How Sheffield Crucible continues to lead the way in British theatre after 50 years

A new book about the story of Sheffield’s Crucible is released just as the theatre announces its 50th anniversary season – high time to celebrate the cultural gem. Nick Ahad reports.

Sir Ian McKellen on the stage of the Crucible theatre in Sheffield in 2009. Picture: Chris Lawton.
Sir Ian McKellen on the stage of the Crucible theatre in Sheffield in 2009. Picture: Chris Lawton.

Almost every day Robert Hastie finds a reason, when he’s in the office, to go into the beating heart of the building where he works.

“Every time, without fail, I get a sense of feeling like something special is going to happen in here,” he says.

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Little wonder. Hastie is the latest in a line of people who are fortunate enough to be able to call themselves artistic director of Sheffield Theatres.

Sheffield Crucible opening night in 1971.

The beating heart where Hastie experiences his almost daily frisson is, of course, the Sheffield Crucible.

The building that houses the Crucible and the Studio theatre opened its doors 50 years ago this year and today Hastie and his team will announce the theatre’s 50th anniversary season.

It’s an impressive feat to reach a half a century, but for the Crucible it is particularly remarkable, given the torrid birth it experienced back in 1971.

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The Crucible - Sheffield's landmark theatre and a national icon
Former director Colin George looks at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre under construction in 1971.

Theatres looked a certain way and what George was planning did not look like a theatre, certainly not the sort as experienced by the city’s leaders, council and residents of the day.

“It was such a bold, radical gesture, to build a theatre in this way,” says Hastie. “I’m currently reading a book that Colin George wrote about the building of the Crucible. The manuscript was unfinished when he died, but his son Ted has completed it and it is an incredible story.”

The book, Stirring Up Sheffield, is being published today and tells the story of how George and a passionate team made the dream of their theatre a reality.

The opening night of the Crucible, in November 1971, featured a performance by a young Ian McKellen, who in a moment of sweet circularity, provides an introduction to Stirring Up Sheffield, in which he writes: “Adventures need heroes and here its principal one is Colin George...who in this memoir recalls in fascinating detail how, aided by others locally and internationally, a dream came true. Here, too, there are troublesome villains who failed to share our hero’s imagination and determination.”

Robert Hastie, Artistic Director of Sheffield Theatres. Picture: James Hardisty.

Robert Hastie has come across some of those who would be considered the villains of the piece, first hand.

“When I first arrived and we announced my first season, people were queuing to buy tickets on the first morning the season went on sale and I was standing in the queue chatting to people,” he says.

“There was one man who I spoke to who was here when the theatre was built and he told me he was against it being built in Sheffield. He came to the first season to see for himself once the Crucible was open – and he has been back every season since. He said that if anyone tried to demolish the building now he’d stand in front of it and protect it himself.”

It is a special kind of building that inspires that sort of devotion – but the Crucible has been doing just that for half a century.

There is something quite remarkable about the brutalist, concrete structure that houses both the Crucible and Studio theatres, two stages that have witnessed some of the most remarkable works of British theatre over the past five decades.

The revolutionary thing that Colin George did was to bring a thrust stage into a British theatre space, a world that had grown entirely used to the fact that end-on proscenium arch was just the way that theatre was made.

Working with legends of the theatre world Sir Tyrone Guthrie and theatre designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, George wanted to bring a different shape of theatre to Sheffield, one in which the audience would sit on three sides of the stage, enveloping the action. Whichever seat you take in the almost 1,000 seater auditorium of the Crucible, you’re never further than 22 yards from the performer on stage.

“It’s difficult to step away and look at this theatre without being biased, but it is such an important part of what makes our city great and it’s an important part of what makes British theatre great,” says Hastie.

It’s true. What happens in Sheffield on the stages of the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum, has a big impact on British theatre. Overstating things?

One night last week, Robert Hastie was having a flick through Amazon Prime, wondering if he might find a film to watch, when he came across a familiar title.

“It always gives me a feeling of pride that Everybody’s Talking About Jamie began its life with a two-and-a-half week run here on the stage of the Crucible.

It was this theatre that took a chance on a creative team that had never made a musical before with a story that nobody knew – and now it’s a film that is literally being watched around the world,” says Hastie.

It’s far from a one-off. The Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End is currently being reconfigured to make space for the Sheffield Crucible production of Life of Pi – the production was made for the epic Crucible stage and if London’s West End wants it, well then it needs to make space to accommodate it.

“It’s why I don’t like the term ‘regional’ theatre, as though there is ‘theatre’ and there is ‘regional theatre’. I reject that notion, we are making theatre that contributes to the national landscape here in Sheffield,” says Hastie.

He’s a good man to have at the helm of a theatre complex that has attracted some of the best in the business. Michael Grandage in the late 1990s to early 2000s revived the flagging theatre’s fortunes and Sam West and Daniel Evans sprinkled stardust on the venue before Hastie took up position.

“I am enormously lucky to have stepped into the role at a moment when the significance of the Crucible is uncontested and well established, something that wasn’t always the case.”

So how to celebrate?

Well, Hastie has come up with a season that is not about looking back, but celebrating the spirit with which the building was forged in the first place.

“It’s not a time to look at the theatre’s ‘greatest hits’ or to be evoking memories, we are not going to mark the 50th anniversary by looking back,” he says.

“We’re going to be staging a season that is about new work and taking artistic risks and endeavours, the adventurous spirit that feels inspired by the big adventure it was to build this place at all.”

So while she may be approaching middle age, it’s clear that all who steer the good ship Crucible will continue to honour the piratical, revolutionary spirit that forged it in the first place and not let her simply age gracefully.

You can’t help but think Colin George would have approved.

Season announced

The 50th anniversary season, announced today includes: The centrepiece celebrations will see all three Sheffield spaces – The Crucible, The Studio and Lyceum Theatres – unite to stage playwright Chris Bush’s new trilogy of plays Rock (Crucible), Paper (Lyceum), Scissors (Studio).

Directed by Robert Hastie and associate artistic director Anthony Lau, three interlinked but standalone plays will tell the story of Sheffield’s oldest scissor manufacturer and the three generations who go to war over what happens to the factory site.

In a theatrical first, the same cast perform in the Crucible, Lyceum and Studio simultaneously, dashing between scenes, when a character exits one stage, they arrive on another. From June 14 to July 2, 2022.