Stage set for a new theatre

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Our special pull-out tracing four decades of the Crucible begins with the 1970s as Alan Powell recalls early years which courted controversy before a brick was built

AFTER the last night of the Sheffield Playhouse at Townhead in July 1971, actor and director Wilfred Harrison delivered an old-fashioned declamatory rendition of Shakespeare’s “Our revels now are ended.”

But on that midsummer night, the dream of a new theatre for Sheffield was starting to become real. And it courted controversy even before the foundation stone was laid.

Inspired by theatrical giant Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the team from the old Playhouse, including the new theatre’s artistic director, Colin George, proposed to “reach out” to Sheffield audiences with a thrust stage. It would be the first of its kind in the country. It would also be the most controversial.

The November opening had what was described as an inaugural production called Fanfare. It began with children on stage and continued with Chekhov’s Swan Song with Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge and it ended with a rousing music hall finale.

The first full production was Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a bold choice which led to immediate criticism that the theatre would be too highbrow. And so began the fragile relationship that the theatre has had with the politicians who held the purse strings and wanted a say in artistic policy. The first season was not perceived as a success but the year after that audience numbers were up and further seasons also attracted wider support.

After four years, the man who had been the driving force behind the theatre decided to move on.

Colin George admitted it had been four years of heartache and toil but by the time he left he said he felt the mixture was right.

The first people to set foot on the thrust stage in front of an audience had been local children improvising a short performance about cowboys and Indians.

Colin George’s tenure ended with cowboys and Indians again – the first professional production of the musical Calamity Jane.

And he left behind all the criticism and jibes he had faced from the council, not least from leader Sir Ron Ironmonger, who had said: “I always felt there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”

But had he left a smoking gun as well? Finance matters, which have dogged the theatre throughout, were still there. A year after George had left, when tickets were between 50p and £2, then Tory councillor and later MP Irvine Patnick said the theatre should not be allowed to swallow up cash set aside for wider cultural activities.

And the row over thrust versus proscenium refused to go away.

When the Crucible’s second artistic director Peter James arrived, he was surprised that the animosity towards the thrust stage had not dissipated in the four years since the theatre opened.

He said later: “Soon after I got there we had Hinge and Bracket doing a concert. They asked the audience if the curtains had gone to the cleaners and got rapturous applause.”

Looking back, it is difficult to understand why a thrust stage was such an issue. But almost every actor who came to the Crucible in those early years arrived with trepidation then generally went away as converts.

They included Derek Bond, who said; “I viewed it with horror when I first came. But after the first night I was totally converted and 100% for it.”

James Bolam, in town with a play called Butley, had a similar experience. “I was apprehensive at first. You can’t stop acting for a minute. You can’t turn off when someone is rabbiting, and get on with your laundry list or even scratch your bum – without someone seeing. But I would like to work on it again.”

Tom Courtenay was a convert too. After playing in Shaw’s Arms and the Man, he said: “Some people say thrust is not good but you can have a great time.”

In the days before the Lyceum, the Crucible was home to frequent productions on tour but the biggest innovation was the event that shot the Crucible to global fame – world snooker.

Peter James had no qualms about turning the theatre into the best snooker venue in the world. It fitted in perfectly with his desire to make the theatre accessible and used.

James always said his ambition was for actors and audiences alike to “come to terms” with the theatre and, with a confederacy of talent that included Mel Smith, Ruby Wax and Alan Rickman, he succeeded.

Throughout the mid-seventies, the name calling of the Crucible continued. It had started when white elephant was the nomenclature of choice for critics. That continued for many years and one departing director even had a cake featuring a gleaming white icing sugar pachyderm.

It continued with “problem child” as the infant theatre toddled along, and during one of his many comedy marathons at the theatre Ken Dodd said it looked like “an abandoned tramshed.”

That was at the same time that the Tory group in the city council (there was one in Sheffield in those days) had a vendetta against the theatre which they dubbed a “bingo hall.” Or at least, that’s what they thought it should be used for.

The Labour administration also said subsidy cash would only be forthcoming if there were more popular offerings and Peter James responded with a “better safe than sorry” programme which included a Christmas pantomime for the first time.

But what James described as the traditional springtime bloodsport of Crucible-baiting continued, though the artistic director was able to respond with figures proving that the theatre attracted one of the largest audiences in the provinces yet took a lower percentage subsidy than most regional theatres. That didn’t stop a Rotherham Conservative councillor from saying: “Every year the Crucible gets out its begging bowl and we are expected to fill it.”

In the late seventies the Crucible began its Christmas association with Bobby Knutt and Mother Goose laid a golden egg of profit from the 45,000 punters who saw it.