A play telling a human tale behind the Sheffield Blitz finally visits the city that was changed forever during the Second World War, writes Kevin Bourke

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On 12 December 1940 Sheffield, right at the heart of Britain’s munitions manufacturing during the Second World War, suffered over seven hours of continuous bombing by Germany’s Luftwaffe, intent on wiping out the world-famous steel works.

“Sheffield was on fire. It was glowing orange, like hell, like a furnace, like steel,” commented a shocked eyewitness on the ruthless attack, which cost the lives of more than 660 citizens, injured thousands and left the city in ruins.

At the height of the raid, a single bomb reduced the Marples Hotel, which had stood proudly in Fitzalan Square, to rubble. Only one of the 10 compartments in the hotel’s cellars withstood the blast and trapped within it were four men.

It’s the story of these ordinary men in extraordinary times, when a way of life was shattered and the city changed forever, that inspired Operation Crucible, the first play written by Manchester-born actor Kieran Knowles, who has just returned from playing alongside Matthew Kelly in New York.

Although the play premiered in London and has toured the country, the upcoming production at Sheffield’s Crucible Studio – not five minutes’ walk from the location of the former Marples Hotel – will be the first time it has been seen in the city.

“We’ve had to do the play 45 times out of Sheffield to actually get it on in the Crucible,” laughs Knowles. “That was always our dream, although the name of the play actually comes from the German codeword for the operation.”

Knowles is keen to emphasise that the play examines not the conventional heroes of war but the sort of people in wartime Britain who “made bombs, not dropped them.”  

“It’s all about northern men and northern sensibilities, about men in war and questioning whether heroism can mean staying on the home front.

“At its heart is the fact that it’s set in Sheffield and there are going to be people seeing our play there who lived through what became known as the Sheffield Blitz. That’s a hell of a thing for a play that was a labour of love for us all.”
It started as an idea over a pint in a pub with three other actors who were out of work after leaving drama school, reveals Knowles. “We decided we wanted to do something for ourselves because, if you don’t, acting can be just a game of waiting for your agent to ring.  

“None of us had ever written a play before but we started looking around for a story we could tell. We’re all from the north, so we were very keen on collaboratively telling the story of a northern city in its prime rather than its decline. That led us to the 1940s when steel making in Sheffield was fundamental to the nation, and then to this story.”

People in Sheffield, he explains, would often hear the sirens as the German bombers flew over on their way to Manchester, Coventry or Liverpool, but there would be no bombs. By 12 December, people were starting to ignore the sirens – until the bombs started falling and they realised it was their turn.

“To live with that constant fear that someone could be a couple of hundred feet above your head who was willing to drop a bomb on you must have been terrifying. To then have to get up to go to work again the next day and just be ready to crack on – that spirit is something the play is trying to capture.”

Operation Crucible is at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 6-24 Sept

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