Chichester Festival Theatre: why these were the 12 best plays of the Daniel Evans era

Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director Daniel Evans leaves behind a rich legacy of memories as he moves on to the RSC next year.
Our Generation Credit: Johan PerssonOur Generation Credit: Johan Persson
Our Generation Credit: Johan Persson

Of course, not every play works. How could it? There is huge risk to every production. Attempting to assemble the right cast and crew and then second-guessing or maybe leading public opinion are just the starting points.

And the irony is that Daniel’s years at the CFT started with a bit of a shocker in 2017, Forty Years On by Alan Bennett in a production in which, though we tried to find kinder ways of saying it, the lead just didn’t have command of his lines.

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Then came Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams, a turgid, unlovable production…

But against those early dodgy moments, Daniel has left us with a huge list of outstanding achievements on his stage – and these are the ones that will remain in memory.

It’s invidious, of course, to pick out favourites. But here goes – a countdown of the 12 best productions of the Daniel years (ie not just productions he directed himself, but also shows under his artistic directorship).

12) Fiddler on the Roof, 2017. It was a bit of a sticky start to the Daniel era with the plays mentioned above. The turning point was Fiddler on the Roof, the first big musical of his tenure. And what a production it was, with an outstanding star turn from Omid Djalili.

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11) Quiz, 2017, a new play by James Graham. So imaginatively staged, so well directed and performed and a sign of Daniel’s commitment to new writing in this new look at the coughing-major scandal which erupted when someone was perhaps overly keen to be a millionaire…

10) random/generations, 2018 by Debbie Tucker Green. Theatre is supposed to shock at times. It is supposed to provoke. This double bill was one half baffling, one half spine-chilling – a hideously real evocation of the unending horror of knife crime for anyone who is lucky enough to survive it. It doesn’t go away. This piece captured that horribly, horribly well.

9) Me and My Girl, 2018. Daniel was the first person we saw on the stage on the press night. And as he said straightway, when the artistic director is the first person you see, you know something has gone wrong. Matt Lucas, the star name for the show, was ill and wouldn’t be appearing. You could hear the groan. But by the end of the night, the entire audience was on its feet roaring its approval after a simply superb performance from Lucas’ understudy Ryan Pidgen. Absolutely word perfect and with terrific comic timing throughout, Pidgen brought the house down on the best CFT musical in years. Probably the best since Singin’ in the Rain and maybe even better. Huge resilience – and definitely the stuff that theatrical memories are made of.

8) Flowers For Mrs Harris, 2018. I remember thinking at the time that it was a bit overly “cor blimey”, but it’s a production I often think of, for its charm, for its simplicity, for its simple message that hope and decency can get you anywhere in the end.

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7) This Is My Family, 2019, a musical by Tim Firth. Beautifully, ingeniously staged, a real heart-warmer of a show with some cracking performances.

6) Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads, 2019. One of the most innovative productions in recent years, it came with its own venue, the temporary spiegeltent which turned into a pub in which we all sat to watch the vilest racism rumble, fester, simmer and explode. Truly shocking theatre. Shattering even. The knifing at the end. I still shiver at the thought of it.

5) South Pacific, 2021. We should have enjoyed this during the blank pandemic summer of 2020. Instead we got it a year later. And it was never part of Daniel’s plan to come back timidly from the pandemic. This was a huge-scale production which said so much not just about the CFT but about theatre in general. Theatre was back… and was going to pretend that it had never been away. This was CFT at its most confident – and most impressive.

4) The Watsons, 2018, by Laura Wade, adapted from the unfinished novel by Jane Austen. I have never got over my schoolboy horror of Jane Austen. I mean, why inflict it on a 13-year-old boy? That was never going to end well for either Jane or for me, was it. But how lovely to see Austen turned into a total riot, an absolute hoot in this delicious production. The actors run out of lines to say in this unfinished adaptation of Austen’s unfinished novel. So they turn tables. Fabulous stuff.

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3) The Unfriend – a new play by Steven Moffat, 2022. Like South Pacific, a revival from a summer that didn’t happen. And thank goodness Daniel remembered what he had first seen in it. Rarely has a play been so worth the wait. The Watsons was the funniest thing I had ever seen at the CFT… until The Unfriend came along.

2) Pinocchio – a new adaptation by Anna Ledwich, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, 2020 and 2021. A fine production, rich in invention, huge on skill… but it was the context that made it so special. In 2020, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre opened it – and soon discovered that they would have to shut down before Christmas. In all the circumstances, you knew you were watching something very special and very significant. Then the CFT announced it was coming back for 2021. Was that wise? Wouldn’t it have been better to have left a remarkable memory intact? Absolutely not, as it turns out. It was brilliant.

1) Our Generation, 2022, a new play by Alecky Blythe. Entrancing, superb – undoubtedly my favourite production of the Daniel Evans’ era and in fact a play he directed himself. Indeed, a play he even appeared in briefly when Covid hit the company. Interweaving the verbatim stories of a bunch of varied youngsters across five years or so, it proved a record in a way no one could ever have predicted when it started. The final chapter was the pandemic. Our Generation showed us exactly how it impacted on this generation – and how they managed to come out the other side.