Theatrical visionary leaves a legacy of Crucible success

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Colin George, the visionary theatre director who overcame massive opposition to get the Crucible built in 1971, has died of pneumonia at the age of 87.

The thrust stage (three-sided, with almost 1,000 people less than a cricket pitch length from the actors) would take Sheffield round the globe by hosting the televised World Snooker Championships.

His brainchild was the most successful producing theatre

But when Colin George returned to Sheffield as an actor in Othello in the Crucible’s 40th anniversary season, his brainchild was also the most consistently successful producing theatre in the English regions.

George was artistic director of Sheffield Playhouse when demolition plans were announced.

With unforgettable productions of Oedipus Rex, a ‘fascist’ Macbeth and The Stirrings in Sheffield on Saturday Night under his belt in the old theatre, open stages in transatlantic theatres inspired by the legendary director Tyrone Guthrie converted him.

Denounced by theatrical knight Bernard Miles, by councillors at public meetings and in the media, George carried the day but Guthrie died before he could direct the Crucible’s first play, Ibsen’s rarely-produced epic Peer Gynt.

Audiences were visibly thin in the Crucible’s large auditorium for George’s own production and the even less frequently performed play which followed, Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday.

For a time the phrase “white elephant” seemed all too appropriate. But the Crucible recovered.

I remember the young Gwen Taylor transfixing the audience in A Taste of Honey and Lynda Marchal (now better known as Lynda la Plante, the creator of DCI Jane Tennison) as a brilliantly funny Calamity Jane.

He was born in Pembroke Dock, the son of a Congregational Minister; quietly spiritual himself – he became a Quaker – he was a theatrical evangelist.

After National Service and Oxford University he played Hamlet (a lifelong preoccupation) before turning director at Nottingham Playhouse.

In Sheffield he founded Theatre Vanguard, only the second outreach team in British theatre, and met Dorothy Vernon, an amateur actor. She turned professional and they married in 1967. They had three children but later divorced. Dorothy died in 2014.

Leaving Sheffield in 1974 he played a married property developer trying to lure Rita away from Coronation Street and worked as a freelance until invited to start a university drama department in Australia and run the State Theatre of South Australia in Adelaide. He gave first jobs to actors Judy Davis, Philip Quast and Mel Gibson.

He then headed the training of English-speaking actors in Hong Kong and took theatre to Vietnamese refugees. Back in the UK he resumed freelance acting and was cast in a Royal Shakepeare Company production of the play with which he’d opened the Crucible, Peer Gynt.

Also in the cast was fellow-Welshman Daniel Evans who delightedly brought him back to the Crucible in his production of Othello with Dominic West and Clarke Peters in 2011.

He remarried, and his wife Sue survives him.

His ambition to write a history of the Crucible wasn’t fulfilled, but his legacy stands in Tudor Square.