Theatre may have been forced into an identity crisis with the core of its function being ripped away, but Chris Bush’s gig theatre homage to the city she heralds from is extraordinarily certain of itself in a way that’s neither brash nor obtuse, but fiercely considered in the best way – a way that makes its self-awareness invisible.
Yes, the pandemic is touched upon, but it’s just that – a faint brush across a canvas we are all painstakingly navigating to this day, a reality we are so keen to escape. There are no broad strokes incessantly reminding here, and it allows for a sensitive, intuitive, ferocious piece of theatre that is both pertinent and liberating.
The format, whilst perhaps drawn out in its committed structure, is solid. Often the simplest ideas prove the best and most effectual, and the balance of monologues and renditions from the Steel City’s strong song catalogue creates a gap for us to reside in between stories. Not only does it work on a practical basis for home viewing (a refreshing breather from the taxing practice of engaging with screen performance without all the bells and whistles TV and film provide), but crucially it provides a texture to the piece; bringing in the broad palette of lives lived and unlived in the city, with the vibrance of the live music scene serving almost as a metanarrative for performance whilst also a function of fantasy within the narrative; the fever dream of better times as a recurring motif. Robert Hastie and Anthony Hastie’s direction is both nuanced and confident.
The ensemble cast play their parts to great effect, offering up a result in which the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Bush’s writing crystallises the yearning of nostalgia and present trauma in a way that dilutes the weaker, thinner streaks of connotation and reference so often embedded in works with similar formats and subject matter. This act of purification produces a lyrical text that is both bursting with an almost archetypal working-class bombast (so often caricatured, but never here) and affection whilst remaining understated, measured and true – navigated with a joyful precision by the all-female cast.
This is a great example of theatre that both understands itself, its audience and its place in this temporary climate. Apt for home viewing whilst possessing all the enchanting sensibilities of the stage, this show adopts a form, style and theatrical intelligence that all digital theatre should aspire to attain.
The Band Plays On is available online at https://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/the-band-plays-on until the 28th March 2021.
Reviewer: Louis Thompson
Reviewed: 15th March 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★