A musical Christmas in Sheffield

Rehearsals for Show Boat at Sheffield Theatres. Picture: JOHAN PERSSONRehearsals for Show Boat at Sheffield Theatres. Picture: JOHAN PERSSON
Rehearsals for Show Boat at Sheffield Theatres. Picture: JOHAN PERSSON
Trust: a commodity that is slow to win and quick to lose.

It’s an adage by which Daniel Evans has survived every Christmas he has been in charge at Sheffield Theatres.

The artistic director, who has responsibility for all three theatres in Sheffield that combine to make up the UK’s biggest theatre complex outside London has had an additional responsibility every festive season since he arrived in Steel City. Christmas for an awful lot of people means a trip to the theatre. It is a great opportunity to capture new hearts and minds and to do that, you need a belter of a show.

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Evans has had a remarkable run over the past four years, bringing to spectacular life My Fair Lady, Oliver and Anything Goes. He’s won the trust of audiences with five star shows that have delighted. And now he’s cashing in on that.

“This is our fourth musical in four years at Christmas,” says Evans. “I always talk about the element of surprise and not letting audiences get too settled. I thought this year we’d do something even less well known.”

Before we go any further, it should be pointed out that the run of this year’s musical has already been extended by a week, so if Evans sounds like he’s taking some crazy risk, don’t be taken in.

“Even though Show Boat is a less well known musical, it is in many ways the first serious musical. When you talk about serious musicals with a serious message you think of Les Miserables, but the musical with something to say wasn’t born in the 80s. In 1927 this was a musical that tackled a serious issue. The result is an incredible piece that looks at the appalling racism and prejudice suffered by black people at the time.”

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Show Boat, written by Oscar Hammerstein with music by Jerome Kern, spans forty years of American history, seen through the stories of the performers, stagehands, audiences and owners of a Mississippi show boat.

Evans, who has been leading the way at his theatre in colourblind casting says that staging a musical like this is important. “It goes without saying that with songs like Ol’ Man River, it is a hugely entertaining show with real spectacle, but it does feel that a musical about the atrocities of racism is startlingly relevant and significant today,” says Evans.

“Sometimes it’s coincidence that a show we are staging feels particularly relevant and timely, but this is a story and an issue that has been timely for the past 80 years. It’s not an issue that’s going away, unfortunately, so it feels like the right show to be doing now.”

It should be stressed that this musical has heart as well as something to say. “It’s going to be spectacular. I don’t really want to give away any of the surprises,” says Evans. He then immediately gives in to temptation and his own excitement. “Okay then, let’s just say that in Show Boat, obviously, you need a boat. It arrives in act one, scene one.”

Sheffield Crucible, December 10 to January 23. 0114 2496000.

• Since this interview it was announced that Daniel Evans will be stepping down as artistic director at Sheffield Theatres.