It’s a sad state of affairs when a soup kitchen, voluntarily run in 1984 to support the mining community of Orgreave, has to reopen as a food bank over 30 years later, in 2016, as a necessary means of survival for that same community. Chicken Soup is a play which shows the life of the 30 year old kitchen through five women who have been working there the whole time. Rather than dwelling on injustices, these five women 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.” The director, Bryony Shanahan, explains.
The stories of the five women narrate particular points in history- the miners’ strike in 1984 under the Tories and the Queen’s Jubilee under the New Labour government in 2002- and reflects the sad fact that 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 (I guess not a choice but they were fighting for something) whereas now it’s not part of a strike, it’s not part of a fight, it’s just a situation where we’re not looking after the most vulnerable members of our society.” She continues.
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 foodbank 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 and it’s very much our responsibility to, not in a noble way but just in an authentic way, represent a little bit of what is happening.”
At the end of each performance volunteers from Fir Vale stand with buckets to try and raise some funding for the foodbank and Chicken Soup also raises awareness of the deprivation which an increasing number of the UK’s population have to face by giving every audience member a food bank token. “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 and we could instantly see that she was very moved by, things for us, could very much go over the top of our heads- 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 foodbank have also been inspired to take a trip to the theatre to see the play, which is surely an important feat for any director.
“In a city like Sheffield, which has such a strong identity, it’s really important that the audience own the show”, which is exactly what they seem to be doing.
Chicken Soup is showing at the Crucible Theatre until 3 March, tickets can be bought through the theatre’s website.