Chichester: The National of the south coast

Not too long ago, Chichester Festival Theatre was a bit of a mess.

First, there was the financial crisis. Then, the arrival of the artistic triumvirate of Ruth Mackenzie, Martin Duncan and Stephen Pimlott, who managed to secure extra public funding, but programmed seasons which failed to appeal to large swathes of the local population. When they left in 2005, the phrase “poisoned chalice” was muttered whenever the issue of who might replace them was discussed.

Step forward Jonathan Church..

It looked like a near impossible job, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that with the announcement of the venue’s 2009 season, the turnaround is now complete.

Certainly, he has been helped by the levels of funding that his predecessors managed to secure, but even so, the transformation has been remarkable.

The 2009 season boasts four world premieres and an elongated season, which features a perfect balance of local crowd pleasers - Oklahoma! and Hay Fever spring to mind - with exciting and ambitious new works - the four world premieres - and big name casting - Joseph Fiennes as Cyrano and Diana Rigg as Judith Bliss.

You only have to look at the role call of directors working at the venue next season to see that Chichester is fast becoming the National Theatre of the south coast - Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre (both former NT directors), Howard Davies (an NT associate), as well as man of the moment Rupert Goold, among others.

It’s almost enough to make you want to move to West Sussex. Except that the other beauty of the new regime at Chichester is that so much of the product is transferring to London. In fact, it’s one of very few regional venues to still be moving product into the capital.

Already we’ve had Macbeth, The Last Confession and Six Characters in Search of an Author. Meanwhile, from this year’s season, two shows are already down to move into town - the Ronald Harwood double bill (into the Duchess Theatre) and Enron (to the Royal Court, as part of a co-producing arrangement). And, one really wouldn’t be surprised to see more of the summer season making the trip, reviews and sales willing.

Chichester has been the theatrical success story of the last three years. Long may it continue…

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