PETWORTH FESTIVAL: Illyria mark their first quarter of a century

Oliver Gray can pinpoint the exact moment he knew he was going to create his very own outdoor touring theatre company.

“It was August 15 1991 and a friend of mine took me to Regent’s Park to see an open-air production of Macbeth,” Oliver recalls. “It was quite a grey and stormy evening. We were sitting there, and there was a line ‘The crow makes wing to th’ rooky wood’, and at that very moment, a pigeon came out of the trees and shot into the gloom.

“It just happened by coincidence, obviously, but it just happened. But you know how ideas just fall into your head. But this one fell into my head in great detail and perfectly formed. I was going to create a theatre company to tour around to all sorts of open-air locations. I knew exactly how I was going to do it, and I woke up the very next morning and I started. I was expecting a lot of people just to say ‘Oh, do tell me more’ and I didn’t tell any lies. I wouldn’t do that. But I just sat on my sofa in my flat and phoned people and told them I was setting up this company. I was expecting to do a two-week tour. I ended up with a nine-week tour.”

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That company is Illyria, and this year it celebrates its first quarter of a century with a tour which brings it back to the Petworth Festival, with a date on Sunday, July 17 at Bignor Park, Pulborough, starting at 2.30pm.

“The company are celebrating their 25th anniversary simply by doing what they do best: performing outdoors: “I dare say we will have a bit of a party at the end of it all, but really we will just carry on!

“I think it is a combination of factors behind our success. It is a little bit of luck, I have to admit, but I think it is also because I passionately believe that the theatre is sustainable provided you make sure you are offering the public something that they want to see. That doesn’t mean A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Pride and Prejudice all the time. If you develop your reputation and your name, you can perhaps offer something that is perhaps not so well known among the more popular things, something perhaps that people won’t have seen before. You can actually offer a varied portfolio of things, and then it becomes sustainable.

This year they are touring with Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.

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“When people ask me what we are doing and I tell them this, so many people say that it is their favourite, and I can see why. It appeals very much to adults. The themes are quite adult. It is about growing up and about grief and about coming to terms with grief, and you have also got this very close relationship between the father and his son. And like all Dahl, you have got the child as the hero. But unlike lots of Dahls, there is no magic or fantasy. It all happens in a very, very ordinary world...”

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