Sheffield’s Crucible: the revolutionary theatre that was almost snookered

Half a century ago, Colin George faced down the doom-mongers and campaigners to bring the city a radical alternative to proscenium theatre: the open, thrust stage

Entering Sheffield’s Crucible theatre – currently celebrating its 50th anniversary – always gives one a lift: there is something about its open stage that seems to presage excitement. It helps that under its four directors this century – Michael Grandage, Samuel West, Daniel Evans and Rob Hastie – the work has been of high quality and the audience steadfastly loyal. But I’ve just been reading an extraordinary book – Stirring Up Sheffield by Colin George, the theatre’s late founding director, and his son Tedd – that records in bruising detail the bloody battles the building faced half a century ago.

I first came across Colin George when he was a well-graced actor and contemporary of Albert Finney at the Birmingham Rep in the mid-1950s. He moved into directing first in Nottingham and then in Sheffield where in 1965 he succeeded Geoffrey Ost in running the city’s Playhouse. George had lots of fresh ideas, including playing in repertoire and setting up a young people’s company, but was staggered when invited to a meeting at the town hall in 1966 to be asked by a former Lord Mayor, “Now then, where do you want your new theatre?”

Uplifting ... Sheffield’s Crucible theatre.
Uplifting ... Sheffield’s Crucible theatre. Photograph: Hufton+Crow-VIEW/Alamy

Plans were drawn up for a main auditorium, with a jutting forestage, and for a flexible studio. But the big moment, that was to have a lasting effect on Sheffield and on British theatre, came when George and his ally on the Playhouse board, David Brayshaw, went on a fact-finding mission to North America. They had already heard the great peripatetic director Tyrone Guthrie talking with missionary fervour about the supremacy of the open stage. What they saw at the Guthrie theatre in Minneapolis and at the Stratford festival in Ontario convinced them that this was where the future lay. Guthrie’s own magical production of The House of Atreus persuaded them that the sculptural possibilities of the open, or thrust, stage knocked into a cocked hat the pictorial illusion of the proscenium theatre.

It was a Damascene conversion and, to their credit, the board backed George’s radical vision of an open stage for Sheffield’s new theatre. But this was where the trouble began. Bernard Miles, founder of London’s Mermaid theatre, led a hostile media campaign against the idea branding the three-sided stage as “an abortion born of street platforms set up inside bear and bull-baiting rings and inn-yards”. One of Sheffield’s main papers, the Star, took up the cause, wondering how drawing-room drama as well as visiting opera and ballet would survive on the open stage. An articulate local theatregoer campaigned, with almost sexual fervour, against “the stage that really thrusts! Deeper than deep!”

Today this seems like a battle long since won. If you look around the UK, you find audiences respond warmly to different configurations. They flock eagerly to the open stages of the Olivier, Chichester, Stratford-upon-Avon’s Swan or the theatres-in-the round at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough or the Orange Tree in Richmond, also celebrating its 50th birthday. That doesn’t mean proscenium theatre is dead. But there is far less fun sitting in a three-tiered space, where the quality of your view depends on your income, than in one of those wrap around auditoria where the spectators inhabit the same space as the actors.

Those doom-mongers who thought the Crucible would only be suitable for certain kinds of play have also been proved ridiculously wrong. It works perfectly for an epic drama such as Schiller’s Don Carlos, which looked more at home in Sheffield than it did in London’s West End. Githa Sowerby’s Rutherford and Son, a classic Edwardian picture frame play bred of the theatre of illusion, sat comfortably in the Crucible. New work, not least Richard Bean’s The Nap, which paid homage to the Crucible’s hosting of snooker, never seems swamped by the space.

George’s candid memoir ends a touch wistfully with the premature departure of himself and his designer, Tanya Moiseiwitsch. But even if the book shows that pioneers often pay a price for their vision, it also proves that they are vindicated by time and that only minds firmly closed are opposed to the open stage.