Chicken Soup, as explained by Director Bryony Shanahan

Copyright of Crucible Theatre

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

Simon Evans boosts Sheffield’s IQ, at The Leadmill

On Thursday May 3, The Leadmill will play host to Simon Evans and his 2018 UK tour: Genius. Who better to explain the show than the genius himself…

“I’m a bad tempered middle aged man but on this occasion I’m looking at, in particular, the collapse of intelligent conversation, intelligent  discourse, intelligent analysis and visible intelligence in any form in public life. In particular, the failure of public figures to display any kind of intellectual rigour, and my suspicion that we are, evolutionary speaking, gliding back down into the swamp.

I am interested in intelligence and I kind of like it as a style as much as an actual quality, a discernible, statistically measurably quality. I like it as an aspiration, a dress code as much as anything else and I just see infantilisation wherever I go. I just see grown men dressed as children and I see people walking around in outfits that are humiliating to them, I would have thought.

I see the news, and in particular, the way that politicians address the public as being so obviously false and simplified and incoherent and insincere and disingenuous and I furrow my brow and see if anybody else has noticed this and I’m not sure they have.

I can’t be sure whether everybody is comfortable in this, whether British people, in particular, perhaps are ashamed or embarrassed of their sort of colonial past and all of the terrible things we did in order to achieve a sort of power and advantage in the world, and have just decided to scuttle back underneath a rock.

[Reasons as to why this intelligence deficit has occurred could be down to] a collapse in educational standards possibly, use of mass media which leads to dumbing down. I mean dumbing down is in itself a blunt instrument to describe this but there certainly is a race to the bottom because all people are interested in when they produce mass media is numbers. They just want the biggest number of people. And, of course you’re never going to leverage the greatest advertising potential by addressing the elite and letting the others run to keep up. There used to be an expectation that you would pitch your message at a relatively high level and people would aspire to be able to follow it. But now, that feels cruel, it seems quite literally to be quite harsh and hostile and undemocratic and instead everything has to be presented in the medium of dance. It’s hopeless.

I think we’ve all got a shorter attention span which I think social media is responsible for. I mean, I certainly feel that myself. I spend a lot of time on Twitter and it’s much harder to read a book after doing that all day.

I do realise that, as a man in my 50s I’m already losing a lot of it [intelligence]. So, that’s the bittersweet nature of it, that I’ve got a niggling feeling that I’ve peaked myself as well, that my memory is riddled with holes. I am really becoming quite dreadfully forgetful and I have a mounting panic that I already have more books than I’ll ever have time to read. So, it’s a sort of personal fear and terror of the deterioration of the mind. I have a real sense that it is like a muscle, in the sense that if you don’t use it, it just withers. So, I don’t think it’s a generational thing, I just think that modern life is set up to infantilise us.

I think that a lot of people suspect [a societal lack of intelligence] but it’s the kind of thing that people don’t like to talk about much because it’s a bit impolite. But that’s something that I’ve never been too bothered to be perceived to be.”

Whether you’ve noticed a significant drop in the average IQ or not, Simon Evans will make a hilarious argument as to why he thinks so.

Tickets can be bought online at The Leadmill here

Sheffield artist Jo Peel isn’t only interested in cityscapes

Jo Peel is the epitome of the urban artist. Her cityscapes have decorated walls, restaurants and galleries around the world, redefining what has traditionally been known as a beautiful landscape. But it was Sheffield that sparked this fascination with urban environments and in her interview with Sheff Culture, she tells us how this began and where it has led her.

Copyright Jo Peel

One of Sheffield’s most impressive home-grown artists, Jo Peel has worked all over the world, from London to Tokyo, Pittsburgh and Poland but she remains drawn to the steel city. “Sheffield was a great city to grow up in. It’s probably why after being away for so long that I have migrated back. It’s got a real sense of community and is small enough to get around mainly on foot, but it is also big enough to surprise you. And the Peaks of course, I love the openness of the hills so close to the city.”

Peel’s work has been exhibited in galleries across Sheffield and she continues to be inspired by its industrial surroundings: “I think Sheffield was a huge influence on my work and I didn’t really realise until I moved back. The people of Sheffield are deeply connected to their environment and there is a strong sense of identity. When I worked on my solo show at the Millennium Gallery, this was the influence for that work. Comparing Sheffield with Pittsburgh in the USA to see how a connection to the roots of a steel city feed into the current environment and the people.”

Copyright Jo Peel

Although Peel has visited so many other industrial landscapes, it is clear that she has a particular affinity with Sheffield. After spending her youth here, she studied in Cornwall and resided in London for a while until finally resettling in the South Yorkshire city.

“Growing up, the industrial past always seemed so relevant and so close. There was this real sense of community and an understanding of what it meant to be from Sheffield. When I moved away I was surprised that this strength of identity wasn’t shared so strongly by other towns and cities within the UK.”

Capturing the identity of a city seems almost instinctive for Peel, a quality her artwork reflects, “I think that buildings can take on character and a humanity. When I draw and paint I try to understand the small elements that make up the bigger picture and make a place unique.”

Peel’s art is easily identifiable, featuring cityscapes of cranes, factories and building sites- subjects in contrast to more traditional landscape painters, she admits “I’ve never been interested in painting natural landscapes up to this point as I just feel like the beauty is already there. There are artists who are able to evoke this beauty on canvas or in photography, but for me I just don’t feel like there is anything to explore artistically. When I am in the city it’s like my mind becomes alive and I just want to capture moments and tell stories.”

Not only is Peel’s work recognisable for its unique subject matter but also for her individual colour palette. Black and white outlines are often splashed with bright blue and orange to transform a grey industrial backdrop into an urban Eden.

Copyright Jo Peel

“I didn’t deliberately choose the colours, but they sort of found their way in through a process of elimination. I used to use a lot more colours but I realised that when painting buildings onto buildings, a paired back colour scheme works better, as more colour and texture can just get lost amidst the environment. Black and white line work mirrors my pen drawings on paper. Blue seemed like an obvious choice due to the lines of the sky and then orange has slowly crept back in. The luminous orange is so prevalent on building sites and on traffic signals so I think I was always drawn to it for this reason.”

With the end of the year approaching, Peel has been extremely busy but 2018 isn’t looking any calmer. “In January and February I’m off to Cambodia to paint some murals. In March I have a few projects lined up in London and Amsterdam and I’m working towards an Amsterdam based exhibition with Mark McClure as well as a large scale mural in London.”

Copyright Jo Peel

Peel has also “been interested in making a show comparing manufactured cities in different countries around the world (Brasilia in Brazil, Dubai) to see how culture and ideologies affect the place and how humans deconstruct what was meant to be perfect.”

As the influence that humans have on their environment becomes more and more important, it is interesting to hear the perspective of someone who works so closely with the man-made environment. Of the conflict between preserving the world’s natural environment and expanding our cities to accommodate for ever increasing population growth Peel explains, “ultimately if we continue at this rate there won’t be enough resources. I’ve already seen this happening in places like Bali, where there just isn’t enough electricity and water to go around due to the demand and cooler climate in the form of air conditioning as well as an influx of people demanding fresh water and resources.”

“I think we need to maintain and respect our environment, but the system needs to change and so does education. By creating change on a micro level we can influence things but it has to be a group effort and we might just not have enough time.”

From Sheffield to Bali, Peel has clearly been influenced by both land and cityscapes and, even as an urban artist, realises the importance of maintaining natural as well as man-made environments.