Chichester Festival Theatre - a year of big successes despite all the uncertainties

Whatever 2022 is going to bring us, Chichester Festival Theatre can look back on a year of huge achievement in 2021 despite all the hardships, despite all the uncertainty.

Chichester Festival Theatre's Kathy Bourne (Executive Director) and Daniel Evans (Artistic Director) Photo Seamus Ryan
Chichester Festival Theatre's Kathy Bourne (Executive Director) and Daniel Evans (Artistic Director) Photo Seamus Ryan

At a time when the rules kept changing, the CFT’s production of South Pacific still managed to attract 64,000 theatre-goers. And perhaps even more remarkably not a single performance was cancelled. Alongside it the Festival Theatre offered interesting, challenging work in the Minerva.

Artistic director Daniel Evans said: “2021 was another rollercoaster. At the beginning of the year we were in pretty depressing territory with the third lockdown and I think everyone found that third lockdown particularly hard. The weather was not good and we were genuinely not sure how we were going to proceed or what we were going to be able to do at all. But we made a decision early on that we wanted to come back with a big musical. I think we must have been mad but I’m so proud that that’s what we did. I’m so proud that we were one of the first theatres in the country opening with a big musical.

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“One of the most devastating things about the whole situation we have been in is that it has been so hard for the freelancers in our community, the choreographers, the writers, the directors, the designers. Those were the people that may have slipped through the net and so we said that we wanted to create work for them and to give them as much work as we possibly could.”

And then of course the company had to rehearse the show in the most unusual way: “We had to acquire five new cast members as understudies for all the parts of the ensemble and we rehearsed with masks and with plastic sheeting and we had daily testing. And we had a Covid officer who was telling us if we got too close.

“It was a whole brave new world and at times it was terrifying. But at the same time there was a Blitz spirit and that was galvanising. Because the government were changing their rules week by week we just had to adapt and the amazing thing about our executive director Kathy Bourne was that she just said ‘What’s the next obstacle? Let’s get over it.’”

The approach was more than rewarded: “We did 74 performances and not a single performance was dropped, and 64,000 people came to see it. We had one performance a week that was socially distanced for people that were slightly nervous about coming back. But 64,000 was a great number, a huge feat. And another reason I’m glad we did it was because we wanted to do something comforting and these songs in South Pacific are comforting because everybody knows those songs. South Pacific was something that I had been wanting to do for ages and we had already built the set (for the proposed production at the CFT the previous year) and it had been sitting in storage ready for us.”

It’s a show that will always have a special resonance for Daniel “for many reasons not least the situation with Covid and the situation with theatre in general but also the fact that we had a really special company of actors that were really dedicated and disciplined and really wanted to make sure that we kept the show on the road

“And I do also like to do theatre which is popular. The score and the lyrics for South Pacific are just etched into our brains but at the same time when you are doing a masterpiece like this, it reveals itself in different ways in different eras. Just after the Black Lives Matter movement this was a show which really did feel like it had special resonance. This was Rodgers & Hammerstein tackling racism head on, and I really do feel that we appreciated it in today’s world in a very different way than we would have done even three years ago.”

Over the road in the Minerva were the shows and The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Home.

“And they were both in their different ways challenging, Beauty Queen because of the gruesome nature of what happens and Home because it was a very elliptical play in its meaning. In Home in effect nothing happens but the portrait of what is going to happen to all of our minds perhaps in the future was very compelling. Home turned out to be a Marmite play. People either loved it or they loathed it. Some people came back and saw it three times and each time they saw new things in it while for other people it was perhaps just too close to home.”

And then closing the year the main house was full with 70 young people performing Pinocchio with Chichester Festival Youth Theatre: “At a time when the West End was being decimated by Covid we somehow managed to open the production. Things were precarious but we got there with the show.

“And I am just so grateful for our loyal audiences. We have a fantastic core group of followers that come to us and are ready to take a risk with our programming. They came to see the big musical that they knew and loved but they were also prepared to come to see The Long Song. Obviously without our audiences we would just be nothing and we feel so incredibly lucky to have them and so very appreciative of them.”

And on the back of that, Chichester Festival Theatre can now start looking forward to its 60th anniversary summer season this year.

General booking opened at the end of November for the first two productions .

The summer season will open with plays by Chichester’s Kate Mosse and by Alecky Blythe.

Mosse’s play, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, premieres in the Festival Theatre in April 2022, directed by Róisín McBrinn (April 8-30). Alecky Blythe’s Our Generation, a co-production with the National Theatre, will be directed by Daniel Evans, opening the Minerva Theatre season (April 22-May 14).

Festival 2022 will also include Stephen Beresford’s new play The Southbury Child (June 13-25), directed by Nicholas Hytner with a cast led by Alex Jennings, a co-production with The Bridge Theatre, opening at Chichester in June before its London run. Tickets for this go on sale this year.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter has been adapted for the stage by Kate Mosse, a new play based on her novel, directed by Róisín McBrinn.

1912. In the isolated Blackthorn House on Sussex’s Fishbourne Marshes, Connie Gifford lives with her father. His Museum of Avian Taxidermy was once legendary, but since its closure Gifford has become a broken man, taking refuge in the bottle.

Robbed of her childhood memories by a mysterious accident, Connie is haunted by fitful glimpses of her past. A strange woman has been seen in the graveyard; and at Chichester’s Graylingwell Asylum, two female patients have, inexplicably, disappeared.

As a major storm hits the Sussex landscape, old wounds are about to be opened as one woman, intent on revenge, attempts to liberate another from the horrifying crimes of the past. The Taxidermist’s Daughter comes promised as a thrilling Gothic mystery set in and around historic Chichester. Kate Mosse’s novels include The Languedoc Trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel) and her new historical series, The Burning Chambers; non-fiction includes An Extra Pair of Hands. She is founder director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Our Generation is a new play by Alecky Blythe, directed by Daniel Evans in a co-production with the National Theatre.

Blythe’s new verbatim play tells the stories of a generation. Created from five years of interviews with 12 young people from all four corners of the UK, Our Generation is a portrait of their teenage years as they journey into adulthood.

Alecky Blythe’s verbatim musical London Road premiered at the National Theatre in 2011 and she later adapted it for the 2015 feature film. Her other work includes Little Revolution (Almeida Theatre) and The Riots: In Their Own Words for BBC2.

The Southbury Child is new play by Stephen Beresford, directed by Nicholas Hytner

Raffish, urbane and frequently drunk, David Highland has kept a grip on his remote coastal parish through a combination of disordered charm and high-handed determination.

But when his faith impels him to take a hard line with a bereaved parishioner, he finds himself dangerously isolated from public opinion. As his own family begins to fracture and his marriage falls apart, David must face a future that threatens to extinguish not only his position in the town, but everything he stands for.