The Crucible Theatre at 50: Peter James

The long-flowing hair might have gone, but at 81, Peter James remains one of the country’s leading theatre directors and teachers.

His early career was shaped in 1964 when he was one of the three founders of Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, and assumed full directorship in 1966.

He went on to the Royal National Theatre in 1971 at the Young Vic, working as Associate Director alongside Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall, and directed for the RSC and the National Theatre’s Mobile Company.

James was strongly associated with the Arts Council Drama Panel, and was chairman of its Young People’s Theatre Committee, as well as president of the International Theatre Institute’s Theatre and Youth Committee, directing in the USA, Australia, and Israel.

During the seventies he directed Twelfth Night at the Sovremennik Theatre, Moscow, becoming the first British person to lead a Russian company since 1905.

He became Artistic Director at the Crucible Theatre in 1974 – “The highlight of my career” – and put it on the map as the place that could do musicals – Chicago, The Wiz, Cabaret – but only after a long fight to get people into the theatre.

This was the happiest time of my life. The trouble was I couldn’t get people through the doors. My answer to that was snooker. I’d tried boxing, but then I was handed a newspaper cutting about an attempt to take the world championships to the Guthrie Theatre in Canada, which was perfect for snooker. I wrote to the organisers and told them, ‘We have a similar theatre here’. The money we made from that first tournament paid for a production.”

He left in 1981 to become Director of Lyric Theatre Hammersmith until 1992, but later admitted that he didn’t enjoy it as much as Sheffield.

He left live theatre and championed young talent, becoming principal of LAMDA between 1994 – 2010, and was awarded a CBE for his contribution to arts in 2011.

James is now Head of Theatre Directing at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London.


Chicago: a British love affair that started in Sheffield

(Image: Sheffield Theatres)

During the 1920s, the bad lads of gangland Sheffield earned it the reputation as ‘Little Chicago’, and so it was appropriate that in November 1978 the Crucible Theatre staged the British premiere of Chicago, the John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse musical.

First staged on Broadway in 1975, Chicago had been optioned by a London producer for a year, but Peter James, the Crucible’s artistic director, learned that it had lapsed and wrote to Kander and Ebb’s agent asking whether Sheffield could produce it.

“It was a hundred per cent diplomacy and a 10 per cent royalty.”

The approach was successful, and it opened with hardware, costumes, and scenery costing £13,000, and with nineteen boys and girls, the total estimated expenditure was £45,000.

Ben Cross was cast as Billy Flynn, the role gaining him recognition, and landing him the role of British athlete Harold Abrahams in 1981’s Chariots of Fire, before going on to be a stalwart of TV and film.

Antonia Ellis, a West End regular, played Roxie Hart, and went on to appear on Broadway. Following an accident, where she was hit by a car, she sustained leg injuries and abandoned her career.

Perhaps the most interesting story is that of Jenny Logan as Velma Kelly. She continued to work on stage and screen but became famous as the star of the Shake n’ Vac advert between 1980 and 1986 – “Do the Shake n’ Vac and put the freshness back.”

By opening night, nine West-End managements were vying for a transfer and it launched at London’s Cambridge Theatre in April 1979.

The Crucible production was billed as the European premiere, overlooking the fact it had already been staged at the Malmo City Theatre in Sweden in 1977.

However, it was the first chance that the British public got to see Chicago, the musical going on to become an unwavering favourite and subject of the Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere movie in 2002.

© 2020 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.