IN THE Spring of 1971 after five years hard work and harder arguments, Sheffield brand new Crucible Theatre is nearing completion.
Determined to make the opening season a resounding success artistic director Colin George is working at the old Playhouse, in Townhead Street, on one of two shows which will rotate there. He will direct Peer Gynt by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, while - a massive scoop - legendary theatre star Sir Tyrone Gutherie will put on Greek-tragedy House of Atreus.
“I remember the production manager coming to me with a serious look on his face one day,” says 82-year-old Colin today. “I thought ‘Oh dear, something terrible’s happened, the wigs haven’t arrived’.
“In fact, he had come to tell me Sir Tyrone had died. It was terribly sad because he was a close friend by then but I also felt a sudden sense of despair that something could go so wrong just as things were starting to come right. It left us with a mountain to climb.”
It was a mountain they made light work of.
Leading actor Douglas Campbell stepped into Sir Tyrone’s shoes and the rotating run would eventually receive rave reviews from The Star and the nationals press alike.
More significantly, perhaps, a young protege of Gutherie - a fast-becoming-famous actor called Ian McKellen - phoned the newly-formed Sheffield Theatre Trust shortly after the untimely death. “He asked if there was anything he could do,” says Colin, who left The Crucible in 1974 but has returned this autumn to play Brabantio in the much-lauded production Othello. “And I said we did have a role on opening night in Chekhov’s Swan Song, and he agreed. It was a terrific coup.”
McKellen was sandwiched that night - November 9, 1971 - between a performance by school children and a music hall comedy and steel band show. It might have seemed an obscure combination but it was one which nevertheless inspired The Star’s theatre critic to declare: “If the Crucible is not the crashing success it ought to be it won’t be through lack of support from the locals.”
“We went with the opening night we did because we wanted to show the Crucible was there for everyone,” says Colin, a grandfather of 10 who now lives in London. “I don’t remember too much from the opening night because I was so busy but I do remember the children I was working with telling me their parents had been surprised I was wearing denim. It was another age back then. They thought I should have been in tails.”
The success was a sign of things to come.
The theatre had been named the Crucible - despite an original proposal to name it after the legendary Adelphi pub which it replaced - because of its unique Sheffield connotations.
And it was soon to help put the city on the map itself.
While Colin would leave the theatre and take up theatre posts around the world, the centre’s reputation continued to go from strength to strength attracting a list of stars which still reads like a who’s who of showbusiness.
Among them were Kenneth Branagh, Joanna Lumley, Timothy West, Jim Broadbent, and Ralph Fiennes, through, most recently, to John Simm in 2010’s Hamlet and Dominic West in this year’s Othello.
“When you think about some of the names that have performed here you can’t help but be inspired,” says Daniel Evans, the current artistic director who arrived in 2009.
“We have had some big stars since I arrived and I do think that’s a good thing. I don’t know the exact figures but I’m convinced a large proportion of the 31,000 people who came to see Othello, for instance, would have been watching Shakespeare for the first time - and hopefully that means we’re attracting a new audience to the theatre.”
Perhaps, however, nothing has opened the venue up to so many people as one single annual event: the World Snooker Championships
Culture-ists may baulk but there’s no doubt, despite the hundreds of productions and famous faces which have graced the venue over the years, it is this sport on green baize which has really given the theatre - and Sheffield - a worldwide audience. And which kept the place financially viable during the dark days of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Back then, the Crucible had hit a rocky period with falling audience figures, artistic criticism and concern among Sheffielders that continual council subsidies amounted, as one Star headline put it, to little more than “culture on the rates”.
But, while new directions and directors, including experimental theatre, pantomimes and attracting bigger names, would turn things round, the snooker was a huge boon throughout.
Moments like Dennis Taylor beating Steve Davis on the final black ball in the 1985 final or Ronnie O’Sullivan’s legendary 147 breaks kept fans coming back, even in periods when theatre fans were not doing likewise.
And it’s not the only sport that’s been held at the Crucible. The English Open Squash Championships was also hosted at the venue during the early 2000s. But, for sheer popularity, snooker remained king, and its value to the theatre was such that during its £15.3 million redevelopment in 2007-09, the world championships was the only thing held there. Except for those two weeks each year, it remained shut throughout.
That redevelopment, then, was the biggest in the venue’s 40 year history and included improved seating, bars, stage and entrance area as well as overhauls of backstage quarters and the box office. It’s success was such that the building is now Grade II listed.
Daniel, an Olivier Award winning actor from Wales, arrived as the theatre was preparing to reopen.
“I think we opened with a bang and we’ve carried that momentum on,” says the 38-year-old who lives in the city centre. “It was a privilege to get the job here because it really does have such a fantastic reputation.
“I can’t think of one moment which has been a highlight - it’s all been incredible. You just hope what you’re doing will appeal to people, and I think so far we’ve achieved that. The team here is great.”
And now to the future?
Colin George thinks about that for a second.
“There’s no reason why it can’t still be here in 40 years,” he says. “The quality of productions seems to get better each year. I think the Crucible is part of the heart of Sheffield.”
n Send your Crucible memories to Retro, The Star, York Street, Sheffield S1 1PU or email firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t miss Retro’s photographic tribute to the theatre next month.