It’s a sad state of affairs when a soup kitchen, originally run voluntarily in 1984 to support the mining community of Orgreave, has to reopen as a food bank over 30 years later. Chicken Soup is a play which shows the life of the kitchen through four women who work there. Rather than dwelling on injustices, they are determined to continue to serve the community with their strong spirits and friendship.
“When we think of the strike we think of the men, which is obviously really important because they were on the front line, but the women’s movement within the strike was extraordinary and I think everyone agrees that it enabled the strike to continue for as long as it did,” director Bryony Shanahan explains.
The stories of the women encompass the miners’ strike in 1984 under the Tories and the Queen’s Jubilee under the New Labour government in 2002, reflecting the sad fact that for many, not much has changed in 2016. “Once they were feeding the miners and now they’re feeding the miners’ children,” Shanahan acknowledges.
“I suppose the difference in ’84 is that they were choosing that action. Well, I guess it wasn’t really a choice but they were fighting for something, whereas now it’s not part of a strike or a fight, it’s just a situation where we’re not looking after the most vulnerable members of our society.”
Realising that the fictional depiction of a soup kitchen in the play could resemble a real food bank, Shanahan, along with the cast, visited the Fir Vale food bank in Sheffield. “It was simultaneously really inspiring and really grim. It was really horrible. It made us remember that these characters are real and the situation that they’re in is real. It’s very much our responsibility to represent a little bit of what is happening not in a noble way but just in an authentic way .”
At the end of each performance, volunteers from Fir Vale stand with buckets to try and raise some funding for the food bank. Chicken Soup also raises awareness of deprivation by giving every audience member a food bank token which allows them to receive a portion of real Chicken Soup. “The experience of queuing up and understanding a little bit of what that’s like will make people slightly more empathetic,” hopes Shanahan.
Already members of the audience have been visibly moved by the story that Chicken Soup depicts, as Shanahan explains: “In the public dress rehearsal there was a woman we could instantly see was very moved by things that could very much go over the top of our heads, like the fact that they were living off beans. One of the writers spoke to her in the interval and she said that her dad was at Orgreave and her parents were on the picket lines.”
Chicken Soup was the first theatre performance that this woman and her husband had ever attended and, since the show, have got back in contact with Shanahan to let her know that they now hope to watch many more plays. Members of the Fir Vale food bank have also been inspired to take a trip to the theatre to see the play, which is surely an important endorsement for any director.
“In a city like Sheffield, which has such a strong identity, it’s really important that the audience own the show”, she says, which is exactly what they are doing.
Photos by Mark Douet