A ghost story

Every Christmas Eve, as the clock strikes midnight, a young boy materialises at the edge of the dark Lyceum Theatre stage. Ben, a lad of teenage years, glances into the auditorium to see if there is anybody he recognises. He runs barefoot into the centre of the stage, faces the audience, and takes a bow, the same as last year, and the year before that, and the same as he has done every year since 1893.

Ben is a good looking lad, with bright blue eyes, a mop of mousey hair, and the clothes of a horseman. He squints into the darkness and sees the shadows.

“Is that you Ben?” a woman’s voice calls from the circle.

He cups his eyes with his grubby right hand and looks upwards. His eyes adjust and he makes out his lady, standing in the same place as she did last Christmas Eve.

As always, the auditorium is soothed by pale light radiating from the old gas lamps.

And now, Ben can see her clearly.

The lady with beautiful hair, dazzling as ever, wearing the same long grey dress, and a single red rose pinned to her breast. She smiles and turns away, climbs a few steps, and then walks along a row of empty seats towards the other side.

“Aye, it’s me Estelle,” he replies. “Same as always.”

The lady stops at the end of the row and smiles.

“Merry Christmas Ben.”

“And to you Estelle, but tell me, what news?”

“Patience, my dear boy. We shall speak, but first I’d like to hear you sing.”

“I’m a horseman my lady, not meant to grace this fine stage.”

Ben looks around the auditorium and sees the others for the first time.

About a dozen people sit scattered across the stalls in various attire from different ages.

He grins and shows them his missing front tooth, lost when his favourite horse kicked him in the face.

“What news, ladies and gentlemen?”

“Sing Ben,” shouts an old lady. She raises her umbrella in greeting. “I like to hear you sing.”

“That’s reyt lad,” cries a flat-capped fellow a few rows behind. “A Christmas treat for us.”

“Who is this boy?” shouts a buxom woman at the back.

Ben stares at her, unaccustomed to her presence.

“I’m Ben Harker missus, a humble horse-boy, but I’ve never seen you here before.”

“I’m Mrs Edith Langford, and it’s been an awful week.”

“What news missus?”

The curvy woman fumbles in a handbag and finds a scrap of yellowing paper. She holds it up for all to see.

“I need to use this before it’s too late.”

There is a gasp from a whiskered fellow nearby.

“What do you have there missus?”

“My ticket. Aladdin. Tonight.”

“And you come alone missus?”

“My Albert is busy. He’s drinking with his pals at Marple’s. Same time every year… same as we both do… but this year…”

“But what, dear lady?” asks Estelle who floats gracefully from one side of the circle to the other.

“There were bombs,” says Edith Langford, “Lots of ‘em. They rained down on us. The cheek of it, just before Christmas as well! We all went down the cellar to drink, and then, as if by magic, it went quiet and the bombs went away… and now I want to see the pantomime”

There is a long silence.

“Would you like to hear me sing, missus?”

“Aye lad.”

And the same as it does every Christmas Eve, a lonesome spotlight picks out Ben on the stage.

“I’m a young boy, and have just come over,
Over from the country where they do things big,
And amongst the girls I’ve got a lover,
And since I’ve got a lover, why I don’t care a fig.

“The girl I love is up in the gallery,
The girl I love is looking now at me,
There she is, can’t you see, waving her handkerchief,
As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.”

Ben gives heart and soul and the small gathering sings along.

“The girl I love is up in the gallery,
The girl I love is looking now at me,
There she is, can’t you see, waving her handkerchief,
As merry as a robin that sings on a tree.”

The song ends to enthusiastic claps and cheers that echo around the theatre.

“Lovely, Ben.”

“A fine voice, Ben.”

“Well done lad.”

The same voices. The same cries of encouragement every year.

Ben closes his eyes, captivated by his audience, and ticks off each customary plaudit.

“I love that song, Ben.”

“Sing it again, Ben.”

“A fine young lad.”

“Bravo, my boy. Bravo.”

Alas, the voices fade until only whispers of the dead can be heard. Quieter and quieter they get, until a stony silence remains.

Ben opens his eyes, and the auditorium is black except for the wonderful glow around Estelle.

She unpins the red rose and throws it to him. He holds out his hands to catch it, but once again the rose that never reaches him drops into the abyss.

And then, Estelle has also gone.

Ben is all alone, and with a teary eye he walks into the shadows from where he came, but not before he turns to the empty balcony and in his soft voice repeats the same words as last Christmas morning.

“Farewell Estelle. Merry Christmas. I’ll see you next year… what news?”

And, once again, he too disappears… until next Christmas Eve.

© 2020 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.


Crucible Theatre

Photograph by Sportsmatik

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.

Photograph of Sheffield Playhouse by Flying Pig

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.

Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis (top) and Stratford Festival, Ontario (below)

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.

Photograph of Colin George by The Guardian

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.

Photograph by Sheffield Theatres
Photograph by Sheffield Star
Photograph by Sheffield Theatres

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.

Photograph by Building Design
Photograph by Picture Sheffield

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.

Photograph by The British Newspaper Archive

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.

Photograph by Hire Space
The Adelphi Hotel. Photograph by Picture Sheffield
Photograph by FDA Design
Photograph by Our Favourite Places