Moving story of Sheffield wartime tragedy finally returns to Crucible Theatre

Writer and actor Kieran Knowles has lost count of how many times his play Operation Crucible was meant to have been seen in Sheffield over the pandemic.

Thursday, 12th August 2021, 7:30 am

“I want to say this is the fifth – it may be the fourth,” said Kieran. “We’d got selected for runs in completely different venues. We were going to be part of the reopening season at the Crucible that got cancelled.

“At least we’re on for a longer run this time.”

The play is opening the new season in the Crucible Studio theatre on September 2-25. Operation Crucible tells a moving story set during the Sheffield Blitz on December 12, 1940.

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A single bomb reduced the Marples Hotel in Fitzalan Square from seven storeys to rubble. Only one of the 10 compartments in the cellar withstood the blast and around 70 people sheltering were killed, the single biggest loss of life during the Blitz.

The play tells the fictionalised story of four steelworkers trapped underground.

Created by Kieran, Operation Crucible returns after a sell-out run at the Studio in 2016. In May 2018, the play transferred to New York for a Brits Off Broadway season.

Tickets sold out after it became a New York Times Critic’s Pick and it transferred to the city’s Davenport Theatre.

The cast who performed the play in New York are back together, including Sheffielder Salvatore D’Aquilla.

Kieran said outside events increase the play’s relevance: “When we first did it, the helicopter crashed in Glasgow. That happened two days before it opened in London. The reviews were all about how those people would have been feeling.

“The next time it was when the Chilean miners were trapped and that's relevant again. Now we’re coming out of the pandemic.”

This is probably the last time the current cast will perform the play, he thinks. When he wrote it, he had only just left drama school.

“We’ve gotten older. We’ve done it a lot of times. When we were doing it in New York that final time there was a maturity that wasn’t there the first time.

"We rode the wave rather than got scared by it. There was something about just owning it. We’ve got to find it again – it shouldn’t be too hard.”

Uniquely, the play will be performed two minutes’ walk from where the real tragedy took place.

“From the reaction we got last time in Sheffield, it’s a story that’s very close to people,” Kieran said. “It’s a play about Sheffield that couldn’t be more about this place.

“We’re excited to come back because of that feeling. We don’t ever get it anywhere else. It’s a really unique relationship.

“People know exactly who we were talking about and who these characters were.”

He has a vivid memory of the response in 2016 from ex-steelworkers who helped with his research: “Last time in Sheffield we were looking out to the audience – all these older guys we’d interviewed were all standing up. If that never happens again, it happened once.”

Tickets can be booked at the box office in person, over the phone on 0114 249 6000 or at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.

Sheffield Theatres continues to follow the industry-wide safety protocols and Government guidance for indoor entertainment. Information is available at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/your-visit.