Fundamentally, democracy is an attempt to represent the will and voice of an entire community. Nowhere is this struggle most relevant today than within the Labour Party, fraught with complex divisions between different generations and backgrounds. This clash of evolving principles forms the focal point of Chris Bush’s newest play Steel.
The action alternates between two political campaigns running 30 years apart from one another: in 1988, Josie Kirkwood is encouraged by veteran Labour councillor Dai Griffiths to run for a seat in the local council; meanwhile back in 2018, the driven former MP Vanessa Gallacher endeavours to win the Mayoral seat of a northern city for Labour, advised by Deputy Council Leader Ian Darwent.
What makes Bush’s play so fascinating is how both narratives are weaved together to highlight the similarities and contrasts, the most apparent of these being the treatment of women (more specifically women of colour) and their ambitions over time. For awkward and insecure Josie, she simply wants to gain a seat on the council. Vanessa on the other hand has bigger ambitions and much more outspoken confidence. Yet both candidates have the same anxieties: that this is their one chance to actually be taken seriously in politics.
Rebecca Scroggs conveys these frustrations with equal parts subtly and sharpness in her portrayal of both women. Opposite her, the mentors depicted by Nigel Betts provide the counterpoint of the male reaction to the changing attitudes in society, whilst also distinctly highlighting those that have yet to change – we watch as the bumbling older men awkwardly attempt to negotiate their way through the new moral codes regarding race and gender.
Yet the play also extends beyond these issues to pose challenging questions about representation in general. Under Rebecca Frecknall’s direction, the regional backgrounds of the characters are highlighted as clearly as their sex or ethnicities – the constant reminders of the industrial background of the local community reaffirms the importance of relatability and belonging in local politics. It is within this context that Bush and Frecknall stage poignant debates about generational divides, political elitism and the conflict between empathy and rationality.
Bush’s dialogue bristles with sharp wit which helps keep the play enthralling. The ending may be a little overlong, but the skilful interaction between the two actors keeps the audience deeply engaged regardless. It is ultimately the diverse ideas and themes which make the play resonate on both a local and national level.
Image Credit: Sheffield Theatres.