Sheffield Crucible Theatre at 50: bouncing back from Covid as hit Life of Pi transfers to West End

The news that the Sheffield Crucible’s production Life of Pi is finally opening in London’s West End underlines how much fantastic work the theatre has created for 50 years.

Tuesday, 9th November 2021, 7:00 pm

Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel was a big hit at the Crucible in June 2019 when the theatre was really on a roll until Covid-19 struck, bringing all its plans to a sudden halt.

Life of Pi should have gone to London in the summer of 2020.

I remember seeing the show and it is a fantastic combination of spectacle and story-telling – there was a moment when Hiran Abeysekera, playing Pi, dived off the boat and seemingly through the floor of the stage, as if he was going underwater.

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Crowds came out to greet Little Amal in Sheffield, seen here in Tudor Square, home of the Crucible Theatre

It was one of those times when you catch your breath, it was so clever.

The Life of Pi also gave me a heart-stopping moment. I’ve been lucky enough to sit in on a few rehearsals for shows and the arrival of the huge puppet of the tiger Richard Parker in my peripheral vision made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, even though he was still plain black rubber and not yet painted.

The puppets were created by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, who also worked on the animals for Running Wild, including an amazing elephant. They work meticulously with the actors who operate them to breathe life into their creations.

London audiences are in for a treat, especially as the Crucible cast are transferring with the show.

Actor Owain Gwynn performing with Richard Parker the Tiger and Hiran Abeysekera as Pi in Life of Pi. The production was a big hit at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and is now transferring to London's West End

Before Covid, there was so much to be excited about at the Crucible under artistic director Rob Hastie’s leadership – Standing at the Sky’s Edge, featuring Sheffield musician Richard Hawley’s songs, was also very popular and both it and Life of Pi won major awards.

It’s great to see the theatre getting going again as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in November. The recent show Typical Girls saw it beginning to get back into its stride with a raucous, joyful show created by women.

What is the Crucible’s Christmas musical this year?

A lot of work goes into trying to make the theatre feel inclusive for everyone. In recent years, much more has been done to make theatre with people from minority ethnic groups, LGBT+ communities and people with disabilities front and centre and involved in creative teams.

Alex Young as Sister Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. She returns this Christmas in the musical She Loves Me

Another brilliant puppet, Little Amal, embodied this when the 10ft child refugee character that had travelled from from Syria pulled thousands of people into the city centre last week to see her. Sheffield Theatres hosted the visit.

Rob Hastie will direct the year’s most popular show, the Crucible Christmas musical. She Loves Me is a romantic comedy about two perfume shop workers who don’t get on but aren’t aware they are writing love letters to each other after answering a lonely hearts advert. Neither knows the other’s identity.

If that plot sounds familiar, the story it was based on also inspired the 1998 romcom You’ve Got Mail, which starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

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Rob Hastie promises a “glorious, heart-warming swirl of festive joy”. It’s worth seeing for Alex Young alone, who is back at the Crucible after starring in Guys and Dolls and Standing at the Sky’s Edge.

A theatre like the Crucible is only as successful as its entire team of backstage and support staff, as well as the creative teams. Just about every London actor I have ever interviewed mentions that they feel very welcomed and looked after by everyone in the theatre. It’s special for them, as they tell me the same can’t always be said for London theatreland.

I always love visiting the Crucible and both the main house, with its thrust stage, and the Studio, which is in the round, bring the audience close to the performers in a special way.

I think that Sheffield should be hugely proud of the Crucible, which has also done its part to put the city on the world stage by hosting the World Snooker Championships. It has added immensely to the life of Sheffield for half a century and there’s much more to come.

Sheffield Theatres box office: visit the Crucible, call 0114 249 6000 or go to www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk. She Loves Me is on from December 11 to January 15.

Life of Pi is at Wyndham’s Theatre from November 15 to February 27. Box office: www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk/whats-on/life-of-pi