When we go to Sheffield, gentle reader, we always like to go for a double-header – seeing a play in the afternoon and in the evening. With the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum all within a pixie’s bootie of each other, it’s not normally a challenge to find a suitable date on the calendar where at least two decent shows collide. I had really wanted to see The Effect – and I’m glad we did, because it was excellent. But what to combine it with? The only real option was Camelot The Shining City, which sounded intriguing with its promise of a cast of 150, with the audience following the action on foot from the Crucible theatre and onto the streets of Sheffield. Done well, it could be magic.
A co-production between Sheffield Theatres and Slung Low, specialists in open air/unusual places theatre, you quickly realise what a major undertaking this venture is. On arrival at the Crucible, friendly helpful ushers give you a mini-training session on how to use your headphones, as you will need them to hear what’s going on when you go outside for Acts 2 and 3. I’d already checked online in advance, and there were precious few seats left unoccupied – and indeed, when we entered the Crucible auditorium, headphones around our necks like DJs, umbrellas and coats at the ready for a potentially inclement Sheffield shower, I saw that the auditorium was fuller than I’d ever seen it before, even for major productions like My Fair Lady or Oliver! So the production is definitely tapping into some Zeitgeist or other.
The story begins. Bedivere is returned (from somewhere, to somewhere) and subjected to water torture and quite a lot of roughing up. We meet Bear, an attitudinal young lady who questions everything but joins a group of other young people sitting in a circle; representative of the Round Table, methinks. Bear has a tutor, Michael (I’m presuming he’s like a Merlin figure) who has a tough time keeping Bear on her books as she has visions of greatness, of leading her people into the fray and returning Sheffield to those bright days of yesteryear. She swears herself to chastity, which must be a bit of a disappointment to prospective boyfriend Luke; and she kills her General father. Michael has a degenerative disease and declines from active teacher to Stephen Hawking-lookalike within forty minutes. In amongst all these activities, every so often the stage is invaded by groups of soldiers, children, and other citizens, who march, stand, stare, look gloomy, then march off.
Within about five minutes of the play starting, I was already totally confused. I understood that it was a modern take on the Arthurian legend (the clue was in the title), but even so, I didn’t get what was going on at all. I whispered to Mrs Chrisparkle, “I hope you’re following this?” to which she looked at me with bemused eyes and whispered back, “not a clue”. The speeches were all portentous and imbued with heavy significance, but lacked simple dramatic clarity. This became even more evident in the later acts when, now with our headphones in place, there were much wider spaces to look at, and whilst you were listening to someone speaking, you were looking here there and everywhere to find which actor was mouthing the same words.
As a result, new characters were being introduced, but you weren’t always able to identify them amongst the other 149 people around and about; and, to be honest, I couldn’t tell who half of them were. I got Galahad – I understood him. But there was another woman – who by process of elimination and clever use of the programme (but only after it was all over) – must have been Elaine, but her part in the story I never comprehended. There may have been yet another extra woman too, we weren’t sure. It struck me, whilst listening to the disembodied voices intoning these heavy, undramatic speeches, and without seeing who was talking, it was like listening to one of those really pretentious Radio 3 afternoon plays. You know the type – it probably has some literary merit if you want to look for it, and the characters speak with immaculate Standard English pronunciation, and it’s as tedious as all hell.
There was also a real hotch-potch of events and elements to the play, especially in Act 2, where it seemed like the creative team just wanted to throw as much at the production as possible in the hope that some of it sticks. At times it was like watching a village fete, with the local children’s dancing teams being put through their paces; at other times it was like watching a hard hitting Channel 4 police drama, as a mob smash through the windscreen of a taxi. By the time we get to Act 3, it’s all-out war. A word of advice to anyone going to see the show – it’s vital that you position yourself for a good view of what’s going on when you get out and about onto the streets. You want the front row by the central railings in Act Two – as central as possible; and the front row of the raised lawn edge for Act Three. Don’t make the mistake we did of getting our coats on inside the Crucible when leaving Act One for Act Two. By the time we’d politely joined the queue to get out, all the decent places were taken.
Tia Bannon, who plays Bear, has a great stage presence, a lovely clear voice, and could melt your heart at twenty paces. This is her professional stage debut and I think she could well be One To Watch. She portrays pretty convincingly Bear’s journey from idealistic heroine to loopily self-aggrandised tyrant. I also liked Ed MacArthur as Luke – especially in Act One – you can really identify with how he surprises himself by striking it lucky to get the top girl, and he nicely brought out what little lightness and humour there was in the script. I don’t know if Oliver Senton, who played the General, had some kind of throat problem, but I felt that vocally he was underpowered. The majority of the rest of the cast are amateur/semi-professional and all gave a good account of themselves. It was just the ponderous ploddy script that let it down. So badly.
Halfway through Act Two I received a text. It was from Mrs C, standing in front of me. It read: “do we have 2 stay 4 the 3rd act?” I replied: “Ermmm”, although primarily my concern was her sudden decline into textspeak. I didn’t want to stay either; but the alternative would have been just drinking yet more Rioja than is probably good for us. So I vetoed the early departure, if only so I could see whether Act 3 would have more dramatic quality than Act 2. Answer: fractionally. We did however both agree it wouldn’t have been worth getting rained on for.
I’d loved to have loved it. And I’m more than happy to recognise the enormous effort that went into creating and performing it. Mrs C quoted back to me my old saying that I prefer to see a brave failure to a lazy success. True. However. There are limits. We don’t often hate shows, but this was one of them.