CFT’s greatest show: the venue’s box office manager reveals his choice

With all our beloved venues sadly shut, there’s surely no better time than now to wallow in the fabulous memories they have given us over the years.

ENRON: Ashley Rolfe (centre) and the Traders. Photo by Manuel Harlan
ENRON: Ashley Rolfe (centre) and the Traders. Photo by Manuel Harlan

That’s the great thing about theatre. Good theatre, at least. It stays with you.

If you had to choose the best shows you’ve ever seen at Chichester Festival Theatre, which would they be?

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Mine would be Taking Sides, Collaboration and Arturo Ui. But that’s the problem. As soon as you commit yourself to an answer, images of a dozen other productions come crashing in.

And that’s what makes it so interesting… and even more interesting still when we turn the question on the people who welcome us to Chichester Festival Theatre, the people whose job it is to make our visit as enjoyable as possible.

So let’s take the plunge.

We have asked the CFT staff to select their favourite shows.

James Morgan joined CFT in 1992 and has been box office manager since 1999. He tells us why he considers 2009’s Enron to be a genius show.

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Enron

Minerva Theatre, 2009

Rupert Goold had directed Macbeth with Patrick Stewart and a post-modern Six Characters in Search of an Author in the Minerva the previous two years, and I was interested to see whether he would keep raising his game with a new play. I saw Enron in one of the early previews. The name of the company was familiar, but I was sketchy on the details of what had happened; either way, there was something semi-mythical about the name, so I was intrigued.

If you don’t know much about the story, Enron was an energy-trading and utilities company based in Houston, that carried out one of the biggest accounting frauds in history. The management falsely inflated the company's value and covered up its losses, making it seem way more successful than it was, prompting a lot of outside investment. Once the fraud was exposed, the company quickly collapsed and filed for bankruptcy in December 2001. Shareholders lost $74 billion.

Now, that might sound a bit dry as the subject of a play, especially as the financial activity was explained throughout, but Lucy Prebble’s ingenious script gave us an inside view on how it all unfolded. Without any condescension, it spelled out what they did, and how they did it. The simplicity of the explanation was crucial in turning the story into a tense drama in not slowing the pace as the story raced on. What I wasn’t expecting was the multi-media extravaganza - the TV screens, the Wall Street share price scroller projected on columns, the loud music, the stunning lighting effects. I was so caught up that after the interval when one of the screens briefly failed, I convinced myself for a second that the ‘Unable to connect’ message was a clever comment on how removed from reality these people were.

Samuel West gave a superb lead performance as Jeffrey Skilling, the architect of the fraud. This wasn’t an evil mastermind; this was a geeky number-cruncher whose risk-taking grew the more he got away with. He was a Zuckerberg-like nerd, curious and arrogant and feeling bulletproof, which would ultimately cause his downfall.

An ensemble cast powered the show, whirling across the stage in surreal scenes as the company’s minions, mixing music, mime and movement, but Tom Goodman-Hill as Chief Financial Officer Andy Fastow and the late Tim Piggott-Smith as Enron founder Kenneth Lay (who turned a blind eye to Skilling’s plans) gave compelling performances as they formed the other two prongs of the trio that undid the company.

The fact that this play premiered eight years after the fraud was uncovered and in the middle of a then-current global financial crisis gave it more weight. We were watching the tale of financial mismanagement that could never happen again. But, oh wait…

The inspired production was full of striking imagery which still resonates; the Lehman Brothers shuffling onstage in a huge, single suit; the hand puppet raptors that ate the mounting debts; Skilling and Fastow’s increasingly competitive treadmill session that highlighted the competition within this (mostly) boys club.

It has probably stayed in my mind for so long because of its sheer inventiveness. It didn’t look like any show that we had produced in the Minerva before. Slower, quieter, classic drama will always have its place, and indeed its pace, but Enron was exciting. It was loud. It was fascinating. And it was performed at a speed that stopped it ever being boring.

After transferring to the Royal Court, followed by a West End run, Enron came back to CFT on tour, in the Festival Theatre; but for those of us that saw it first time around, we were lucky to witness the birth of a genius show.

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