From the Steel City to the Big Apple: critically-acclaimed play about Sheffield to open in New York

A hit play about Sheffield will begin a month-long stint at the 59E59 Theatre in New York next week.

Top New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley listed ‘Operation Crucible’, about a group of steel-workers trapped in a hotel cellar during the blitz, as one of his “5 shows to see in New York.” He first saw the play in London in 2015.

It will be performed abroad for the first time ever when it hits the ‘Brits off Broadway’ festival, which has been underway at the 59E59 Theatre, situated just east of Central Park, since 1 April.

According to James Wallwork, who plays Arthur, it is a tale of camaraderie and friendship and how important these things are in a person’s life.

He said: “I think the overall meaning is what does it take to be there for others? What does it take to help each other through?

“What is the true meaning of friendship: is it just to be there for each other, to listen to each-other, or is it more literal – helping to save someone’s life?”

The play revolves around four friends: Tommy, played by writer Kieran Knowles, Bob, played by Salvatore D’Aquilla, Phil, played by Chris McCurry, and James’ character Arthur.

From left to right: Salvatore, James, Kieran, and Paul Tinto (ex-cast member)

They are at work in a Sheffield foundry when Luftwaffe bombs begin raining down – the code name for these raids on Sheffield in 1940 was Crucible.

Seeking shelter in the Marples Hotel, the steelworkers become trapped in its cellar when the building above is reduced to rubble.

The play tracks the time they spend buried 15 feet underground: the stories they tell, their efforts to get out, and how they manage to stay sane.

Operation Crucible was devised in 2013 while the cast were studying at LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art). Salvatore D’Aquilla and Josh Mayes-Cooper (who later left the play) are originally from Sheffield.

It had its first full run at Chelsea’s Finborough Theatre in 2015, and has since had slots at the artsdepot in London and Sheffield’s own Crucible Theatre, amongst others.

According to James, the play has changed a lot in the five years since it was first performed.

He said: “We’ve all gotten a bit older, and I think it’s matured our performances a bit.

“Bryony Shanahan [the director – pictured below] has grown and over the years has directed so much more and gotten involved with bigger and bigger theatres. I think her eye has been refined and changed now.”

Perhaps the most visible change is within the cast itself. Chris McCurry took on the part of Phil after Paul Tinto, an original cast member, left for another job.

James added: “Chris is a very different actor, he’s very subtle and underplays stuff a lot.

“Paul had a lot of energy and aggression in that part. Chris has taken that aggressiveness back a bit more.”

The cast fly out to New York on Sunday. There are previews on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the play will run for four weeks from Thursday.

On his plans for the future, James said: “It would be amazing to get an American tour together, or come back to London and do a run at a bigger theatre. We’d love to go back to the Sheffield Crucible.”