Very different season for Chichester

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Chichester Festival Theatre bosses will shy away from calling it a tent; the CFT’s temporary new summer structure will be much, much more sophisticated than that, they say.

But artistic director Jonathan Church is delighted that the venue’s new Theatre in the Park will be the perfect platform for this summer’s big musical: the circus showman-inspired Barnum.

The show will be the summer centrepiece in a very different summer season ahead, announced today.

With the theatre in the middle of a massive multi-million pound refurbishment and redevelopment programme, the CFT’s main house will remain closed throughout 2013.

This summer, it will be replaced by the new temporary Theatre in the Park close by, which will stage two shows, opening with Barnum (July 15-August 31), followed by Neville’s Island by Calendar Girls writer Tim Firth (September 11-28).

The Minerva Theatre will be offering much more of a traditional season, opening on April 22 with The Pajama Game for a summer to include the world premiere of If Only by David Edgar; a revival of last year’s Minerva smash hit, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, starring Henry Goodman; and Another Country by Julian Mitchell.

“In a sense last year was all about celebrating the birthday, our 50th anniversary,” says Jonathan, “and also celebrating our three extraordinary (theatrical) spaces (with the temporary addition of Theatre on the Fly). It was also about bringing back some of the actors that have meant the most to us.

“This summer is much more about working with a new temporary theatre, a new space and all its challenges. We were starting from the basis that having spent seven years building up our audiences, we were not going, during the refurbishment, simply to send our audiences home. We have especially built up our audiences for musicals which have grown and grown and grown, so not doing anything this year was never an option. It just felt wrong.”

And so the idea of the temporary theatre took root: “It will be designed around (the design of) our theatre. It will be a thrust stage, like our theatre, of almost exactly the same proportions. It will have 1,400 seats, just as the Festival Theatre originally had 1,400 seats. No one will be further away from the stage than they would be now, and it will be clear span. There will not be poles holding it up. It is designed so that it will be supported from the outside.”

And Jonathan is sure he has secured a good deal for Chichester: “It will be built for us from scratch, but we have done an arrangement with the designer we buy it from that we will sell it back when we have done with it. We will not be left with a tent in a shed at the end of the season; instead, the tent designer gets a nearly new tent at the end of it all.

“But we will shy away from the word tent. That has got all the wrong connotations! This will be the Rolls Royce of canvas buildings! We are calling it a temporary theatre, but of course, it does have the glorious benefit of being exactly the right sort of building for Barnum.”

The show will be produced in association with Cameron Mackintosh who came to the CFT with the idea some time ago, feeling that the CFT’s “concrete tent” (ie the main house) was just right: “But now, by this marvellous moment of timing, we will have our temporary building for it.”

The show is based on the life of P T Barnum covering the period from 1835-1880 in America and the major cities of the world where the showman took his performing companies. The production combines elements of traditional musical theatre with the spectacle of the circus. The CFT production will star Broadway performer Christopher Fitzgerald as Barnum – a performer recommended to them by Stephen Sondheim, no less.

Minimising the costs of the temporary building (more expensive the longer it stands there), the show will open mid-July, condensing the season into the busiest, hopefully best-weather months of the summer.

The second show in the new Theatre in the Park, following on from Barnum, will be Neville’s Island by Tim Firth, the man behind the huge success of Calendar Girls which premiered in Chichester a few before ago before conquering the country on a string of tours.

As CFT artistic director Jonathan says, though, this is a piece from early in Tim’s career, developed with Alan Ayckbourn who commissioned it, encouraged the young writer and staged it. The piece later transferred to the West End and has been seen in translation all round the world. It has been in almost continuous production since its premiere.

“It was taken into London 20 years ago in a production which starred Tony Slattery.

“It’s about four businessmen on an outward bound team-building exercise on Lake Windermere; their boat sinks and they scramble onto an island in the middle of Lake Winderemere in the middle of November, with just one rucksack and bits and bobs.

“It’s one of the funniest plays I have ever seen. These men are so not suited to the outdoor life. Like Ayckbourn, it is very, very funny, but it has also got its dark side. There are shades of Lord Of The Flies. The longer they spend together, the more strained their relationship gets.

“I think it will work so well in the venue that we will have where the challenge will be to create an installation that will be an island in the middle of the lake. Tim Firth describes the piece as a comedy set in thick fog!”

When the Minerva season launches in April, it will bring to a close a succession of dark months at the CFT – months which have brought home to many the extent to which the CFT is central to the city’s economy.

Without nights at the theatre to provide pre-theatre meals for, certainly a number of restaurants have felt the pinch.

CFT artistic director Jonathan admitted he had heard restaurateurs saying words to that effect.

“Certainly it feels very different in Chichester and it certainly feels different for us, sitting in our (temporary huts) staring at a soggy field. We are doing half as much work this summer as we did last year, and with the reopening of the theatre in 2014, I think there will be another quiet patch at the beginning of the season to get everything ready, with the season opening later than usual.

“But I am hoping that next year we will go a little big later into the autumn and make up the difference.

“But I think the really exciting thing is the big hole that is being dug at the theatre at the moment” – a real sign of progress amid the massive upheaval.

Struggling businesses should try to hang on in there, with all the promise of a very bright future, Jonathan suggested.

Season at a glance:

Theatre in the Park

Chichester Festival Theatre in Association with Cameron Mackintosh presents Christopher Fitzgerald as Barnum; music by Cy Coleman; lyrics by Michael Stewart; book by Mark Bramble in a Revised Version by Cameron Mackintosh and Mark Bramble. Director Timothy Sheader. July 15– August 31.

Neville’s Island by Tim Firth. Director Angus Jackson. September 11-28.

Minerva Theatre

The Pajama Game. Words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross; book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, based on Bissell’s novel 7½ Cents. Director Richard Eyre; choreographer Stephen Mear. April 22-June 8.

If Only by David Edgar - world premiere. Director Angus Jackson. June 14-July 27

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, starring Henry Goodman. Director Jonathan Church. August 15-September 14.

Another Country by Julian Mitchell. Director Jeremy Herrin. September 18-October 19.

Chichester Festival Youth Theatre presents The Witches by Roald Dahl, adapted by David Wood. Director Dale Rooks. December 7-January 4 2014.

Booking dates

Friends Priority booking opens: Tuesday, February 26 (online and by booking form) and Tuesday, March 5 (by phone and in person). Booking for all opens: Thursday, March 7 (online only) and Monday, March 11 (by phone and in person). Box office: 01243 781312. Book online at cft.org.uk.