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Review: The Band Plays On (Sheffield Crucible, online)

Chris Bush's new show tells a range of women's stories

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The cast of The Band Plays On
© Chris Saunders

Playwright Chris Bush has had a busy lockdown. Her Nine Lessons and Carols was one of the last plays to perform to socially distanced audiences when it premiered at the Almeida; now The Band Plays On marks the live-streamed and digitally-available return of the Sheffield Crucible to performing life.

In many ways the two pieces have a lot in common. Both are essentially a sequence of monologues, linked by a common theme, with musical interludes binding the parts together. In the case of The Band Plays On, the theme is the resilience and interest of Sheffield itself, Bush's hometown – and the strength and liveliness of five of its women residents, who each have a story to tell, a memory to share.

Their segments are linked by five songs sung by the actors themselves and a live band, each part of Sheffield's music heritage. A rousing version of the Arctic Monkeys' "I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor" kicks off the action, and "Beginners" (by Slow Club) closes it. The women, in dungarees which they peel down to reveal different tops beneath, take it in turn to lead the singing – Jodie Prenger's breathy version of "The Crying Game" is notably lovely. They are all terrific singers.

Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau direct the whole affair with admirable simplicity; there's a real sense of letting the words animate the space and the words themselves are strong. Bush, who scored a huge hit with the Sheffield-based musical Standing at the Sky's Edge, which was due to transfer to the National Theatre before the pandemic spoiled all theatrical plans, is never less than an interesting writer. She weaves fascinating links between things, turning her attention to small details in life that other writers might overlook.

One of the monologues ties the bursting of Dale Dyke in 1864 to the terrible events at Hillsborough football stadium which left 96 Liverpool fans dead. As she narrates both stories, Sandra Marvin, whose character lives in the area, movingly makes the point that "it's not our tragedy" which is both an obvious and an insightful observation: people living in a place where something terrible has happened are marked by what it leaves behind, just as walls are etched with the height of the flood.

Jodie Prenger in The Band Plays On
© Chris Saunders

Another story, told as she walks round the backstage of the theatre by Bush's regular collaborator Maimuna Memon, links the 2012 Olympic heptathlon success of local hero Jessica Ennis-Hill with the fact that the Sheffield Rules are the oldest football rules in existence, predating the FA by five years. This brief history of the growth of the beautiful game – and a young woman's joy in it – contains the immortal line: "There's only so much cricket a man can take before he has to invent a real sport instead."

The earthy tang of that line shows Bush writing at her best; she has a great gift for the incisive summary of feelings as well as the ability to trace a line from the past to the present. She does this beautifully in Jocasta Almgill's section We're All Right, which draws the trajectory of political idealism from Neil Kinnock's misplaced triumphalism at the disastrous Sheffield rally, thought to have cost him the 1992 election, to the bitter scars of Brexit and latter-day xenophobia. Almgill makes the political personal with great grace.

The weakest segment is the first, about a girl and her father linked by his decision to build a bunker to protect them from the forthcoming Armageddon, which stubbornly resists Anna-Jane Casey's best efforts to animate it; the simplest is the concluding Sanctuary, in which Jodie Prenger's heartfelt storytelling packs a huge emotional punch. At the close, she tells us what unites these women: it suddenly makes you feel the limitations of the monologue form. I long to see a play about the interactions between these contrasting characters, just as I long to sit in the Crucible's intimate arena once more.