Fanfare: Opening night of the Crucible Theatre

On 6 November 1971 the Crucible Theatre opened to the public with an evening of entertainment that kicked off half a century of theatrical experimentation.

Full house for the cut-price ‘sneak preview’ of Fanfare, 6 November 1971

Fifty years ago today – on 6th November 1971 – the Crucible Theatre opened to the public for the first time with an evening of entertainment designed to show off the theatre’s radical thrust stage and warm up Sheffield audiences to its theatrical potential. Fanfare, as the evening was called, was a mixture of knock-about children’s theatre, high-brow drama, and good old-fashioned sing-along Music Hall.

Although the official opening was slated for November 9th and previews were booked in for the two days before, at the last minute it was decided to hold a ‘Sneak Preview’ to let the front of house staff get used to managing a full audience in the new building. The evening was a sell-out and thus November 6th became the true birthday of the Crucible – that’s certainly how the theatre’s first Artistic Director, my father Colin George, remembered it many years later.

Colin George directs young actors from Theatre Vanguard during Fanfare, 6 November 1971

For Part 1 of the evening, it is no surprise that my father chose children to be the first performers on the Crucible stage, improvising a battle between the Aztecs and Conquistadors. The Crucible’s predecessor, the Sheffield Playhouse, had long championed children’s theatre, running a Saturday morning theatre club for 14-18 year olds (in collaboration with the Pegasus Theatre Club) and later forming its own children’s theatre company, Theatre Vanguard, which set up its HQ in the Crucible’s Studio Theatre. Opening the Crucible with their youthful improvisations emphasised the sense of rebirth and the city’s involvement in the new theatre. 

Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge in Swan Song, Crucible Theatre, November 1971

Next up was Swan Song, Anton Chekhov’s short play about an elderly actor and prompter, alone on the stage one night long after a performance, reminiscing about life in the theatre. For this role my father secured the services of a rising young star, Ian McKellen, who was at the time playing Hamlet in London, and his former colleague from the National Theatre, Edward Petherbridge. Both had acted on Chichester’s thrust stage and brought their experience with them to Sheffield. My father remembered Ian delivering a clutch of Shakespearean speeches and one from Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin which he had learnt in the original Russian.

Ian recalls in the Foreword he wrote to ‘Stirring Up Sheffield‘ that the Crucible’s designer, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, lent him her father’s shirt to wear for his role as Vasily Svetlovidov, noting that ‘[t]his maternal act was typical of the family atmosphere pervading the new theatre backstage.’ Looking at photos from the time it is remarkable to see the 32-year-old Ian convincingly playing a 68-year-old actor; 50 years later he has just reprised his role as Hamlet at the age of 82!

The Austin Seven during the technical rehearsal for Fanfare

Then it was time for the Music Hall finale, chaired by Douglas Campbell, with comic and musical sketches created by the Crucible Company. These included the dramatic appearance of a vintage Austin Seven which drove out of the one of the tunnels onto the stage during a rendition of the Music Hall classic, ‘Get Out and Get Under’, performed by the daredevil Charles Keating. Next came one of Sheffield’s most popular homegrown talents, my mother Dorothy Vernon, who sang ‘Bird in a Gilded Cage’ and a Yorkshire folk song, ‘Polly Parker’. Then came the big surprise.

My mother started singing ‘Before the Parade Passes By’ from the musical Hello, Dolly! when at the end of the first chorus, the air was shattered by the sound of a drum pounding from the back of the empty stage. Up went the drapes and the Sheffield Steel Band made a loud and thrilling entrance onto the stage, led by their outrageous conductor. The evening ended with the whole Company on stage for a rousing rendition of ‘Consider Yourself at Home’ from Oliver! The Crucible had been born.

Dorothy Vernon leads the Company in signing ‘Consider Yourself at Home

Although intended as nothing more than a warm-up for the new theatre, Fanfare set the tone for what was to come at the Crucible – a mixture of classical drama performed by the leading actors of each generation, children’s theatre (think of the Christmas pantos) and great entertainment, all designed to put the Crucible at the heart of the local community. Half a century later, this legacy lives on in Sheffield Theatres.


I will be launching ‘Stirring Up Sheffield: An insider’s account of the battle to build the Crucible Theatre at the Crucible on Thursday November 11th at 3pm. If you would like to attend, please send an RSVP to the publisher:

My thanks to Nick Robinson for sharing the first image of the opening night at the start of the article. The other images are from the Crucible Archive and George family archive.