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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.

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Buildings

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
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People Places

Mel Smith

There was a time during the 1970s when a young man spent a few years at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, developing his talents before moving on to bigger things.

This review appeared in The Stage in October 1975: –

“There is no doubt about the entertainment value of Rex Doyle’s musical documentary The Great Sheffield Flood, given its premiere at the Crucible Studio. The songs by Rodney Natkiel cover a wide range of styles – from a pastiche patter song to romantic ballads to a more contemporary folk sound – and there is a bit of comedy, a bit of drama, and in Mel Smith’s production a great deal of pace to keep the pot boiling throughout.”

The Mel Smith in question was THE comedian Mel Smith (1952-2013), who, is now largely forgotten for his role as an associate director at the Crucible during the seventies.

The son of a Chiswick bookie, Smith was already directing plays at six years old, when he staged Little Plays for Little People with his friends. He read experimental psychology at New College, Oxford, choosing the university because he wanted to be involved with its Dramatic Society.

As a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, Smith honed his theatrical and comedy prowess with a production of The Tempest in Oxford and shows at the Edinburgh fringe. After graduation he worked in 1973 at the Royal Court theatre in London, as assistant director, and at the Bristol Old Vic, before arriving at the Sheffield Crucible in 1975.

And it seems he had some expertise with pantomime, contributing to Cinderella in 1976, and writing and directing Jack and the Beanstalk in 1977.

“This new version is without doubt the most original and witty pantomime I have seen this year,” wrote Paul Allen in The Stage. “This Jack is a would-be pop singer with a group that desperately needs new equipment; the good fairy, a New York Jew who turns herself into an agent to help him get the necessary cash; the villainous demon a punk rocker who was never really understood as a child.”

In 1979, he tackled musical theatre with Salad Days, written in 1954 by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds.

“The audience has a collective sigh of relief they appear to be having at being confronted with a piece of theatre their rose-tinted memories tell them the way it used to be 25 years ago,” wrote The Stage, “Mel Smith’s production doesn’t quite send it up, but I doubt if anyone would have noticed if it did.”

And Salad Days was perhaps a sign of things to come.

“The production has toy props; doll’s house sets and the kind of costumes which look as though someone has stumbled on a fifties theatrical skip. The choreography is all jolly-hockey-sticks prancing, the music is sweet and decorative, and it is stuffed with gags.”

In September 1979, Paul Allen’s review of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus, directed by Smith, was described as funny if not entirely successful.

“There is perhaps more weight and drive to Habeas Corpus than the production is prepared to allow; a readiness to slip into an over-jokey revue style doesn’t help Bennett’s acute verbal dexterity and it often obstructs the play’s speed of thought and action.”

I suspect Mel Smith’s kind of humour was ahead of its time, and he had other projects in mind.

Having performed with the Oxford Footlights at the Edinburgh fringe festival, he met John Lloyd who invited him to join Not the Nine O’Clock News with Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, and Griff Rhys Jones, as well as Chris Langham in the first series. It ran from 1979 to 1982 and was conceived originally as a topical news-based satire, broadcast at 9pm weekly on BBC2 against the actual nine o’clock news over on BBC1.

Smith and Griff Rhys Jones continued from that TV sketch show to create Alas Smith and Jones. The pair later formed Talkback Productions which was responsible for dozens of comedies shows, including Da Ali G Show and I’m Alan Partridge. The company was sold to Pearson for £62million in 2000.

As an actor, Smith was most memorable on screen in The Princess Bride (1987) and Brain Donors (1992), and was ideally cast as Sir Toby Belch in Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film of Twelfth Night. On TV, he starred in Colin’s Sandwich (1988-1990), a sitcom about a British Rail worker with writing aspirations; Hustle (2006); and John Sullivan’s prequel to Only Fools and Horses, Rock and Chips (2010-2011).

Mel Smith died in 2013 of a heart attack, aged 60.