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REVIEW: Steel’s strength lies in forceful performances

Nigel Betts and Rebecca Scroggs in Steel. Photo by Mark Douet.
Nigel Betts and Rebecca Scroggs in Steel. Photo by Mark Douet.

The world premiere of a new play by Chris Bush has opened at the Crucible’s Studio Theatre in Sheffield, writes Alan Payne.

The playwright was born and brought up in Sheffield and her play is rooted in an authentic sense of local politics.

Steel is set in two years: 2018 and 1988. In the first, Vanessa is the latest Labour Party candidate for the position of metro mayor: she’s assured, self-contained, an academic metropolitan. In the second, Josie is a fresh new voice trying to win a seat on the council: she works in the steel industry, is intelligent, but much less confident than Vanessa.

Vanessa is supported by Ian, a Yorkshireman steeped in the traditions of the Labour Party. Josie is supported by Dai, a Welshman who has settled in South Yorkshire, and, like Ian, is a traditionalist.

The structure is fascinating: the scenes alternate between 2018 and 1988, and two actors share the four roles. Vanessa and Josie are played by Rebecca Scroggs, and Ian and Dai by Nigel Betts.

This demands considerable versatility from the actors; and an alert audience – the minimum of clues are given for the changeovers.

Rebecca Scroggs and Nigel Betts develop their characters in great detail, and the dialogue races along with warmth and invention.

The fact that Vanessa and Josie are women ‘of colour’ is an important element. The dynamics between the characters are constantly shifting; and a sense of conflict is never far away. The audience has to make up its own mind about many of the issues raised – including the pros and cons of old and new ways, the

difference between honest feedback and destructive criticism, and the grey area between mentoring and grooming. Many of the references have a contemporary edge.

The play, a tour de force of enormous energy and wit, is fluidly directed by Rebecca Frecknall, and has an appropriately dismal but artfully designed set by Madeleine Girling.

It might sound as if it’s two separate plays spliced together, but this isn’t the case: it has a complex and convincing sense of unity.

Steel runs until Saturday, October 6.