Seventy-three years ago today, Sheffield was reeling from the catastrophe of one of the worst nights of the Blitz in the city.
Hitler’s Luftwaffe mercilessly pummelled the city with bombs for hours, devastating vast areas on the night of December 12, 1940.
More than 600 people lost their lives in the Blitz in Sheffield and tens of thousands were left homeless.
The Nazi bombers’ aim was to decimate the city’s steelworks and the vital role that they played in the munitions and aircraft industry.
Now that story is being told on stage in London by the play Operation Crucible, which was the military name for the bombing operation.
Four young actors, two of them Sheffielders, tell the story of that night through the eyes of four steelworkers buried under the the Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square, reduced to rubble by one 500kg bomb.
It’s estimated that 77 people were sheltering in the cellars of the hotel. Only seven were dug out of the rubble alive and amazingly four of them were able to walk away. They had survived the biggest single loss of life in the Sheffield Blitz.
The cleared area where the hotel had been remained a familiar sight in the city centre for years afterwards.
The four steelworkers in the play – Tommy, Arthur, Phil and Bob – are fictional characters but Kieran Knowles and the other members of From the Ground Up theatre company based their story on research.
Kieran, who wrote the script, said: “We met up with two steelworkers, Willis and Jack Laycock. They were working in a steel mill on the night of Operation Crucible.
“Lots of the details I included came from the stories they said. We met with them for about three hours. They were absolutely lovely and so generous with their time.
“We also met Harlan Senior with his wife. We were supposed to be an hour and we were there for four. Harlan is very interested in local history. He had a map which showed where the bombs landed.”
They also read all the books that have been written about the Sheffield Blitz.
Kieran said that the play also aims to convey the pride that the city had in its steel industry at the time. They wanted to get it on stage this year to coincide with this year’s centenary of stainless steel.
He said: “Some of the others had seen a play called Bound, which was about fishermen. It was telling a story about these working men and we wanted the same sort of feel.
“That lends itself perfectly to a steelworks.
“The poverty of Sheffield in the 1980s has been covered a lot. We wanted to show the glory of it. We’ve never seen anything that looks at the glory of those days and what it was about and how it defines people.
“Then we found the story of Operation Crucible and the attack on Sheffield. It’s just such a fascinating story that these people were pulled from the wreckage of the Marples Hotel.
“How horrifying it must have been on that night, being trapped and trying to get out.”
Kieran said that the play tells one story that emerges piece by piece from the four men. He said: “We wanted to portray these men who didn’t really talk about their feelings and experiences.
“It’s four versions of one story and it’s like my granddad, who would tell you a little bit of information. Then he’d tell you a bit more next time and you’d get all these bits of information. Together they tell a story.
“It’s a one-man show told by four people. It’s quite exciting to write but makes it hard to learn as an actor!”
The show came together because Mancuncian Kieran and his fellow actors, Sheffielders Joshua Mayes-Cooper and Salvatore D’Aquilla and Scotsman Paul Tinto, had all been to LAMDA drama school in London at around the same time.
“We always said we should do something together but never got round to doing it. Then we said, ‘right, let’s write a play’.
“Instead of walking away and forgetting about it, we started divvying up research roles and finding little stories.”
That was two years ago and the foursome managed to raise some money to develp the idea through online crowdfunding, where lots of people interested in an idea contribute to help it get of the ground. Appeals in The Star helped to raise £9,000.
The group held a first read-through of the script in the Novotel in Sheffield last month and more than 40 people turned up. Kieran said: “The feedback we got was amazing. Harlan Senior came along to see it and was very lovely about it. His wife was in tears.”
They took on director Bryony Shanahan to help them develop the show and finally it got on stage at the Finborough Theatre in London, which encourages new writing. Kieran said that it has had lots of very positive reviews.
Now the group aim to take Operation Crucible on tour around the country as it has interest from several theatres.
Actually, there’s another ‘Operation Crucible’ that they’re working on as well – they are lobbying to get the play put on by Sheffield Theatres. In any case, they are determined to perform the play in its home city.
Kieran said: “It’s very tough and we understand that the theatres must be inundated with requests to put on new plays. We’ve also had some encouraging meetings with the Magna Centre.”
In the meantime, Operation Crucible is on stage at the Finborough Theatre until next Tuesday.
Box office: call 0844 8471652 or go to www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk.