Adelphi? Crucible steals the show

Julie Walters in Good Fun
Julie Walters in Good Fun
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IT should, strictly speaking, be called The Adelphi.

That was the name which won a public competition, held in 1969, to monicker Sheffield’s brand new £1 million theatre being built off Norfolk Street.

But bosses chose The Crucible, rather than dozens of alternatives including The Plug and The Prince Charles, because it paid homage to the legendary Sheffield pub which had stood on the site previously.

For perfectionist Hilary Young, a member of the newly-founded Sheffield Theatre Trust, something about the name Adelphi didn’t ring right.

There were hundreds of Adelphis around the world.

This was a new-style theatre for a new post-1960s age, and it should have a new name.

It was, thus, one evening she took another name suggestion to fellow trustees. This proposal she said would not only be original, it would also reflect Sheffield’s heritage and the intimacy of the venue itself.

After hearing her out, members were won over. The competition winner, presumably, was told the contest was not binding.

And so when this revolutionary new theatre opened on November 9, 1971 – 40 years ago next month – it took a name which today is utterly synonymous with its home city.

“We knew we were building something special,” says Colin George, today sitting in next door’s Crucible Corner restaurant.

The 82-year-old was then the director of the new theatre and is the man still widely credited with making the project a success.

“To see it still up and running all these years on – and successfully so – it does fill you with a certain pride,” he says.

“It was a revolutionary theatre back then but revolutions don’t always stand the test of time.

“It’s a remarkable achievement for everyone who has ever worked here that it has grown into what I would say is the country’s premier theatre outside London.”

That it has such a national reputation there is no doubt.

Since Ian McKellen performed at the opening night – along with dozens of local schoolchildren – such luminaries as Joanna Lumley, Joseph Fiennes, Dominic West and John Simm have all trod the boards.

More than one million people have passed through the doors, and hosting the World Snooker Championships has brought a global audience stretching into the billions.

Indeed, put aside poor audience figures during the 1980s and complaints about too-tight seating, and truly, this is a Sheffield success story up there with... well, crucible steel.

Not bad for a venue which was mired in controversy before it was even built.

“It was a huge project,” says Colin George, who left the theatre in 1974 but has returned this autumn to play Brabantio in the much-lauded production Othello.

“Beyond huge, I must make this clear. And because of that there were certain issues and disagreements – but it is all part of the process of building something like this.”

That process started in a sunny 1966 spring. Colin and several company members from the Sheffield Playhouse Theatre, in Townhead Street, had gone to the Town Hall to ask the city council for a subsidy for the theatre.

“We were ushered into the council chamber to see Alderman Grace Tebbutt,” recalls Colin. “I’ll never forget it. We hadn’t said a word when she thundered ‘Now, where do you want your new theatre?’ It was quite unexpected – although I later understood a decision had already been made to knock down the Playhouse and build an inner ring road. “She said ‘You probably want an island site”, and with a wave of her hand she destroyed Norfolk Street.”

It was a brief conversation which started the ball rolling on five years of frenzied work – and debate.

The disagreements ranged from capacity and cost to the location next to The Lyceum, but more than any of those what was most ferociously fought over was something as simple as the stage.

Two schools of thought emerged: those in favour of the thrust stage – one extending into the audience and surrounded on three sides by seats – and the proscenium stage, where the platform is built aloof from the facing audience.

“Today the thrust stage is one of the things The Crucible is best known for,” says Colin. “It creates an incredible intimacy and audience involvement but, back then, it was a very unusual idea and people – both inside and outside the theatre – didn’t understand it. It was said big names wouldn’t come here because of it.”

The reason for the objection was perhaps fear of the unknown. Such stages had barely been used in the UK previously, and yet by degrees, critics and public were won over.

Perhaps that was because, as one contemporary journalist put it, Colin “could sell the News Of The World to the Pope” or perhaps it was because the idea had initially been suggested by the legendary actor Sir Tyrone Guthrie. He’d had a theatre in Minneapolis named after him which had a similar stage, and Colin flew out to look at it. “I spent 10 days and saw nine productions in five cities,” he explains. “And I became absolutely convinced Sir Tyrone was right.

“We flew back and spoke to the architects about the idea, and they thought it was wonderful – mainly because it would give them more room to play with.”

With that room, they created something unheard of at the time. The theatre would pack in more than 900 seats around a 22-feet long stage but not one of those seats would be more than 59 feet from the action.

This was a theatre which would reflect Sheffield’s renowned egalitarianism.

As people warmed to the idea, and as Sheffielders slowly started to love the building growing in the centre of their city, debate moved to what the opening night and season should be.

“One councillor said to me ‘It needs to be popular, something like Agatha Christie’,” says Colin. “I said ‘Good God, we’d lose our Arts Council grant’.

“But we did want it to be special. It had to be”

It was an aim which would not prove easy.

And before opening night, yet more debate, not a little despair and the death of a legend threw all things into doubt once more.

n Send your Crucible memories to Retro, The Star, York Street, Sheffield S1 1PU or email – and don’t miss Retro’s photographic tribute to the theatre next month.