Chichester Festival Theatre review: Why Henry VIII nearly married Anne Boleyn's sister and changed the course of history

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The Other Boleyn Girl by Mike Poulton based on the globally acclaimed novel by Philippa Gregory opens the Festival 2024 at Chichester. It marks artistic director Justin Audibert’s first season at the helm of Chichester Festival Theatre. Gary Shipton was in the audience.

Stop half a dozen people in the street at random and ask them to name an historical king of England. The chances are that most of them will say Henry VIII. While Henry radically changed the constitution and initiated the English Reformation, he is best recalled for his six wives.

The musical Six, which has played at Chichester more than once, takes a superficial look at his reign through those wives. This new play dives much deeper into the life of just one of them – Anne Boleyn, who replaced his first wife Catherine of Aragon and arguably provoked the split from Rome.

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Henry is a side character, as we see Anne (Freya Mavor) primarily in the context of her family and her siblings Mary (Lucy Phelps) and George (James Corrigan).

James Corrigan (George), Lucy Phelps (Mary), and Freya Mavor (Anne) as the siblings in Chichester Festival Theatre's The Other Boleyn GirlJames Corrigan (George), Lucy Phelps (Mary), and Freya Mavor (Anne) as the siblings in Chichester Festival Theatre's The Other Boleyn Girl
James Corrigan (George), Lucy Phelps (Mary), and Freya Mavor (Anne) as the siblings in Chichester Festival Theatre's The Other Boleyn Girl

How different our history could have proved had Henry married his mistress Mary – a county-loving girl with no pretentions of power and who delivered him a son out of wedlock.

But instead, he was entranced by the other Boleyn girl, her scheming younger sister Anne. The power went to her head until she lost both when she failed in her primary royal duty – to produce a legitimate male heir.

What is not to love about this production? The set, the costumes, and the mesmerising tale of power, corruption, greed, and family, remain beguiling interests of human nature. The acting is sublime and Miss Gregory’s story-telling holds the audience spell-bound from the opening scene.

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Mavor and Phelps are utterly compelling as the two sisters with a perfectly pitched brother George from Corrigan. But a bravura performance too from Alex Kingston as their mother.

It tells us too – something we all know – of just how different siblings can be. Mary and Anne could not strike a greater contrast. George is locked in a loveless arranged marriage because the law would punish him by death in Tudor England if he admitted to his true gay self.

There are perhaps signals too in the approach of our new artistic director Justin Audibert. This is his first ‘proper’ season at the helm having inherited Festival 2023 from his predecessor.

This is a play that Chichester audiences will love – an historic romance that is classic and classy to its core. This choice is less about risk and more about reassurance. I have no doubt that in the best traditions of the CFT, Justin will continue to push boundaries. But in this opening choice he is rightly telling the community he gets them, their theatre, and it’s safe in his hands.

With its thrust stage design, the theatre does not have a curtain. If it did, this would be the perfect curtain raiser to Festival 2024. An absolute gem which deserves sell-out success.

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