Recalling years when Sheffield nearly lost its Lyceum theatre

The Lyceum Theatre today and, inset, while undergoing a complete refurbishment ahead of its reopening in 1990
The Lyceum Theatre today and, inset, while undergoing a complete refurbishment ahead of its reopening in 1990
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The Lyceum theatre is now such a cornerstone of Sheffield’s cultural scene that it is difficult to envisage a time when it could ever have been a candidate for demolition.

But when the venue fell into disrepair in the early 1980s following a decline prompted by the popularity of television, such a fate did indeed face the theatre.

It was saved after a lengthy campaign by two Sheffield businessmen - David Heugh and Norman White - brought about a £14 million refurbishment which safeguarded the Lyceum’s future as a home for touring productions.

This week marked 25 years since the venue’s reopening in 1990, and a special anniversary lunch was organised at the Cutlers’ Hall by the Lyceum Theatre Trust.

“The story of the Lyceum is a little like a pantomime - the goodies, the baddies and then a happy ending,” said David, the trust’s chair.

David and Norman were opera enthusiasts who had just persuaded Prince Charles and Diana to see their production of Tosca at the Crucible in 1984 when The Lyceum’s receivers asked if they wanted to save the theatre.

“The Lyceum was dark and cold, with no seats, water coming through the roof, water in the cellar and pigeons in the upper rooms, but the atmosphere of this great 1897 theatre still blew us away,” he added.

When the theatre was built by the Victorian architect W.G.R. Sprague, Sheffield boasted eight theatres, and in its heyday played host to stars including Charlie Chaplin, Sir Henry Irving and Anna Pavlova. The 1940s brought visits from Sir Donald Wolfit and Noël Coward, and full houses were also a feature throughout the 50s and 60s, when big audiences watched performances by Morecame and Wise, and Albert Finney, among others.

But the final curtain came down in 1968 following a pantomime starring Vince Hill. The building was listed in 1974, became a bingo hall, and finally closed in 1979.

David said he and Norman feared the Lyceum could become a nightclub, cabaret spot or even a car park.

“Although Sheffield Council donated £71,000, this was not enough to purchase The Lyceum and it looked like the battle was lost,” he said.

However, in October 1985 - with the theatre just an hour away from being sold to the highest bidder - the pair managed to borrow £30,000, giving them a total of £101,000, enough to see off the competition. The trust was formed soon after, quickly gained further members, and fundraising began for a modest, £5 million refurbishment.

But David said: “David Blunkett called us back in and said Sheffield would be getting the World Student Games and a renovated Lyceum could be a star in the centre of the city. He suggested Norman and I relinquish ownership, widen the trust’s remit and the council’s involvement would then ensure local, national and EEC support.”

The decision paid off and led to the wider, £14 million refit, one of the largest projects of its kind in Europe at the time. A concert by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company took place on the opening night, December 10, 1990.

The trust has played an important role in the city’s life, David believes. “It is the owner and guardian of the theatre and there for the people of Sheffield,” he said.