Rock by Chris Bush – Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

Chris Bush’s new play Rock is part of an exciting, ambitious and slightly deranged project to celebrate the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield’s 50th anniversary. Rock is performed alongside Paper and Scissors, by a shared cast, simultaneously in three theatres – the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum. While the first two share a building and the Lyceum is next door, it is still a feat of astonishing complexity and, as far as I know, unprecedented. The model is surely Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden, a pair of plays that share a cast and are performed simultaneously, but Bush goes one better. The first achievement, therefore, is that these plays work and that no-one seems out of breathe. Director Anthony Lau must take a great deal of credit simply for getting these works on stage.

The Crucible’s ambition also generates an appropriate level of excitement around the anniversary of a an important regional theatre with a fine 1970s auditorium. Bush’s plays concern Sheffield: its declining manufacturing, the burgeoning redevelopment and gentrification of ex-industrial spaces, and the tensions caused by changing expectation. Rock is also about energy, and the central character Susie (Denise Black) uses the first law of thermodynamics as her reference point – that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred. Her father, owner of the failing family scissor works in which all three plays are set, used it as his mantra, but Susie fights back against this and other social assumptions. She is now a faded music scene-ster whose 1980s heyday is over. Held back, partly by her gender, she wants to make something happen for younger generations by turning the factory into a music venue. This brings her into conflict with the factory manager, Omar (Guy Rhys), who thinks it has a future and her sister Faye (Samantha Power) and sister’s wife Mel (Natalie Casey), who plan to redevelop the site. These characters make strategic appearances in Rock but are, we surmise, the focus of the other two plays. Susie, with her frustrations and her thwarted energy, is the focus of Rock, and Denise Black does a very good job of holding the stage, effectively designed by Ben Stones as the cavernous interior of a disused factory.

Despite the careful structuring of themes, there is a sense at times that the action in Rock is being stretched, presumably while something else happens on a different stage. Without seeing all three plays, it is hard to know whether this is a problem in the other two but, despite the remarkable technical achievement of writing and staging the trilogy, it is not entirely obvious that the format serves the material best. There are moments when we would like to hear more from characters who stand and listen to Susie, including her old friend Leo (Andrew MacBean) and photographer Billy (Alastair Natkiel), and perhaps have their say in other scenes on nearby stages. The simultaneous events create a sense of missing out, which is almost unique in theatre which is specifically designed to show the audience the best bits. Rock begins like a farce, with a succession of misunderstandings, and this atmosphere occasionally revives (notably in the form of the two caricatured young singers, who give Generation Z a very bad name indeed). However, the mood seems inconsistent, and the farcical potential is never entirely followed through. Greater commitment to chaos would have been welcome.

Nevertheless, Chris Bush and the Crucible have created a theatrical landmark, an achievement that serves the Crucible’s radical reputation well, and sets a strong marker for the next decade and beyond. This is also the only play I can imagine watching from outside the theatre, tracking the frantic comings and goings between the new building and Lyceum, which must be a performance in themselves.

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