JThink of the forces that have shaped modern Britain and what comes to mind is heavy industry: mining, chemicals, oil… We tend not to think of scissors. Why would we? In our age of mass production, scissors are too common to notice; less noble than comic.
Yet here in Sheffield, the city of steel, the production of scissors was once the domain of no less than 60 companies. And in his daring trilogy of plays performed simultaneously in three adjacent theaters, Chris Bush uses these everyday objects as a symbol. They represent permanence in a changing world.
Its setting is the fictional Spencer and Son, one of the last scissor factories, where the value of a quality product, built to last, remains stubbornly ingrained. Even the machines on which the scissors are shaped are decades old. From the chemical composition to the curvature of the sleeves, everything is finely judged, the domain of experts who have perfected their craft for many years.
This contrasts with the ephemeral of today. The struggling factory is almost entirely made up of apprentices who, for reasons of economy, will be made redundant after a year. A pop duo, by the name of Co-codamol, have come in for a photo shoot, who have just enough self-awareness to know that their best-before date is almost up. The recently deceased factory owner’s sister and daughter-in-law have opposing plans to redevelop the site, but whether it’s a nightclub or a trendy residential area, their plans have the appear to be impermanent.
Not that Bush’s three plays are a reactionary hymn to the good old days. Instead, repeatedly referencing Einstein’s assertion that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, a thought reinforced by the line from Ecclesiastes that there is a season for everything , they accept the inevitability of change and transformation. Instead, Bush steps back to ask what kind of change is desirable — a question she extends particularly to the role of women in an industry, and indeed a world, that has historically privileged men.
These ideas swirl through Rock in the Crucible, Paper in the Lyceum and Scissors in the Studio, each running on the same length, down to the beat of the intervals, and each involving the same excellent 14-piece ensemble.
In outline, they tell the same story of struggling for ownership of a dead-end business, one’s drama becoming the other’s chatter, but in detail they reveal hidden edges. A romance that seems superficial in Rock becomes touching in Paper. A peripheral figure in Paper is the center of attention in Scissors. Where middle-aged punk Susie (Denise Black) dominates Rock, directed by Anthony Lau, it’s the edgy relationship between Faye (Samantha Power) and Mel (Natalie Casey) that drives Paper, directed by Robert Hastie. For the voice of an exploited young generation, it takes Scissors, directed by Elin Schofield.
The logistics of it all are mind-boggling. Alan Ayckbourn’s simultaneous double bill, House and Garden, is modest in comparison. In its ambition, a one-day marathon is exhilarating – and not a bit exhausting – for cast and audience alike.
The downside is that of the three, only Paper justifies its execution time; Rock and Scissors both tend to tread water as they repeat ideas or settle into pointless discussions. This, however, sits between passages that dazzle and delight, whether it’s Rock’s muddled comedy, Paper’s romantic exposition, or Scissors’ sizzling political rage.