It’s always good to see a theatre bouncing back to artistic and financial health, and after a rocky few years where a triumvirate of artistic directors — Martin Duncan, Steven Pimlott and Ruth MacKenzie — pursued an artistically adventurous but box office defying policy at Chichester Festival Theatre (and its studio, the Minerva) that seemed to simultaneously alienated the existing audience whilst failing to attract new audiences, the arrival of Jonathan Church from Birmingham this year has already reinvigorated the place. There’s a buzz around the place, and I don’t just mean the deafening sound of the interval bells in the main house foyers. A colleague ruefully commented to me that it’s so loud because so many of Chichester’s audience are deaf; which, I replied, is no excuse to make me deaf, too. But then that’s one of the most popular prejudices about Chichester: that its got an old, greying audience, going deafer by the year. Though this theatre may be defiantly of the middle-aged and class, it’s clearly also ready to be challenged and woken up.
Yesterday’s press openings of Strindberg’s The Father (in the Minerva) and Brenton and Hare’s Pravda (in the main house), in its first major revival since the original National Theatre staging in 1985, proved that it’s possible to make bold theatrical choices but also make them accessible. Church seems to have struck exactly the right balance between the popular and the challenging. There’s been Coward — but rare Coward, in a double-bill of his Tonight at 8.30 sketches; there’s been a new play, Entertaining Angels, but one starring Penelope Keith, a Chichester stalwart (and now out on a national tour); there’s been a musical, but instead of one of the easier Rodgers and Hammerstein warhorses, it was Carousel; there’s been the popular literary classic adaptation, but it was the two-parter David Edgar adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, originally done for the RSC, in its first major regional revival since that now legendary production.
Now Church has brought his first season to a close with a double-bill that pushes the artistic boat out still further. Having won the audience’s trust with his earlier choices, the Strindberg is a grim but gripping marital drama, chillingly played out in Angus Jackson’s production with the extraordinary Jasper Britton heading to the straitjacket as his suspicions about his daughter’s legitimacy multiply; and though Hare and Brenton’s broad satirical swipe at the changing face of the newspaper industry is now showing its age in the topicality stakes (with the changes it anticipates of press freedom and independence being compromised by the intervention of monstrous media moguls now more or less entirely wrought), it’s still fascinating to see Pravda again. (Of course, the tricks of theatrical memory — that last week saw another 1985 show, Me and My Girl, come back suffering in the fond glow of what we saw before — make demanding interventions here, too: since Anthony Hopkins gave a performance of such mesmerising danger and indelible intensity as Lambert Le Roux at the National, Roger Allam has his work cut out this time).
And just as the opening of Chichester Festival Theatre’s season in May annually marks the beginnings of the theatrical summer, so the last two productions to open have now neatly sealed it: a beautiful warm sunny Chichester day yesterday has given way to rain today. We’re now ready for winter again….