Sheffield wartime story on stage in New York

Writer Kieran Knowles, front left, on stage at the Crucible in Operation Crucible
Writer Kieran Knowles, front left, on stage at the Crucible in Operation Crucible
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A play that is set in Sheffield during the worst night of the Blitz in the city is going on stage in New York at a festival of British writing.

Operation Crucible was the first play to be written by Kieran Knowles, who was also the co-author with Sheffielder Ray Castleton on the recent Crucible Studio hit Chicken Soup.

That play was set in a South Yorkshire pit village soup kitchen, beginning days after Orgreave.

It traced the often strained friendships of a group of women volunteers formed then until the day of the Brexit referendum vote.

Operation Crucible is set on the night of December 12, 1940, when a single Nazi bomb reduced the seven-storey Marples Hotel to rubble.

The bombing at the Marples caused the single biggest loss of life in the city during the Blitz.

The victims’ bodies are still buried under the rubble and every year on the anniversary of their deaths a wreath is laid for them at a memorial service .

The play, which starred Kieran when it came to the Crucible in September 2016, looks at four men who find themselves trapped in the only room in the hotel’s cellars to withstand the bombing.

During the war, Sheffielders believed that the hotel cellars would be a safe place to shelter from bombings in the city centre and many different people, including visitors to the city, could be found gathered there.

The play depicts the camaraderie of an imagined group of ordinary Sheffield working men from the beginning of their ordeal to its end.

Kieran said in 2016: “It’s a story of the wartime everyman, the guys under the bombs rather than the ones dropping them. They are four steelworkers.

“For the first half they are working a shift and halfway through the play the sirens start blaring.

“You find out what happened that night, including being trapped in the Marples Hotel. It’s an exploration of their heroism or lack of it.”

In reality, only seven people were dug alive out of the ruins in Fitzalan Square and at least 77 people lost their lives on that terrible night.

The play was first performed at the Finborough Theatre, London in 2013 and Kieran is also currently adapting it for Radio Four.

The play appears on New York in its US premiere as part of the current Brits Off Broadway season.

Kieran again appears in the play, alongside Sheffield-born Salvatore D’Aquilla, whose other stage credits include the famous production of War Horse for the National Theatre in the West End.

Sal and Kieran and two other graduates of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, including fellow Sheffielder Josh Mayes-Cooper, formed From Ground Up Theatre Company in 2013 and Operation Crucible was their first piece of new work.

Sal and Josh contributed ideas to the script but Kieran wrote the final version.

They are joined in New York by Chris McCurry and James Wallwork, another member of the From Ground Up team.

The play has once again been directed by Bryony Shanahan, who did the same job at the Finborough Theatre and on the play’s national tour that included the Crucible dates.

She also teamed up with Kieran again to direct Chicken Soup.

Operation Crucible is at 59E59 Theaters, New York from May 8 to June 3. Website: www.59e59.org