Guided tour: Inside Sheffield's new Crucible

Sheffield is home to a world famous stage - which the city has been without for over a year. This week the Crucible re-opens its doors. Arts reporter Nick Ahad took an exclusive look around the famous theatre ahead of the re-opening.

"The Crucible Awakes", the publicity material for the re-opening of Sheffield's theatre declares ominously.

You can almost hear the deep tones of a movie trailer voice-over grumbling the announcement.

"The Crucible Awakes". The phrase puts in mind a slumbering behemoth, yawning to shake off a century of sleep.

It's not a bad analogy. While the Crucible has slept it is almost as though the legend around it has grown. When it 'went to sleep' in December 2007, it had become a giant of British theatre, a colossus on a world stage.

Kenneth Branagh, Joseph Fiennes, Derek Jacobi - all had trod the boards of the Crucible - and we're not talking in their early years when they were starting out - this was all in the last decade.

The Crucible, simply, had become one of Britain's most important and significant theatre spaces.

And that's before we even mention the snooker.

Annually, since 1977, the Crucible has attracted an audience not just from around Britain, but globally and of millions, thanks to it being the venue for the World Snooker Championship.

When the Crucible first opened back in 1971 Pevsner's Architectural Guide called it: "Sheffield's most significant public building...one of the most exciting theatrical spaces in the country."

Not half.

On the day of our exclusive look around the building, Jonathan Walton, Yorkshire Post digital reporter reveals he's a Crucible virgin.

"So, how is it different? What's it like inside the theatre?" asks Jonathan.

He's flanked by a PR person brought in to promote the building and Chris Reece, the project manager for the 15m refurbishment the Crucible is nearing the end of.

The voice that answers Jonathan's question belongs neither to the man in charge, nor the PR person whose job it is to talk up the project. The voice is mine.

"The stage is incredible. There's really no other theatre like it in the country. As a theatre space it's got this incredible ability to feel like it's vast, so when you see a show like Don Carlos or Amadeus, you feel like it's being told on this truly epic stage, but then you'll see something like a little three-hander I saw a few years ago called Blue/Orange, and it feels like it's a little studio space. Honestly, it's one of the best theatre spaces you'll ever see," I tell Jonny.

He later asks me to appear in the video he's shooting around the Crucible: "You became so animated and passionate when you were talking about it, I thought you'd be great to have in the film," he explains.

It is a space that wins its fans easily.

When it first opened the Crucible's thrust stage was a unique development.

Theatre in the round came to Britain in Scarborough in 1955 when Stephen Joseph established the country's first stage with an audience on all sides. The Crucible was something different again.

Tanya Moiseiwitsch's design incorporated the intimacy of theatre in the round with the grandeur of the traditional proscenium arch. The thrust stage - since copied in a number of British theatres - does what it says in the title - thrusts it's way into the space, so the audience sits on three sides.

It means that no member of the audience is ever more than 22 metres away from the stage and yet it still has the ability to seem like an enormous auditorium.

Sam West, the theatre's last artistic director and an enthusiastic fan of the space, was forever urging me to stand on the stage of the Crucible to experience it from an actor's view.

"It feels at times like you could reach out and touch someone sitting on the very back row, as a space to play in, there's nothing like it," he would often tell me.

Next month the board will decide on the next artistic director, the one who will lead the Crucible into the future.

"With the Lyceum, the Crucible and the Studio, this is the biggest theatre complex in the country after the National Theatre. Leading these spaces really is one of the most important jobs in British theatre," says Mark Feakins, the executive producer of the three venues.

How did a theatre in the provinces become so important? Clearly the West Yorkshire Playhouse, as the name suggests, set out to be the major producing house in these parts, but a few years back the Crucible came out of nowhere to take centre stage.

It would be wrong to suggest it was all down to one man - the truth is, a driven and focussed management team led the way - but the appointment of Michael Grandage in the late Nineties was a turning point.

Grandage was an actor with a fair to middling career. He had little experience as a director when he came to the Crucible in 1997 with his production of Twelfth Night. A few years later Sheffield Theatres faced a mountain of debt, its finances were in serious trouble and it could so easily have been curtains for the venue - and Grandage was brought in as artistic director.

What happened next was unprecedented. The director stamped his artistic mark right through the theatre. First he staged Marlowe's Edward II with Joseph Fiennes. Grandage understood the Crucible's stage intimately. He knew that productions needed to embrace the unusual shape of the stage rather than see it as a challenge to be conquered and the way to do that was to focus on the actors. His vision next lured Kenneth Branagh back to the stage to play Richard III and then he was on a roll. Having Derek Jacobi in Don Carlos was almost greeted with a sense of 'and why not?'.

The snooker had always kept the Crucible in the spotlight, but many people didn't even realise it existed for drama other than that played out on the green baize. Grandage kept the spotlight turned on to the theatre all year long.

Then a year and a half ago, all went dark.

The spotlight is about to be turned back on again.

Since December 2007 the Crucible has been closed for business. A 15m refurbishment project has seen a whole raft of changes and improvements.

Today the doors to the building will be flung wide and a curious public will have a chance to see where their money has been spent.

Then the big test. Next month, the snooker comes back.

The new bar, the new seats, the new carpet (yes, the old one has finally been banished) will all be put to the test with a real audience and then... the theatre closes again.

The final phase of work will be completed through the summer, with backstage areas given a lick of paint ahead of the final gala re-opening due for November this year. This time the beast will not be sleeping, merely snoozing.

Quotes

Sam West: "The Crucible is one of the most exciting stages in the country, and I'm looking forward to exploring it both as an actor and a director."

Michael Grandage: "I have had the most rewarding period of my life in Sheffield. I owe a debt of gratitude to the staff and our loyal audience who have helped us develop our work to an astounding place over these last few years."

Kenneth Branagh: "As I walked about in Sheffield, which is a city I like very very much, there was a sense – an appropriate sense – of civic pride about the Crucible. People like their theatre and they know about it, they know what's on and they were very pleased and very welcoming for people like me to come along and do a play there. The Crucible is a fantastic resource, a fantastic part of the cultural life of the city."

Joseph Fiennes: "It's a wonderful theatre with a very special director."

Nikolai Foster: "As a director, I know the Crucible to be one of the most rewarding spaces in this country, perhaps the world, to work in. The relationship between actor and audience is second-to-none and it has a raffish charm. When a thousand people wrap themselves around the space something unique happens. Everything about it is perfect and seems to represent everything theatre should be. I always imagine Brecht would have loved the Crucible, as sport and plays live happily side by side. I'm forever struck by the similarities between the two types of play the Crucible hosts and how quickly the space reacts and embraces these different disciplines."

Dominic Dale, former Crucible Snooker quarter-finalist and former Grand Prix and Shanghai Masters champion: "From a player point of view, it's the best venue we play at. The arena is always full and the seats are very close to the table, which gives the sensation of being in a cauldron, or a lion's den. It's a wonderful place."

Ali Carter: "There's something about the layout of the theatre that gives it a very intimate atmosphere. It doesn't feel like you're out in the open, as it does at some venues. The crowds in Sheffield love their snooker and they are very knowledgeable, so that

adds to the atmosphere. Last year I had my first experience of the one-table set up which was fantastic."

Daniel Wells, hoping to qualify for this year's World Snooker Championship: "I played at an exhibition match here last year but if I get through my final qualifying match I will play in this year's tournament and it will be a dream come true. I have watched snooker at the Crucible on TV since I was seven years-old. There is nowhere else that means so much to snooker – it is the best venue."

Crucible Diary

Saturday 21 March

Journeys Day

12.00pm – 6.00pm Free Entry

Activities include performances of Sheffield Theatres production of Suitcase City and community performances events. This year long heritage project has been supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Thursday 26 March

The Crucible Awakes

7.45pm

This exclusive event will be an evening extravaganza of entertainment and surprises to mark the completion of the first phase of the Theatre's development. The evening will include some familiar faces, stars from the West End, Comedy and music.

Friday 27 March

Comedy Store Players

7.45pm

Internationally renowned and widely regarded as the leading Improv Troupe in the UK.

Saturday 28 March

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

7.45pm

The Ukulele Orchestra is a group which combines music, humour and pop.

Friday 3 April

Noise Ensemble

7.45pm

The beat of acclaimed composer Ethan Lewis Maltby's majestic score is brought to life by ten talented young virtuoso percussionists. With epic beats, stunning lighting and a stormy score, this will be an outstanding musical experience for all the family.

Saturday 4 April

Forced Entertainment presents

Spectacular

7.45pm

Since 1984 Forced Entertainment has presented projects all over the world, The Guardian has called them 'Britain's most brilliant experimental theatre company'. Their work varies from extreme theatrics to minimal text based performances.

Tickets available from Sheffield Theatres Box Office 0114 249 6000