There’s a huge piece of scenic art painted on one wall of the partitioned set piece/band set up at the Crucible, rounded and comforting, by street artist Kid Acne. “Come on, let’s get you home”, it spells out. There’s a sense of homecoming and welcome nostalgia which runs through all of Chris Bush’s monologues about Sheffield, a hometown pride which shines through sheepishly. Did you know Sheffield is the birthplace of football as we know it, and of the women’s suffrage movement? And, apparently, of speculative fiction? The Band Plays On is a series of stories that pulls out all of the sentimental stops, resulting in an inconsistent but undeniably fun night of Northern soul.
Oh yes, you can’t ignore the covers of songs by some of Sheffield’s finest. Will Stuart has excellently arranged the pieces for the five performers. The range in picks – from Arctic Monkeys to Moloko – is matched in the performers’ vocals. It’s brilliant to see such a high standard of live singing, that joy and talent oozing into the room around you. This is a cast for whom a triple threat is unnecessary: we’re treated to acting and singing only, but the charisma and charm coming off the ensemble is all-encompassing, settling the audience comfortably into that Northern stereotype of no-nonsense comfort.
If there’s a uniting factor of warmth across the cast, it’s mirrored in Bush’s writing. There are some similarities over the five monologues which linger a little uncomfortably. Filial devotion is directed at the city, rather than biological parents, across the segments ‘Bunker Baby’, ‘We’re Alright’ and ‘Sheffield Rules’. Ordered consecutively, it does result in diminishing returns when the familiar theme of a not-so-squeaky-clean, ultimately-lovable parent sounds. This undermines the engaging heart of the tales themselves, and threatens to make the monologues as a whole feel more homogenous than a diverse representation of the city itself. At the same time, the bitty format of the show, using monologues broken up by musical pieces, feels very “snackable media”, diminishing your attention span. The production, split between two directors and a filming crew, unfortunately feeds into the inconsistency between pieces, rather than uniting them. I know, it’s samey but it’s too different, they can’t win, I’m unreasonable.
There’s an undecided priority across the direction: is it best to stay within the confines of a stage or to take advantage of the full theatre space? The latter proves infinitely fresh as Maimuna Memon tours the backstage area during ‘Sheffield Rules’. Her matter-of-fact delivery and clear enthusiasm for the history of football gives this sneak-peek look behind the curtain a deliberate, easy feel. All the better for that payoff: she ends her piece heading up the stairs, the stage lighting blaring like the lights at a football pitch as the players head on. It’s a brilliant twist of theatre that fully engages all areas of the production and filming advantages, showing that pre-recorded theatre can hold some real gems of invention for an online audience. Compared to the seated monologues, it fizzes and sparkles.
True, Sandra Marvin also completely holds her own in ‘Flood Gates’, delivering a monologue sat in front of empty tiers of seats. This feels like a directorial conversation with the current situation as well, an opportunity to present a more hard-hitting narrative within a more recent context of our diminished human contact and inability to reach out to loved ones. These middle pieces show a depth of creativity which can dwarf the more simply presented monologues.
There’s something incredibly, satisfyingly cheesy about the conclusion of the final monologue, ‘Sanctuary’. Oftentimes the interconnective tissue of a portmanteau piece shows itself too early, making the twist element floppy and ineffective. Here, it’s a little out of the blue but also signposted just early enough that it makes sense. It is really corny, but corny in the same way that at the end of the pilot of Modern Family, my partner and I had been so blindsided by the final scene that we said (in unison, no less), “They’re the Modern Family!” That’s the nearest point of comparison I can find. It separates the sceptics from the saps, and I’m unashamed to say that my sappy self enjoyed the dopamine hit. The Band Plays On isn’t perfect but it is clearly something which comes from the heart and welcomes in its audience with no frills. It’s putting the kettle on, a bit of home comfort.
The Band Plays On is available on demand until 28th March. More info here.