Crucible, Lyceum and Studio, Sheffield – until 2 July 2022
All three plays in Chris Bush’s Rock/Paper/Scissors triptych run in Sheffield Theatres’ three spaces simultaneously with one cast. The overall piece is a logistical coup-de-théâtre. It’s also a perfect coming together of space and place in three funny, achingly profound and heartful plays about a city and its people on the cusp of change.
Eddie, the owner of Spenser & Son’s scissor manufacturers, has died after 50 years of running the factory. Business has been struggling for some time and there’s now a question mark over its future. Set in present-day Sheffield across three locations in the factory, the plays explore the various stakeholders who all have a claim on what they’d like the space to be. From a nightclub or industrial chic making hub, to flats, to carrying on as a working factory, Rock/Paper/Scissors delves into the spaces and lives that make up the past, present and future of the city.
In Rock, we see the main factory space. It now lays bare as it’s too expensive to heat and they don’t have enough orders coming in. But in Ben Stones’ design, it is still a magnificent space. Steel girders hold up a glass saw-tooth roof covered in moss, and several cast-iron radiators and small piles of sawdust are the only things on the vast floorspace.
Coming all guns blazing into this is Eddie’s sister (his only blood relative) Susie, a punk legend of the 1970s who discovered some of the city’s finest bands. In a fierce performance from Denise Black, Susie – a sort-of anti-Madame Renevsky – wants to turn the place into a nightclub. Rebellious, uncompromising and an innovator, we see in her the effect of generations of patriarchy: ‘we were a waste product… The unwanted daughters of men who only wanted sons’. She also has an unshakeable belief in the power of creating something new.
‘This is a place of making’, ‘It was once’ sums up the notion of change at the centre of the three plays. For factory manager Omar, there is pleasure and integrity in the work itself. His passion for making something which will outlast him, in hammers which have moulded to workers’ hands over the decades is something which he believes should be conserved. On the other hand, is the steel industry dead? I particularly liked how the plays explore how we easily romanticise the past.
Early on in Rock, Leo jokes that some art director in New York is trying to replicate the grime on the factory’s glass roof to achieve its quality of light: ‘that right there is history’. There’s a similar line early on in Paper where Faye is nostalgic over the smell of her dad’s old office: ‘I like it. It’s the stink of history’. The natural light in the factory also becomes a running joke. Everyone waxes lyrically over it to the extent it becomes futile. What’s the good of the natural light if the building’s not doing anything?
Like in Alan Bennett’s People, it’s implied that there’s a danger in clinging onto the past just for the sake of preservation. Bush also explores the impact of Covid on such spaces. As a corporate design consultant (excellently played by Leo Wan) says, we don’t really know the purpose of city centres now. Factories and physical shops might be on the decline but there could be space for a destination ‘cathedral of making’ that will draw people in. In volatile times, perhaps there’s a new way to forge a future which is connected to the cultural heritage of a place. Bush firmly has her finger on the pulse of some of the city’s (and country’s) biggest issues.
In Paper, we see Eddie’s step-daughter Faye and her partner Mel go through Eddie’s office ready to have the factory developed into flats. Janet Bird’s design fills the space with mountains of folders, a PC from the 90s and a giant pair of scissors that perhaps once adorned the front of the factory. Mel doesn’t romanticise the past, pragmatically saying, ‘it is history. It is past. People don’t need scissors’. On the other hand, Faye starts to see the value in the place. Led by two brilliant performances from Samantha Power and Natalie Casey, as the couple are considering how the factory could shape their future together, uneasy truths in the couple’s relationship unfold. Bush beautifully interweaves the play’s larger themes with character detail, finely balanced in Robert Hastie’s production.
In Scissors, we see a glimpse of the past itself as we’re invited to see inside the last vestiges of the scissor-making process. Scissors is a work play and there’s a fascination in watching people at work. The start of the play sees the four apprentices, each on a mere £4 per hour, making scissors: sharpening, polishing and checking blades. It’s meticulous and laborious but you can also see the level of care they put into it – director Elin Schofield also finds a playful musicality in this manual labour too. The play also explores the problems of four young people today. Shit wages and low prospects, but all committed to their work making something none of them can afford to buy and you can get cheaper on Amazon. It’s a reminder of young people’s resilience in times of crises. It also features a brilliant performance from Jabez Sykes as a brusque apprentice with a uniquely comical take on life which makes him wise beyond his years.
To write just one of these plays would’ve been an achievement. I can’t begin to fathom the scale of work involved in mounting all three. They’re big plays with breadth, depth and heart in which everyone is working at the top of their game. I’d be surprised if I see a more impressive piece of theatre this year.
Rock/Paper/Scissors play in Sheffield’s Crucible, Lyceum and Studio until 2ndJuly. For further information please visit:
Samantha Power and Natalie Casey in Paper (Photo by Johan Persson).