From parlous times to a golden era

Crucible Theatre - Colin George pictured with Clare Venables and Peter James - Crucible 10 year anniversary
Crucible Theatre - Colin George pictured with Clare Venables and Peter James - Crucible 10 year anniversary
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THE EIGHTIES

AFTER seven years Peter James got the itch and set off for a new challenge at the Lyric Hammersmith. Perhaps his greatest achievement was that after diverse seasons that included serious drama, comedy and spectacular musicals that included Chicago and a West End transfer, audiences finally accepted that having no curtains was not necessarily a bad thing.

Enter, stage left, a woman who was to have a ten-year love affair with the Crucible – Clare Venables. And, like the best love affairs it had its ups and downs. It was only after she arrived that Venables found the skeletons in the financial cupboards.

A new finance director was brought in and the problems were unravelled. And it was a hugely successful show which pulled the theatre round both artistically and financially. The pivotal show was Lennon, the story of the most complicated and complex Beatle that was a triumph and eventually moved to the West End.

“Lennon taught me two things,” she said later. “The power of music and the value of really good actors.

That tenet has been true throughout the Crucible’s history. Good actors have always been attracted to the theatre and over the years the roll call of the famous and the celebrated has been lengthy and comprehensive. Look at the CVs of most good British actors and the likelihood is that have appeared on the Crucible stage.

Some have caused controversy too. And most of them thrive on it. That also includes directors, and Clare Venables relished a good spat. She got it in bucket loads with shows like The Park and Passion in Six Days When told about one particular controversy she said simply; “Was it on the front page?”

The Tory onslaught continued when a councillor demanded the theatre should bring down the curtain on Theatre Vanguard, the Crucible’s acclaimed young people project.

“Children go to school to learn. If they wanted to play at actors they have plenty of time at break and lunchtimes,” she ranted. Another suggested the theatre should be turned into a skating rink.

By 1982, what was headlined The Great Crucible Scandal broke and the theatre’s assets were mortgaged to the then Midland Bank. And MP Joe Ashton claimed the theatre had been “ripping off” people for years. Then Lennon changed all that.

By 1984 Clare Venables was acting out her own mantra: “Give the people what they never knew they wanted.”

But still the Tories were dissatisfied. This time they didn’t like the new foyer carpet. “It’s abysmal,” barked one of their councillors. But generally the Crucible was on the right lines, not least with The Railway Children, and succession of epic plays which put drama on the stage rather than on the balance sheets and the letters pages.

A year later The Arts Council woke up to the fact that funding for regional theatre was inadequate, and produced what they called a Glory in the Garden policy which was to shape the future for the Crucible in the short term. Highlights that year were Carmen Jones and Cider with Rosie, directed by a theatre trainee called Stephen Daldrey. His Billy Elliot musical and film were much later.

That year was also marked by a remarkable silence from meddling politicians. But they were at it again in 1988 when Botho Strauss’ play The Park took to the stage. It had been hailed as a great example of classic European drama but some customers walked out and Tory councillor Danny George called for ratepayers’ money to be withdrawn. He hadn’t actually seen it.

A year later, with Arts Council money diminishing the theatre lurched into yet another crisis and Clare Venables brought the curtain down on her regime..

By now The Lyceum was about to re-open, and the focus shifted across Tudor Square.

THE NINETIES

THE 1990s began with the arrival of young artistic director, Mark Brickman, who had the ambitious idea of signing up a repertory of actors who would appear in all the plays in his season. Among them was a young Rufus Sewell, But the choice of plays, which included Chekov’s The Seagull and Gogol’s The Government Inspector, failed to find an audience up against the novelty of the new Lyceum (which in those days included a lot more quality drama in its programme) and alarm bells started ringing.

Chief executive Stephen Barry announced drastic action. The new year production of American comedy, The Front Page, ironically potentially the most commercial of the season, was axed and substituted with a more populist option, something which had proved a cash cow at the Playhouse’ in 1966 and then the Crucible in 1973, Alan Cullen’s The Stirrings in Sheffield on a Saturday Night, chronicling the early industrial unrest in the city through music hall, monologue and folk song. Brickman did not approve and left.

In stepped Michael Rudman, the lanky Texan who knew Sheffield from his days directing at the Playhouse before establishing his name at the National and the Chichester Festival along with experience in the West End and Broadway.

There were some noticeable successes among the 11 shows during his reign, including a delightful A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Donkey’s Years. As the (albeit on-off) husband of Felicity Kendal, the public had anticipated a few more star names during his reign..

In the year of his departure, 1994, he theatre was plunged into further financial crisis when it was discovered that its accountant had been siphoning off cash to the tune of £500,000 over six years. By the time he was jailed for three and a half years less than half the cash (spent on a luxurious house, a car and gambling on horses) had been traced and Sheffield Theatres was forced to make redundancies and trim back its programme as a result.

This contributed to a low period in the Crucible’s fortunes. While still being overshadowed by the Lyceum with its bigger stars and glitzier shows and facing a continual threat of cutbacks, it produced a run of plays that failed to make an impact.

This was the scenario that faced Deborah Paige when she arrived from the Salisbury Playhouse and slowly turned things round with some popular productions such as Christmas musicals The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady and John Godber’s Bouncers. But it was coming up with something with local resonance that was to do the trick, securing the rights to adapt the film Brassed Off, about a South Yorkshire colliery band during the pit closures, which did the trick. Scripted by Paul Allen and directed by Paige, it broke box office records at the Crucible, playing to 24,000 people during its three-week run, with an extended week in the Lyceum before transferring to the Olivier at the National Theatre in London.

Some of Paige’s bold ideas did not quite come off. Casting deaf actor Tim Barlow as King Lear was a daring inititative - although it turned out not to be any aural complications that were the problem but that Barlow fell into the on-stage pit and had to perform from a wheelchair for the rest of the run.

Similarly the 1995 Christmas production of The Wind in the Willows stumbled when the designer’s steep riverbank set proved too precipitous for her cast of distinguished elderly actors playing Ratty, Badger and co and at least one had to retire hurt.

Another vital contribution to Sheffield Theatres’ fortunes was her decision in 1997 to commission a promising young director who had attracted attention at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, to come and stage a revival of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. His name was Michael Grandage and he went on to succeed Paige when she stepped down as Artistic Director. So began the glory years between 1999 and 2005

THE NOUGHTIES

DURING his six years in Sheffield Michael Grandage recruited younger directors and designers to work on the Crucible stage and produced more than 40 productions including 11 new plays.

But he is mostly remembered for his dazzling productions of classic plays which brought some big names to Sheffield, attracting national attention, and proving popular with Sheffield audiences. There was Don Carlos and The Tempest with Derek Jacobi, Edward II with Joseph Fiennes, Don Juan with Tom Hollander, and Richard III with Kenneth Branagh.

The Crucible won the Theatrical Management Association (TMA) theatre of the Year in 2001.

During this time he was also associate director of the Donmar Warehouse in London where he succeeded Sam Mendes as artistic director in 2002 and for two years led both organisations producing a body of work in London and Sheffield.

Eventually he chose to concentrate on London and when he left Sheffield in 2005 he was leaving behind what was now being called “the National Theatre of the North”.

Arguably, as crucial a figure in steering the Crucible from “the brink of bankcrupty to regional powerhouse” was the astute chief executive, Grahame Morris, who decided the impending redevelopment of the theatre was an appropriate moment to stand down. Angela Galvin, marketing executive, stepped up to lead the fund-raising drive required to transform the building.

Meanwhile actor and director Samuel West took over as artistic director. He chose to open his first season on stage as Benedick opposite Claire Price’s Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing directed by Josie Rourke and then there was something of a statement of intent when he came to make his Sheffield directoral debut. It was the first major revival of The Romans in Britain, Howard Brenton’s 1980 play for the National Theatre which had resulted in the director being taken to court in a private prosecution by “decency” crusader Mary Whitehouse.

His two-year stay had a strong political edge to it with a revival of Edward Bond’s Lear with Ian McDiarmid in the title role directed by his former co-director of the Almeida, Jonathan Kent, and a Harold Pinter season. A highlights of the 2006/7 season was a rousing Christmas musical, Fiddler on the Roof, starring Henry Goodman, which broke box office records and transferred to the West End. West appeared again on stage, opposite his father Timothy West, in Caryl Churchill’s A Number.

He took a leaf out of his predecessor’s book in bringing a big name to Sheffield when he recruited Jonathan Miller to direct Joanna Lumley in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in March 2007.

But when the time came for redevelopment of the building that required the theatre to go dark for two years the artistic director resigned in December 2007 after the final performance of Amadeus. It was an emotional departure after he had failed to persuade theatre management to maintain the Crucible brand in the interim by funding him to put on plays in other venues around the city.

The transition was an unhappy period for Sheffield Theatres which saw other staff departures and low morale but the Crucible came through it. Having overseen the £15m refurbishment on schedule, Angela Galvin, announced her resignation in 2009 after 12 years in Tudor Square, first as marketing director, before her five years as chief executive. It was a period that saw not only the Crucible refurbishment, but also the company’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful season with Michael Grandage, and awards for developing young audiences and launching the thriving Square Circle membership scheme.

But the new team of chief executive Dan Bates and artistic director Daniel Evans were faced with having to regain the momentum of the two lost years.

Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, officially opened the refurbished theatre in February 2010 during the run of the first play of the new regime, Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, directed by Evans himself with a stellar name, Antony Sher, in the lead and an ensemble cast supported by community actors.

It was followed by a more intimate piece, Sam Shepard’s True West, and Alice, a new adaptation of Lewis Carroll in a Sheffield setting by playwright Laura Wade who grew up in the city.

Evans recruited popular actor Richard Wilson as one of three associate directors and the man best known for TV’s One Foot in the Grave and Merlin showed a different side with the first of three hard-edged contemporary dramas he has so far directed in the Studio, Polly Stenham’s That Face starring Frances Barber.

Then came a real coup, the casting of Life on Mars star John Simm in his Shakespeare debut as Hamlet which proved a box office smash, bringing people in from far and wide. It was just as well because during its run in October 2010 Sheffield Theatres learned that as a result of Arts Council cuts their budget would be reduced by more than £94.000.

But they also found a money-spinner in the Christmas musical, Me and My Girl, although it got off to a slow start at the box office. Sheffield was clearly warming to Evans’ genuine enthusiasm which came across in media and public appearances.

Something designed more to bring kudos to the theatre was the David Hare’ season which last February saw three of the contemporary playwrights works, Racing Demon, Plenty and The Breath of Life – each written 12 years apart – staged similutanously in the Crucible Main House, Studio and Lyceum.

But the high spot of the year was the piece of inspired casting which re-united two stars of American cop show The Wire, Dominic West and Clark Peters, in Othello which had the sold out signs up again this autumn.