgreave during the miners strike of 1984, Chicken Soup tells the story of three women working in a community soup kitchen near the pit heads of Rotherham. Later, these same women are now running the local food bank on the day of the Brexit vote.

It grew out of a commission from Experience Barnsley for Ray Castleton to write performance pieces to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike in 2017 which resulted in a trilogy of monologues, SCAB!, The Blue Pawn and Banners, Bands and Bitter Pills.

One of them was about two women who had run a soup kitchen during the strike and found themselves working in the same community centre 30 years on.

Knowles explains: “Ray came to see Operation Crucible and we met up afterwards in Crucible Corner and he told me about the story and I said that’s a good idea.

“Then I he mentioned it to {artistic director} Rob Hastie when talking about future projects and he picked up on it and thought it had the makings of a three-act play which he gave the green light to.

“That necessitated a quick call to Ray to make sure he was happy with starting again on his baby.”

Castleton was delighted at the prospect of his idea being given added production values. “Rather than just two women standing there telling the story we are able to show it. And we could show the relationship between five women and why that one thing has affected their lives.”

In his original researches in Barnsley he had met some of the leading lights of Women Against Pit Closures but says: “I wanted to write a play about the side you never heard about. These people were living rather than the trade union leaders and politicians preaching.”

Knowles adds: “There have been books about 1984 which tend to rose tint those times. They were fighting a daily grind. We had to show the human struggle.”

The character of Helen, played by Jo Hartley, was crucial. She was ostracised by the community because her husband went back to work and had to move away.

“She would never admit it but Maggie Thatcher did her a favour because out of this situation she has done well,” observes Castleton. “We wanted to show how it has benefited one person and not another and question how that is.”

The Sheffield-born former floor contractor who became a professional actor and writer late in life knows this world intimately.

Likewise Knowles who grew up near Leigh in the Lancashire coalfield. “I was born on the day the miners returned to work and went to school with their kids.”

Although from the wrong side of the Pennines, he can claim: “Apart from Operation Crucible (which he reports is going to New York later this year and is also being adapted for a radio play) I played a baker in Toast (Richard Bean’s play set in a Hull bread factory)and feel I have been in Yorkshire for three years.”

Chicken Soup runs at the Studio until March 3.