It is hard to believe that next year, the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield’s architectural upstart, will be fifty-years-old. It has been a long journey, with plenty of ups and downs, but survives with its reputation intact.
The Crucible Theatre was built as a replacement for the Sheffield Playhouse on Townhead Street, home to the Sheffield Repertory Company, whose origins went back to 1919.
Colin George was appointed Artistic Director of Sheffield Playhouse in 1965, and did not grasp that its hand-to-mouth existence was going to be turned upside down.
“One sunny spring day in 1966, I was one of a deputation from the Playhouse Theatre who went to the Town Hall to ask the Council for a subsidy to run the theatre. We were ushered into the main Council Chamber, empty but for a formidable northern lady seated at one end, on her Lord Mayor’s throne – Alderman Grace Tebbutt. We sat in front of her, naughty schoolchildren in front of the headmistress. She looked at us for a minute and then dropped her thunderbolt. ‘Nah then. Where do you want your new theatre?’ To those of us working at the Playhouse it was quite unexpected. ‘You probably want an island site,’ she continued forcefully, and with a wave of her hand effortlessly destroyed Norfolk Street.”
A new Sheffield Theatre Trust and Building Committee was created, an architect was appointed, and plans were made to create a new conventional theatre with its proscenium arch and using a large forestage.
Had these plans progressed, the history of Sheffield theatre would have been quite different. The cat-amongst-the-pigeons was Sir William Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971), an English director instrumental in founding the Stratford Festival theatre in Ontario and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In October 1967, Guthrie arrived in Sheffield to talk about theatre. Hearing of plans, he spoke to the Trust and excited them enough to send Colin George and David Brayshaw, a local solicitor appointed as administrative director, to visit America to see and report on thrust or promontory stages.
They spent ten days in Minneapolis, Stratford, Ontario, and New York, and reported back that Sheffield should have a thrust stage. The Trust agreed, and the cries of derision began.
Denounced by theatrical knight Bernard Miles (“The theatre is a freak. It will be blacklisted by all reputable dramatists”), by councillors at public meetings (“I’m not going to pay to see Hamlet’s backside”), and in the media, the modernists won the day.
There was also the problem of giving the new theatre a name. The Star ran a competition and ‘The Adelphi’ won, named after the famous hotel and public house that had stood on the site, but in the end, Hilary Young, who worked at the Playhouse, suggested the Crucible, a nod to Sheffield’s industrial past.
The Crucible was designed by Renton Howard Wood Associates, the project architects being Nicholas Thompson and Robin Beynon.
However, we must not forget the part played by Tanya Moiseiwitsch (1914-2003), regarded as one of the foremost British designers in twentieth century theatre, an innovative designer of costumes, sets and stages, and responsible for the look of over two hundred productions in Britain, Canada and the United States.
Moiseiwitsch had worked closely with Sir Tyrone Guthrie and was the principal designer at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis from 1963–1966, and again designed a thrust stage like that she had designed (and in 1962 modified) in Stratford, Ontario.
Returning to England in the 1970s, she designed plays both for the National Theatre and the West End, but her last legacy was designing the stage for the Crucible Theatre. The whole of the stage (18ft wide-28ft deep) was mounted on steel stanchions and beams provided flexibility to adapt it for different productions.
Construction started in October 1969, the work undertaken by Gleesons, and was completed in November 1971. It cost almost £1 million to build, £650,000 contributed by Sheffield City Council and the Arts Council, and £260,000 raised by the New Sheffield Theatre Trust as the public contribution to the theatre.
In Spring 1971, it was decided that Colin George would direct Peer Gynt to open the Crucible, followed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie’s Aeschylus Trilogy, The House of Atreus. However, in July news came through that Guthrie had died, and the opening schedule was hastily rearranged.
The Crucible Theatre, principally made of reinforced concrete, opened on November 9, 1971, with Fanfare, a production devised in three parts. The first was ‘Children’s Theatre’ in which 34 children were involved. The centre piece was Ian McKellen playing the Old Actor in Chekhov’s Swan Song and the last part was rumbustious Music Hall.
And so, the futuristic theatre with its twinkly ceiling lights, orange auditorium seats (provided by Race Furniture of London), and gaudy foyer carpets, started its journey.
Once deemed a ‘white elephant’ due to low audiences, it steadily gained a reputation, along with the Lyceum Theatre, as the best production theatre outside London. With far more full houses than not, the long list of success is remarkable – The Stirrings in Sheffield on a Saturday Night, Chicago (the European premiere, no less), The Wiz (British premiere), Funny Girl, Brassed Off, Fiddler on the Roof, Hamlet, Othello, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie… the list goes on, and it was once called the ‘National Theatre of the North’. And, of course, there is the snooker.
The Crucible Theatre was Grade II listed in 2007, considered of national importance in the history of theatre design, ahead of a £15 million refurbishment that included a new roof and the Adelphi Room extension to the front. Ironically, during the construction of the extension the cellars to the old Adelphi Hotel were discovered and some of its foundations used to support the new build.
Colin George left the Crucible Theatre in 1974, but returned to appear in a production of Othello with Dominic West and Clarke Peters in 2011. His ambition to write the history of the theatre was never fulfilled, but as one newspaper reported on his death in 2016, his legacy stands in Tudor Square.