It begins, as a show about Sheffield only could, with I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. Less frenetic than the Arctic Monkeys original, it nonetheless has its own soulful swagger and, complete with swinging Top of the Pops camera angles and rock’n’roll lighting, kicks off Chris Bush’s play with a rush of celebratory energy.
Sheffield-forged songs by Def Leppard, Moloko and Slow Club follow. Under the music supervision of Will Stuart, they borrow American styles from funk to country and are given forceful renditions by Anna-Jane Casey, Maimuna Memon, Sandra Marvin, Jocasta Almgill and Jodie Prenger. After hearing them soar their way through Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time, you could believe Jarvis Cocker was a master of the sultry soul ballad.
As every reader of John McGrath’s A Good Night Out knows, you can’t beat a rousing song to sweeten a bitter political pill. Here, the music serves to raise the temperature in between a series of monologues that sink deep into Sheffield’s industrial past.
Through the imagined voices of modern-day residents, Bush references everything from the nuclear nightmare of Barry Hines’s Threads to the election of David Blunkett. We get the Hillsborough disaster and the people’s republic of South Yorkshire. She recalls pioneers such as the Sheffield Female Political Association, the UK’s first women’s suffrage body, and Sheffield FC, the world’s first football club.
Directed by Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau, the stories become testaments to resilience, survival and change. In her family histories, Bush shows each generation being shaped by its environment, be that the paranoia of the cold war, the liberalism of Nick Clegg or the divisions of Brexit. However contradictory, these are the strands that make up a community.
What a shame then that the one thing absent is the audience. In a necessarily empty Crucible theatre, The Band Plays On is a community play in search of a community. There’s nobody there to square the circle between stage and auditorium, to acknowledge the joy of being together, of sharing a common space. It’s not just the lack of laughter for Bush’s jokes and the eerie silence at the curtain call, it’s that a play about civic identity needs people to make it complete.