After 16 long months, The Crucible comes out of hibernation

'Being in this production is the light at the end of a very up and down, dark and mad tunnel'

Good morning readers. Our weekend story is about the return of live theatre to Sheffield. Last night, we were in one of the first audiences to watch a show at the Crucible in eight months — a production of the Victoria Wood play Talent.

The Tribune recently spoke to the director Paul Foster and cast member Jonathon Ojinnaka about how they had got through lockdown, what it was like to get back to work and the importance of theatre to cultural life in Sheffield.

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By Dan Hayes

During the long weeks of the first coronavirus lockdown, a popular meme proliferated on the internet. The ‘my plans/2020’ meme showed two images. The first, a hopeful, aspirational photo represented what we wanted the year to be. This was contrasted ruefully with the second, a portrait of the broken-hearted despair of what it had turned out like. The meme was typical Twitter. Funny, over the top, endlessly repeatable. But it worked because it was true.

Many jobs — including those performed by ‘essential workers’ — mostly carried on as normal. Others were continued remotely. But for some sectors the lockdown has been longer and deeper than anyone involved in them could ever have imagined. For British theatre, an entire art form has remained largely shuttered for the last 16 months.

At Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, the my plans/2020 meme must have been particularly painful. A long awaited production of Talent, Victoria Wood’s 1970s play about a woman who enters a talent contest in a grotty nightclub, had been due to start in June. Later in the year they had been hoping to welcome back the hugely successful Park Hill musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge for a second run. Both plays were important parts of the theatre’s preparations for its 50th anniversary celebrations in 2021.

When the coronavirus crisis began in March, Talent director Paul Foster says the initial plan was for a 12-week delay. While ‘disappointing’, most in the sector saw this as an understandable reaction to a still largely unknown threat. “There was a feeling that well, we’ll see you in June or July,” he says. “But we never felt that there would be a 15 or 16 month delay. That we’d have to deal with everything that has happened in the meantime.”

Television productions were allowed to continue throughout lockdown. But theatres remained closed even when restrictions were eased last summer. Along with nightclubs, they were one of the first things to close and will be one of the last to reopen. For some of the actors in Talent like Jonathon Ojinnaka — who has most recently appeared in Coronation Street — this meant some work could continue. But for many of the cast and crew, work dried up completely.

As well as his television work, during the lockdown Jonathon had his hands full at home. His wife was pregnant with their second child, while their first was still less than 18 months old. He remembers that first lockdown as being worrying, of course. But he says the anxiety was eased by his more pressing family responsibilities and the wonderful weather of last spring.

Jonathon comes across as someone who has a naturally positive mindset. He even admits to trying his hand at baking banana bread during the first lockdown. But eventually the Zoom parties lost their novelty and the long hot summer turned into a grim, grinding winter. By then, even people with normally sunny dispositions were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain them.

Paul’s lockdown on the other hand was about homeschooling his two children. His eldest is aged 13 and his youngest aged eight, meaning they were studying a completely different curriculum. His wife is also a headteacher of a large secondary school and had to spend most of her time trying to keep it open for the children of essential workers. At the last count, Paul reckons he did about 27 weeks of homeschooling.

“Especially during that first lockdown it was just about trying to keep all the balls in the air,” he says, echoing many people’s experiences of the strange feelings of last spring. “You hear people say the crisis has given us a real opportunity to take stock,” he adds. “But I didn't really need 10 months of lockdown to do that!”

Slowly, as a third Covid lockdown began to ease earlier this year, and Sheffield Theatres backed Talent to come back this summer, hope began to return. Rehearsals for the play started three weeks’ ago with cast and crew all itching to get back to work. “For me personally, being in this production is the light at the end of a very up and down, dark and mad tunnel,” says Jonathon. “It felt so far away but when we all got here it just clicked, it has been amazing.”

Many theatres around the UK have decided to reopen with monologues or ‘two handers’, worried that multi-actor productions might be too difficult with the added protocols of Covid bubbles and constant testing. The Crucible’s revenue from Talent will also be strictly limited due to social distancing requirements, making its commitment to the larger production all the more impressive. “I'm really thrilled that the theatre has kept faith with us,” says Paul. “Audiences really need this kind of entertainment and uplift at the moment.”

Talent was written by Victoria Wood when she was just 25-years-old and got its first performance at the Crucible in 1978. It was later turned into an ITV production starring herself and long-time collaborator Julie Walters. The play is about both the hopes and disappointments of the lower end of the show business pyramid. Told with Wood’s trademark humour and empathy, it focuses on two friends, one of whom is about to enter the talent contest and the other who is there for ‘moral support’.

“The play has some tough points,” admits Paul. “But it’s also full of richly observed, very different types of humour. There are belly laughs, word play, comedy songs. You really get your bang for your buck when you see Victoria Wood.” Jonathon says the play is funny even on the page, but when performed takes on a “whole different dimension”. “It will 100% make people belly laugh,” he says. “Some of the moments the cast create in collaboration with Victoria Wood’s material are amazing. It’s a very, very funny play.” 

The play’s starring role of wannabe singer Julie — portrayed by Julie Walters in the television version — is taken by Lucie Shorthouse. Julie hopes to leave her dead-end job behind by appearing on Opportunity Knocks or New Faces, but first must win Friday Talent Night at Bunters nightclub. She stars opposite the less worldly-wise Maureen, played by Jamie-Rose Monk, the role taken in the original by Victoria Wood herself. Jonathon plays organist Mel, Julie’s old flame who she may still have feelings for.

While Talent isn’t strictly a musical, six songs written by Victoria Wood punctuate the production. The lyrics of perhaps the most famous — Fourteen Again — were later adapted by Morrissey for a Smiths song. And the bawdy humour of many of her songs is still inspiring musicians today. Some of Arctic Monkeys songwriter Alex Turner’s lyrics owe a very obvious debt to her blend of music hall comedy and sexual innuendo.

The fact a Victoria Wood play will be the production to reopen the Crucible after such a traumatic year also feels appropriate. The Lancastrian actor, comedian, writer, musician and director always felt that the North missed out compared to London. Even during the last year, northern England has suffered from coronavirus disproportionately, with deeper and longer lockdowns than almost anywhere else in the country.

Theatre’s long awaited return is of course important for restarting the city’s economy and cultural life. But it also marks a point where Sheffielders can come together to enjoy performance once again. “Not having it for a while has hopefully taught us how much we have lost,” says Paul. “We can’t take it for granted now it can so easily be taken away from us.”

On opening night on Friday, continuing social distancing regulations left the whole experience feeling a bit understated. While the audience laughed and cried in all the right places, the ‘buzz’ of a packed auditorium just wasn’t there. But after so many months away, the simple pleasure of watching a talented group of performers bring us into their world reminded me of what live theatre can do — and how much we have missed it.

Talent by Victoria Wood runs at the Crucible until Saturday, July 24. It will also be live streamed online on Wednesday, July 7. For tickets click here.

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