Miners’ strike seen through women’s eyes in duo’s play

Ray Castleton, left, and Kieran Knowles, the writers of new play Chicken Soup, premiering at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield
Ray Castleton, left, and Kieran Knowles, the writers of new play Chicken Soup, premiering at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield

A South Yorkshire actor and the writer of a play about Sheffield in the Blitz have got together to tell another important local story.

Chicken Soup follows a group of friends who set up a soup kitchen in a Rotherham pit village during the miners’ strike and looks at their relationships over the intervening years.

The audience see the characters n the same community centre, organising a party for the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2002 and again on the day of the Brexit referendum, where they are now running a food bank to help locals.

The play has been co-written by Sheffield-born actor Ray Castleton and by Kieran Knowles, who wrote and starred in Operation Crucible, which looked at a group of men trapped under the Marples Hotel during the terrible first night of the Blitz in Sheffield in December 1940. The characters are fictitious but the bombing of the Marples, resulting in the death of at least 77 people, represented the worst single loss of casualties in Sheffield during the war.

Ray decided to speak to Kieran while Operation Crucible was at the Crucible two years ago.

Kieran said: “We met in the Crucible cafe. I was having my tea and Ray was coming to the local artists’ night for Operation Crucible which had a Q&A session afterwards.

“Ray said he wanted to ask a question at the Q&A about the writing. We had a pint afterwards at the Crucible Corner, where Ray was describing a play he’d been commissioned to write for Barnsley Museums about the miners’ strike and 30 years on.

“It was a story about two women that had started a soup kitchen during the strike and are running a food bank now. I said, ‘That’s such a good idea’.”

The two decided to collaborate on turning the story idea into a full-blown play, adding a third scenario set in 2002.

Kieran talked to Sheffield Theatres artistic director Rob Hastie about the play and to his surprise he commission it from Kieran and Ray.

They have worked together and apart. Ray laughed: “I South Yorkshire-d it up a bit! I used to put little red lines on Kieran’s dialogue, saying ‘They wouldn’t say this, they’d say t’other’.”

Ray was chuffed to say they’d worked on part of the script at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford where they saw one of Kieran’s friends in a play.

He said: “A colleague rang up and said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘Writing a play at the RSC’. I didn’t tell him it was in the cafe!”

Ray has written another show, called On Behalf of the People, for Sheffield theatre company Melting Shop which tells the story of British Coal privatisation in 1947 through the eyes of a mining family. That tours from May.

Kieran is excited to be taking Operation Crucible to New York in May for a showcase called Brits Off Broadway.