Steel-tempered with a real warmth of heart. It is no surprise that Sheffield was the UK’s first City of Sanctuary. In Chris Bush’s The Band Plays On (available online through Sheffield Theatres) the personal and the political and the past and the present lick around each other like flames in a furnace.
It is stoked by a handful of songs performed by the cast and written by artists and bands associated with Sheffield from Jarvis Cocker to the Arctic Monkeys. Jocasta Almgill, Anna-Jane Casey, Sandra Marvin, Maimuna Memon and Jodie Prenger ensure every single one is a diamond.
Bush has such a deceptively easy style of writing, unshowy and conversational. She has an uncanny ability to find the joy lurking in pain and the heartache that walks hand in hand with happiness. It is writing that seems very simple, but which is layered with many complex truths. Full of sentiment but never sentimental.
The Company of The Band Plays On. Photo by Chris Saunders.
Here we meet five women whose own stories are entwined with the stories and histories of Sheffield, from the Dale Dyke Dam disaster of 1864 to the Hillsborough stadium tragedy. We discover how Sheffield was the birthplace of football under Sheffield Rules and how in 1984, Sheffield was the city at the centre of a fictional TV drama about nuclear catastrophe and nuclear winter. But this was a city already affected by the fallout from the ongoing miners’ strike. “They dropped the bomb on us years ago,” says Shelley’s dad, who decides to build a homemade nuclear bunker on his brother’s allotment.
The show is consistently good on the way personal disappointments in love and marriage and political disappointments—from the defeat of Neil Kinnock in 2002 to the Brexit referendum—are connected, but whatever happens there is a sense of optimism, that maybe next time things will work out. Maybe next time responsibility will be taken. Maybe next time we can instigate the change that makes things different. The band always plays on.
It is people who make a city. We don’t know until the end what exactly it is that links these five women. But when in the final monologue Jodie Prenger character discovers the bottom has dropped out of her world, she says of them “They raise me up”. We believe her.
You can stream The Band Plays On online until 28 Mar. Tickets here.