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Rock/Paper/Scissors at Sheffield Theatres – review

In a theatrical first, Chris Bush's new plays are being staged simultaneously at the Crucible, Lyceum and Studio theatres with the same cast

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Alastair Natkiel,Daisy May and Chanel Waddock in Rock
© Johan Persson

It probably was the biggest theatrical event this year as the pre-publicity suggested – certainly in these parts – and, if it wasn't the best play, too, there were plenty of times in the seven and a half hours stage time, notably in the delicately moving and raucously funny Scissors, when you were hard pushed to recall a better one.

The plot is basically simple, the complications many. Spenser and Sons Scissors in Sheffield is barely existing, the work force consisting of the manager and four apprentices, the boss having just died. Only the prospect of a huge order from China keeps the factory open.

Omar, the factory manager, constantly dangles the carrot of a visit from a photographer from The Star and a feature before his workers, then on the same day two family members, each convinced that she is inheriting, decide to take a look at the place before implementing their plans. Ageing rock-chick Susie, sister to Eddie, the late owner, has arranged for a photo session for her latest discoveries, a band wittily named Co-Codamol (Coco and Molly) before converting the place into a rock venue, and Faye, Eddie's adopted daughter, has decided to visit with her partner Mel and a design consultant to examine the possibility of luxury apartments. Little wonder that the opening half hour of Rock is littered with misunderstandings of the nature of "Are you the band?".

From this opening premise, Chris Bush has fashioned three plays, to be performed simultaneously at the three Sheffield theatres with the same cast of 14. Actors exit in one theatre and enter in another and, while Bush takes precautions to ensure safety margins (extended scenes for two people, for instance), the synchronisation remains impressive.

Each of the plays focusses primarily on one of the schemes and, though by the end of the first play the audience is informed of the future life of the Spensers site, the character development in all the plays more than holds the attention – this is not a play where the interest is solving the mystery. Publicity reminds us that each play is free-standing. I think that's probably true, but equally the order of Rock/Paper/Scissors, as enacted on a lengthy, but fascinating, press day, seems to me to be the one that gains most in depth.

Rock is the least strong and the noisiest. In the main Crucible Theatre it has the benefit of a glorious set by Ben Stones, the vast space filled with iron stairways and topped by a roof with uncleaned windows half-filled by bird droppings. To me it's difficult to maintain interest in Susie who has brought along her delightfully civilised old chum Leo (Andrew Macbean) for company. Incidentally, Denise Black (Susie) is great fun in brief appearances in the other two plays.

Anthony Lau as director does everything in his power to make an impression: big song-and-dance sessions (very well staged), notably for three of the apprentices. He also has to work hard to introduce all 14 characters, finishing off with the rather unlikely appearance of Co-Codamol. The problem is that, with plays that merged heart with belly laughs, the temptation for cheap comedy proves a little hard to resist.

Samantha Power and Natalie Casey in Paper
© Joahn Persson

This is not a problem with Paper, staged in the Lyceum Theatre and named for that piece of paper (deeds, will) that Faye and Mel are looking for. Again the set is superb, Janet Bird cramming the factory office with boxes, files, toilet rolls, a Henry cleaner and every other odd bit of detritus you could think of. Robert Hastie directs a much quieter, more intense production, the potential schism between Faye and Mel overcome to provide a sort of happy ending, as indeed Susie also reaches in Rock.

Scissors is somehow different from the other two plays. Done in the round at the Studio, directed by Elin Schofield to designs by Natasha Jenkins (centre space filled with machines and work spaces, characters often sitting in Spenser and Son chairs on the front row), it focusses on the apprentices, singularly foul-mouthed, but also amazingly articulate. Theirs is the future: if the company can stay open, they will have employment. For the first time we are forcibly reminded that they, not the factory manager or his daughter, not the relatives with their grandiose schemes, are the beating heart of the business. For the first time we hear of the underbelly of management's interest in the place: low wages and, in the good old days, half the work force laid off when Eddie's father took over.

And they are formidably likeable, despite their oddities, and form into a powerful team. Joe Usher, making his stage debut as Trent, manages the difficult task of projecting niceness effectively (though he has form). Maia Tamrakar (Liv) and Dumile Sibanda (Ava) are both terrific, Tamrakar fiercely facing down all and sundry, Sibanda set on becoming a supervisor, both very funny. And Jabez Sykes' Mason is one of the great comic creations (though you do well to take on board his more serious offerings): convinced that he is being left out and bullied, equally convinced that a three-minute diatribe about his fellow-workers doesn't stop him being a nice guy, totally illogical and desperately logical simultaneously.

Jabez Sykes in Scissors
© Johan Persson

As for the other actors, none failed to hit the spot. Samantha Power (Faye) and Natalie Casey (Mel) carry Paper with their fragile witticisms, Power bright in the face of her life turning round, Casey more morose and sardonic. Guy Rhys (Omar, the unsmiling manager) and Lucie Shorthouse (Zara, his daughter) occupy a sort of moral middle ground: as keepers of the faith we identify with them, but how can we be sure how much they knew? And the enmity to Zara, seemingly charming, of the apprentices needs explaining.

Leo Wan turns in a delightfully bewildered and naively gauche Xander, the design consultant, and Alastair Natkiel is thoroughly sympathetic as Billy, the photographer. Which leaves Chanel Waddock (Coco) and Daisy May (Molly). The two members of Co-Codamol seem to me heavily over-written, but Waddock and May (it even sounds like a 1930s double act) get all the laughs going.