“Bang.” “Bang.” “Turn.” “Brush.” Apparently that’s how steel gets made, or got made in World War II, with two men pounding it, one positioning it, and one more readying it for the next step. And a lot of steel gets made in Operation Crucible, Kieran Knowles’s vigorous retelling of the Sheffield Blitz, a 1940 calamity in the South Yorkshire town. Part documentary, part character study, and all teamwork, this four-man entry into 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway series is energetic and affecting, and a little disorganized.
It’s also intensely physical; has a nonmusical ever been so choreographed? As Bob (Salvatore D’Aquila), Phil (Christopher McCurry), Andrew (James Wallwork), and Tommy (Knowles) work on the production line, turning out steel for bombers and other things, they mime the exhausting work, fall to their knees at the same time, and execute worked-out movement to a near-Fosse degree. They’re a unit, and director Bryony Shanahan has done a tremendous job of emphasizing that.
Knowles, who has shown generosity in casting himself as the least interesting of the four, employs manifold theatrical devices to tell the story of the bombing of the one tony hotel in town, and how these four men ducked into it in the middle of an air raid, rushed to the basement, and survived in spite of a direct hit on the building. The actors face front a lot of time, narrating individually and collectively, then retreating to a scene, then narrating some more, then assuming other minor roles to keep the action moving, then another scene, then more narration. There’s flashback and flash-forward and evocative lighting (Seth Rook Williams) and chilling sound design (Daniel Foxsmith). And sometimes it’s all hard to keep up with.
For Operation Crucible—the title is the German code name for the attack—caroms around like a pinball, never spending more than a few minutes in one location and transitioning schizophrenically from narration to dramatization and back again. Shanahan paces it furiously, so that a 76-page script plays in a little under 80 minutes. When the bomb hits, and the four are trapped beneath the hotel and mostly silent and terrified, it’s actually a bit of a dramatic relief. That’s when we get to know them better.
Bob is the youngster, starting on the ingot line at 15, hazed by his older workmates and not the brightest among them. Andrew, who does the most narrating, is an Everyman. So is Tommy, though he’s less front-and-center, and Knowles also plays Andrew’s father during a flashback to Andrew’s first boyhood visit to the steel mill, where the boy instantly makes up his mind to work there. Why not? It’s pretty much the only work in Sheffield. And Phil, as heartbreakingly interpreted by McCurry, is a special case. A young dad, he exudes fatherly love and well-meaning familial responsibility, and when he recounts his fate, you may weep.
It’s quite British, with regional accents and slang, and it’s class-conscious: As these working-class blokes venture into the Marples Hotel, the well-dressed ladies and well-appointed piano lounge constitute a world they’ve never dreamed of. There’s also a flashback to a soccer game, with cheering and cursing and sentiments that won’t translate so effectively to American audiences. And, amid the terror and cacophony, there are sweet detours: Bob’s monologue about a mutt he and his mother adopted is a deeply humanizing interlude. So is Tommy’s, about his dim memories of his dad, a World War I hero he can never hope to equal.
They’re such regular guys, talking sports and women and booze, and we grow to care about them a great deal. And when they’re stuck beneath that mountain of brick and dust and rubble, the suspense is palpable, even if we know they’ll get out. Williams’s lighting varies from pitch black to very dark, punctuated by an occasional match or a slight glow for effect. The sense of time here is hazy. But given how bam-bam-bam everything else has been played, it feels endless, even telescoped into a few minutes.
D’Aquila, Knowles, McCurry, and Wallwork are all splendid, and so cohesive a quartet that it’s hard to single any of them out. And Operation Crucible is a fine little play, a more than worthy addition to the impressive roster being built at Brits Off Broadway. It might be even better if Knowles worked a little more logical cause-and-effect into it, and if he didn't seem to have a case of theatrical ADD.
Operation Crucible plays through June 3 as part of Brits Off Broadway 2018 at Theater B at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59thSt. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:15 p.m., Saturdays at 2:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., and Sundays at 2:15 p.m. Tickets are available through Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at 59E59.org.