A very Chichester tale in the Minerva

Walter & Lenny, the story of the unlikely friendship between Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester, and superstar composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, represents “quite a step up” for Julia St John.“I am both producing it and directing it,” she says, “I have never produced before.”


The result will be in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre from November 11-14 where it will tell a tale special to Chichester. In 1963 Hussey asked Bernstein if he would compose a piece of choral music for his upcoming Three Choirs Festival. Bernstein accepted. An extraordinary friendship arose from their correspondence, and in 1965 The Chichester Psalms received their (almost) world premiere in the cathedral.

The sole performer in the play and indeed its deviser is Julia’s husband Peter McEnery.

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“We have worked together as husband and wife before,” Julia said. “I directed him a few years ago. We have met that territory. It’s fine. I just have to remember not to call him darling! I have worked in productions where there is a couple at the centre of it; you just have to make quite sure that everyone feels very relaxed. With this one, obviously there is no one else, but I don’t think I would treat it any differently. You just have to park that relationship outside the rehearsal room and treat it in the same way you would any other show. I will just apply exactly the same thoughts and processes to Peter. But Peter is an extremely experienced actor.

“I haven’t directed a one-person show before, but it has got the same demands for the actor even if they have got no one else to turn to. There is no support. You have to be the engine yourself. But at the same time, we are starting from exactly the same place. I don’t think the rehearsals are going to be amazing voyages of discovery. We are both very clear about what we have to do with it. It is more a question of sorting out just the mechanics of it all. For the play, I totally agree with Peter’s vision of the whole thing, which is a story about friendship. There is no alternative way to the way Peter wants to deal with it. This is not going to be standing behind a lectern. It is going to be dramatised.”

And a fascinating story it is too: “You have got these two people from different backgrounds, an English Dean, clever and cultured, and this world-famous, flamboyant composer and conductor. But Hussey was in the habit of contacting artists. He got Henry Moore to carve a Madonna and Child for him, and he amassed an extraordinary art collection of his own. He was a modernist. He really wanted, as he says, to take the relationship between the arts and the church into the 20th century.He had been introduced to Bernstein, but it was also Bernstein’s reputation. I was terribly ignorant about Bernstein before I started this. I didn’t think of him beyond West Side Story, but he was actually an extraordinary giant of music, as Hussey would have known.

“And he didn’t really specify. He gave Bernstein pretty much carte blanche. He gave Bernstein a couple of suggestions, but Bernstein came back and asked did he really have to be tied to this. He was looking at the psalms, but he wanted the freedom to do what he wanted.”

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