Finally back at Chichester Festival Theatre.... after 37 years!

Finally, finally, after a two-year delay, Alex Jennings is making his first return to Chichester Festival Theatre since 1985.

Alex Jennings
Alex Jennings

The Southbury Child, a new play by Stephen Beresford, was originally scheduled for the first pandemic summer of 2020. Now it returns for 2022, running from June 13-25.

“We did a read-through and then we were sent home with Covid. A couple of us had it.”

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And then everything changed.

“The Southbury Child disappeared and I was supposed to be going to Australia to do a musical which I had done before. We were meant to be doing that at the Sydney Opera House. But I was really fortunate in a way. TV and film started to get going by being on top of all the protocols so I was really, really lucky and I was really busy. I had a couple of TV series and films. But this is my first time back in the theatre apart from recitals, my first time back in the rehearsal room for a long time. And it is just fantastic to be back in the company of actors again. You can get that sort of feeling in TV and film but it is just not the same really so I do think it's going to be quite scary stepping back onto the stage!”

In the piece, sharp-witted, wilful and frequently drunk, vicar David Highland has kept a grip on his parish through a combination of disordered charm and high-handed determination. But when his conscience forces him to take a hard line with a parishioner who wants Disney balloons at a family funeral, he finds himself dangerously isolated from public opinion...

“There is wit and humour and humanity and we are just discussing how to pitch it, but that's something that the audience will tell us all about. There are serious tragic elements to the story but it is also very funny and also heart-touching/breaking. At the moment in rehearsals he is not the same person in scene one and scene two but actually Peter Hall gave me a very good note saying that you don't have to be play the whole character in every scene. None of us are consistent. So there is a lot to explore, just to be looking at somebody with faith which is not my world. I don't share the belief that the character has, but I can certainly see the attraction . Talking to vicars and people that do have faith as part of the research was very helpful.”

Working with director Nicholas Hytner was also a big part of the attraction: “I think we must have worked together 12 or 14 times. The first time I worked with Nick was in 1985 in Chichester when I did the whole season on a play-as-cast contract, where you agreed to the contract and don't know what you were going to be playing. I did the whole season. I was in Cavalcade and I was in Antony and Cleopatra with Diana Rigg and Denis Quilley and I also did The Scarlet Pimpernel which Nick directed. I was quite grumpy about doing play as cast because I'd been in the business for five years by then but that season changed everything hugely for me, working with Nick. Nick liked what I did and he gave me a big opportunity which then led to me going to the RSC. It was a real turning point for me that summer.”