From Warhorse to Peace in our Time, Journey’s End to Blue Remembered Hills plays about the world wars are many, varied and often influential. Modern playwrights continue to be inspired by the tumultuous events of the early 20th Century and so they should be. There are more extraordinary stories from this era to tell than could possibly fill a lifetime and the old motto of ‘lest we forget’ never rings more true than if the past is not reflected in the art of the present.
The Finborough Theatre’s world premiere production of Kieran Knowles new play Operation Crucible is a shining example of theatre inspired by the world wars, typified by a focus on the individual stories of those who lived through it. The play like many others of its genre is told to reflect the universality of the suffering endured by ordinary people and serves as a reminder of sacrifices made.
There is nothing saccharine or romantic about this down to earth production however focusing as it does on four ordinary men working in steel factories during World War 2. Rather it reveals how their lives were turned upside down by events entirely beyond their control and offers no platitudes to help the audience feel better about their situation.
Fairly uniquely for a war story none of the characters are soldiers, the play revealing the little told role of the Sheffield men whose work was essential to equipping the army and air forces with the planes and tanks need to win the war. Although many factory jobs were taken by women the strength and expertise of these men could not be spared although, as the play touches on, the threat of being labelled a coward still hung over their heads.
The men and their families live under constant threat of bombardment and when the Sheffield blitz finally happens are trapped under rubble during the Luftwaffe’s relentless attack on 12 December 1940. The tale of their lives, the bombing, their fear underground, injury, tragedy and rescue is told by the characters to the audience in a mixture of first person monologue, dialogue and mime. Cleverly large parts of the action underground takes place in darkness allowing the audience to empathise with their sense of isolation being trapped without light. The actors present four stoic and physically strong characters with an ingrained work ethic and sense of morality born from 1930s family values and the shadow of World War I. Their combined energy is fierce, loud and at times aggressive but tempered by a sense of camaraderie between the characters and there is much humour to be found in their rough but loving friendships.
Each man is affected differently by his experiences underground and none escape the war emotionally unscathed. This play is more than just another microcosm of wartime experiences; it’s a warm and poignant reminder of the fragility of our safety and the incomparable value of love in all its forms.