It’s always fun when a playwright thinks outside the box for new ways of presenting a story. The challenge that writer Chris Bush and Artistic Director Robert Hastie set themselves was to create three pieces that would use the three locations of the Sheffield Theatres all at the same time, dovetailing into each other and making one complete whole in the process. There’s been some precedent for this, but nothing quite on this scale. Alan Ayckbourn tells the same story three times in the Norman Conquests, from different locations within the house and garden. Michael Frayn’s Noises Off gives us the first act of the generic sex farce Nothing On from three different perspectives; in rehearsal, backstage and in performance. In both these plays you can piece together a fuller account of what’s going on simply by a hilarious mixture of repetition and relocation. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Tom Stoppard shows what happens when characters who are not involved in the main story live out their own lives until the main play catches up with them. Here you get a sense of other lives carrying on outside of, and irrelevant to, the main plot; thus the backstage becomes the forestage (and then back again.)
Bush’s immensely inventive and hugely enjoyable triple threat of Rock, Paper and Scissors, at all three of the Sheffield Theatres simultaneously, provides another of these riveting feasts where different perspectives cast different lights on the same story all at the same time. To say it’s a technical achievement would be the epitome of underestimation; and if the unexpected happens – and this is live theatre, so it does – causing a problem or a delay in one theatre, it has a knock-on effect in the other venues, as happened when we saw them, more of which later…!
The basis for the plot is simple. Sheffield scissor makers Spenser and Son has been in business for decades. Eddie, the most recent owner, has died, and his two remaining relatives – Susie, his sister and Faye, his adopted daughter – both have plans to make something of the extraordinary building that remains. Rock chick Susie envisages a funky nightclub, whereas Faye and her partner Mel feel a residential conversion would work. But Susie and Faye haven’t spoken for years; nor did either of them realise that Omar, the manager, still had a team of four apprentices making scissors in the workshop. Too soon, then, to adapt the building for other purposes? No matter what, there are three sets of plans and practices that completely conflict with the others!
The blurb maintains that each of the three plays can stand alone; or audiences could choose to see any combination of two plays or indeed all three. In my opinion, if you were only to see one, it should be Paper as that (I reckon at least) is the only truly standalone play; if you were only to see two you should combine it with Scissors; and if you see all three, see them in the traditional order of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, as we did. Although each play is written by Chris Bush, each has a different director, a different designer, a different lighting director, and so on. So each has a very different vibe and character.
All three plays take the same central themes, although with varying degrees of emphasis. There’s the struggle between hanging on to the past versus making way for the future. Traditional values and skills set against modern cost-cutting methods. Opportunities through hard work are compared with opportunities through privilege. Bar work is offered instead of skilled apprenticeships. Hard truths and difficult problems are balanced against credible lies and living within your comfort zone. Perhaps most of all, the take-home element of these plays is what happens when you make assumptions about people, their motivations, characteristics and private lives; people have a remarkable ability to keep secrets, and then reveal them when you least expect.
Rock is dominated by the character of Susie Spencer, the opinionated, ambitious sister who wants to create a nightclub out of the old factory space, beautifully realised on the Crucible stage by Ben Stones’ wonderful design. To kickstart the project, she plans to hold a photoshoot with a top photographer and a real band to promote the new venue. Susie tends to ride roughshod and be unnecessarily critical of others, which makes her an unsympathetic character, but Denise Black’s excellent performance invests her with all the brass neck and charisma to fill out a truly credible portrayal. She gets as good as she gives from a brilliant performance by Lucie Shorthouse, who was fantastic as Pritti in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie four years ago, as Omar’s daughter Zara, plus there’s excellent support from Andrew Macbean as her long-suffering wannabe beau Leo, and a superb comic turn from Leo Wan’s Xander (who is even funnier in Scissors) as the nervous corporate design consultant. But for me, this particular play suffers from its structure and script. It expends a lot of time and energy in a comedy of mistaken identity which is amusing at first but quickly palls as you realise that a simple conversation establishing who everyone is would put an end to the confusion. It’s too obvious a comic construct and I found these elements both unfunny and tedious. There are also passages of enjoyable but irrelevant singing, and it feels like there’s a lot of padding here.
Things get so much better in Paper, which is written with much smarter tightness and purpose. The play looks closer into the relationship between Faye and Mel, their plans and their attempts to track down missing and vital paperwork to prove ownership and Eddie’s will. Samantha Power’s Faye faces the uphill task to find the will from amongst the reams of paper stuffed into his ramshackle old office. She is uncertain as to the right way to progress, unlike the much more practical and determined Mel, who divides the office into quadrants so that they can search methodically, and who takes charge of Xander’s professional visit when Faye starts to wobble. Primarily the play is a beautiful examination of the relationship between the two; the problems that lurk beneath the surface – issues of trust, respect and faithfulness, that lead on to serious mental health worries. Natalie Casey’s amazing performance as Mel had me choking back the tears as she sits on the floor desperately trying to her explain her feelings.
This emotional space is also invaded by the comically horrendous Coco and Molly – Chanel Waddock and Daisy May on excellent form – as the squabbling, pretentious, self-serving band Co-codamol. It was during one of their sparky arguments that the stage manager had to come on stage and inform everyone that due to a problem in one of the other theatres, they would have to pause the performance; Ms Waddock and Ms May looked as stunned as the rest of us felt as they were ushered off the stage. We later discovered there had been a little fire on the stage of the Studio during Scissors – much to everyone’s gasp of horror – and they were just waiting for that to “settle down”. It was a tough moment for Coco and Molly but they resumed their argument perfectly when it all re-started. Presumably other actors in the other theatres faced the same problem!
Partly due to its modest setting in the round in the Studio, Scissors feels like a much more intimate play. Here we observe the apprentices actually doing the real work, for less than minimum wage; their relationship, their arguments, their commitment (or lack thereof) and their fears for the future. They reveal so much about themselves, and the importance of their jobs to their lives and their prospects. The whole factory is their domain, so when voices are heard in other parts of the building, they immediately assume industrial espionage or burglary, they distrust everyone who isn’t part of their group, and act as though everyone else is out to get them. That’s all except Trent perhaps, who is calmness and kindness itself when dealing with others. But they all have their secrets, which will astonish, entertain, and move you to tears. Jabez Sykes is terrific as the unpredictable and defensive Mason, and Joe Usher turns in a superb professional debut as the eloquent Trent. Maia Tamrakar is a powerhouse of energy as Liv and Dumile Sibanda shows fantastic maturity way beyond her years as the earnest Ava. All four create an incredible ensemble in this play and should have wonderful careers ahead of them. It’s up to Guy Rhys’ wounded, heavy-hearted Omar to break the news of their future to them – and it’s a complex, sad but truly beautiful ending. You may take away a different interpretation of the conclusion of the plays if you only see Scissors; you’ll have a very solid understanding of the outcome if you only see Paper. I’ll say no more!
Obviously, the very nature of this production must call for a certain degree of compromise and technical jiggery-pokery in the writing and construction. Just as the Porter scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth allows for Macbeth and Lady M to wash off Duncan’s blood and change into their nightgowns before returning to the stage to deny all wrongdoing, Chris Bush has had to include tricks and passages to build in time to enable characters to leave one theatre and enter another. This may have some detrimental effect on the artistic integrity of the plays as a whole. I’m also unsure as to the necessity of having each character appear in each play; Mason’s appearance in Paper, for example, is totally irrelevant. I realise I am being super-critical for raising this, especially as it is the very challenge of staging three plays at the same time that is the most fascinating aspect of the entire production – more so than the actual subject matter of the plays. But the performances, the vision and the technical ability to stage this trio trump all criticisms. Really glad I caught this production – they only play until 2nd July and you won’t want to miss them.
Production photos by Johan Persson