New play Chicken Soup takes on the Miners’ Strike from a different angle. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.
I forgot to ask Kieran Knowles if he is a fan of the movie Titanic when we talked about his new play.
Had I remembered to ask, I am convinced that he would have said yes and told me that his favourite moment is when the Billy Zane villain of the piece, Cal, tells Leonardo DiCaprio’s hero that: “A real man makes his own luck.”
I can’t fathom anyone who is having more luck, or more deserving of that own-made luck, than Knowles.
The last time I spoke to the actor and writer was September 2016 about his then new play Operation Crucible. The play was a piece of work he had generated himself and got onto stage through force of sheer will, he appears to have done it again (and again).
“I’m just back from Virginia where there was a reading of my new play. It’s about Pocahontas, who died in Gravesend. There is a society called the Pocahontas Project in Virginia and they really wanted me to take the play over there, so that’s where I’ve been for the past week,” says Knowles.
So things have been going well since we last spoke.
“Yeah, things aren’t going so badly I guess,” says Knowles, laughing at the good fortune of which he is entirely aware.
“It’s been a bit ridiculous really. The playwriting thing has just really taken off. It’s not something I love in quite the same way as the acting, but it’s much harder to get jobs as an actor.”
That’s the thing that is most remarkable about Knowles, whose work as a playwright is really starting to cause a stir – he’s an entirely accidental playwright.
Operation Crucible was based on the true story of a group of men who found themselves buried alive in the Marples Hotel in Sheffield on December 14, 1940, when German bombers laid waste to the city in an operation called Schmelztiegel, which roughly translates as Crucible.
The men emerged from the wreckage after two days. Knowles, along with three fellow actors, decided to turn the story into a play, realising that the best way to gain work as an actor is to create it yourself.
The play was staged as a reading in London before finding a home, appropriately, at the Sheffield Crucible.
When the play was staged in September 2016, another moment of serendipity arrived for Knowles.
He got chatting, following a performance, with a man who had plenty to say.
“I thought he was this crazy old guy. He was a 69-year-old resident of Sheffield who quit his job as a carpet fitter when he was 60, gone to drama school and now worked at the mining museum,” says Kieran.
“He told me about when he worked in a soup kitchen during the Miners’ Strike in 1984. I told Robert (Hastie, Sheffield Theatres artistic director) and he said ‘if you write it, I’ll commission it’.”
A great offer, but Knowles had a problem; all he knew about the man with the story was that he was called Ray and he lived in Sheffield.
“I had no idea where he lived, what his last name was, anything. I put something on Twitter, tried to find him via the internet.”
Eventually, Knowles tracked the missing Ray down. He turned out to be Ray Castleton and he and Knowles share the writing credit on a new play called Chicken Soup, which opens at Sheffield Studio on February 9.
The play is based on several memories that Castleton and Knowles have shared.
“There are a lot of plays about the Miners’ Strike told from the miners’ point of view, but not many about the women who supported the men through the strikes.
“We spent a lot of time sharing stories and memories of my grandparents and Ray’s parents and realised that the story of these strong women was something that we wanted to tell.”
The story also draws a line through to today. The play begins five days after the Battle of Orgreave and tells the story of three women who are working in a soup kitchen near the pit heads in Rotherham.
As most know, these soup kitchens were vital to keep the communities who were striking, standing. “The second act tells the story of the same women in 2016, the day of the Brexit vote,” says Knowles. “Only now they are running a food bank.”
“It was fascinating hearing stories of these women who ran the soup kitchens and who now help to run food banks. Although we have moved so far technologically in the past 30 years, you see that with issues like zero hours contracts, we appear to have also not progressed.
“In fact, we might have even lost something – a lot of the women said that working in the soup kitchens during the strike was the best time of their lives, there was a real sense of community and of working together to get through something.”
Starring Jo Hartley, who audiences know from This is England, Samantha Power from Shameless, Judy Flynn from The Brittas Empire, Remmie Milner from Trollied and Simone Saunders from The Royals, the cast is a demonstration of the continued upwards trajectory of Knowles’s remarkable accidental second career as a playwright.
Speaking of which, Operation Crucible is going to be travelling to New York later this year, where it will make up a part of a season called Brits on Broadway, another play he wrote, 31 Hours, was a five-star hit in London last year.
For a man making his own luck, Knowles is doing pretty well.
The most bitter industrial dispute in British history, at its height, the Miners’ Strike involved 142,000 mineworkers.
The main strike began on March 6, 1984, and was ruled illegal in September of that year, ending on March 3, 1985.
Stricken communities built around the pits became the poorest in the country, with hundreds of families relying on soup kitchens to keep their families fed.
Chicken Soup, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, from February 9 to March 3. Tickets from the box office on 0114 2496000 or online via www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk