Portland Works, a distinctive red bricked building amassing over 2,600 square metres is often credited with being the birthplace of stainless steel manufacturing, making it a site of worldwide significance.
The Grade II listed building opened in 1879, established by cutlery manufacturer Robert Fead Mosley when he decided to move his business from West Street into the works that he had designed by an architect.
Mosley later teamed up with London silverware manufacturer Alexander Clark, who produced solid silver and Welbeck Plate goods. The company continued until it went into liquidation in the late 1960s.
Portland Works was saved from residential conversion in 2013 by a social enterprise of more than 500 community shareholders and since then, the building has been reborn as a centre for small manufacturing, independent artists and craftspeople, housing more than 30 small businesses.
It is one of the last working examples of a purpose-built metal trades factory, and as I walk through the iconic portico entrance it is alive with activity and the hustle and bustle of creative endeavour.
One such artistic enterprise is that of the Only Lucky Dogs (OLD) theatre company, who began operating from the building’s Maker Space from November 2019, and are in the midst of their inaugural season at Portland Works.
The stripped back space, in which the only nod to decoration is Edison bulbs suspended from the ceiling, feels like the perfect location for burgeoning performers to shine and showcase some of the best new writing around at the moment.
OLD was formed in January 2018 and is comprised of five friends who met at the University of Sheffield with Pippa Le Grand as Producer; Artistic Directors James Huxtable and Michael Saliba; Technical Director Iz Potter and Marketing Co-ordinator Aaron Saint John.
Their aim is to make theatre that “intrigues audiences and investigates something new about humanity, mining the depths of characters that are, on the surface, ordinary; and say “they want to make theatre which, no matter your background, you will recognise yourself within.”
The group all cut their theatrical teeth in student productions, and soon set out to take their first show, Beaker’s Place, to the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Pippa explained: “We knew other theatre companies who had gone to the Fringe and had done quite well, and we all really wanted to be part of that. So we went and we actually made some money, and found we liked working together.”
From there, the theatre collective performed at a number of venues across Sheffield; and their relationship with Portland Works began when they brought their production, A Few Short Studies on Cannibalism, to the Makers Space in November 2019.
Set in Northern Ireland, the tri-narrative play connected three short stories with the unsolved death of an aspiring young musician.
It explored themes of religion and morality, as well as the over-arching grotesque and incomprehensible taboo of cannibalism.
During the play’s run, the group found they enjoyed rehearsing and performing at Portland Works, which received a lifeline grant from Government’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund last year, and soon began wondering if there could be a future there for them.
“We had the idea in November 2019, and began talking to the Portland Works team in early 2020. We had a couple of exciting meetings in February and yeah, Covid obviously delayed things,” Pippa said.
She says the OLD team used the time to consider how many artists they could have; what they could financially offer; to consider marketing; how many staff they needed; how the team should operate, some of which they are continuing to work out at the moment.
16 months later and OLD have launched their first ever season at Portland Works, secured funding for it from Arts Council England, and have also been supported by Stancill Brewery and Locksley Distilling Co Ltd.
The Portland Works team have been really amazing in supporting us, and what we’re doing, throughout. They really understand the relationship between theatre and heritage.
So far their inaugural season has included a play entitled Off-Piste, a physically-driven piece of work which both celebrated and condemned the term masculinity, recounting experiences from working-class men; a show from BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner, Rowan Rheingans, in which she attempted to unravell the joy and pain from her grandmother’s youth in 1940s Germany and Reclamation and Return, a special event from Sounds Queer, dedicated to sharing and showcasing queer talent and perspectives.
Those wishing to catch some of the shows in the second half of their season can see the second night of The Dots, today (Saturday, July 3) through which the audience will be invited to follow The Dots through the early 00s and into the near future as they struggle to come to terms with who sunk the Titanic; why Ronaldo was forced to play through injury during the 1998 World Cup final and other mysteries closer to home. Dear Beryl is a dystopian comedy which imagines a future fuelled by austerity and controlled by technology, and runs from July 15 – 17. The season closes with Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco from July 22 – 24, a play from Gary Owens, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, with a narrative that examines masculinity in crisis.
OLD have experienced a few Covid obstacles such as most of the theatre company having to quarantine while their first show was on, and being forced to put their 2021 season together in between three and five months, a far cry from the 12 to 18 months that Pippa suggests is the industry standard.
"Because we’re small, we can keep our timings and costs as agile and low as possible,” she explains, adding it is important to OLD to keep their ticket prices low in order to ensure their shows are as accessible as possible.
While the seemingly neverending spectre of coronavirus restrictions mean it is not yet possible for OLD to put any plans for their second season at Portland Works together, Pippa says they remain optimistic about the future and securing further funding; and says they are looking forward to putting on work which reflects the industrial and cultural history of both Sheffield and Portland Works.
Pippa says the Covid Recovery Fund has gone a long way towards “making things pay,” but adds it is a “one off” and what the theatre industry really needs is “long term” Government support.
"You don’t expect theatres to make money, all you can hope is that they stay afloat,” she said.
For more information please visit: https://www.onlyluckydogs.co.uk/