Open-air theatre fun in West Dean Gardens

If you were lucky enough to have been there a dozen years ago, you will certainly remember fondly John Hyatt in his Beatles wig as the youthful ingenu brought down by the demon drink.

New Theatre Productions
New Theatre Productions

It’s not a role he hopes to be reprising as New Theatre Productions offer their 38th season during this summer’s Festival of Chichester.

As ever, they will be offering two contrasting plays in rep at their home, the Pergola Open Air Theatre, West Dean Gardens.

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Entertaining Angels by Richard Everett, directed by Carol Hicks, will run on June 29, July 1, 3, 5, and 7 at 7.45pm in repertoire with The Drunkard or Down with Demon Drink!, directed by John, on June 30, July 4, 6 and 8 at 7.45pm.

“I was playing the poor chap that got led astray the last time,” John recalls. “With three weeks to go, the chap that was playing it had to drop out, and fortunately I had done it before. And fortunately, I got away with it, being 60-something playing 30. I could do it! But at 80-plus playing 30, I don’t think I could get away with it again this time! But it is good to know that I can. It has happened several times over the 37 years that somebody has had to drop out. One year, I even had to play a Gipsy Rosalie-type character. I thought ‘Thank goodness, the actress has left her dress behind!’ I am the emergency stop-gap. It suits me that if there is an emergency, I can fill the breach… but I will be hoping not to!”

For John, it’s all the latest chapter in a remarkable story as New Theatre Productions move towards their 40th anniversary: “But let’s not forget that we have got to do our 39th year first!” John says. “First and foremost, though, I suppose I just love doing it, and why should I resign while I am still on my feet! We are still getting great audiences, and all the while the demand is there, we will carry on. It doesn’t matter if it is wet one night; people will always come back.”

John believes the company’s success is a combination of things: “The loveliness of West Dean is very important. People come along and enjoy a picnic and then see a play on a lovely summer’s evening. And we are very enthusiastic about it. There are always lots of new people. (Company chairman) Peter (Breskal) assembled the cast for me, and I looked at it, and I don’t know about half the people. It is always exciting to be working with people you haven’t met before.

“And this one is a lovely one to do, musical melodrama. Musical melodrama is stories from the past, like the murder of Maria Marten, a story about something that happened that was really horrible that almost then became like a fable. This one is about warning people of the evils of drink. It was written by an American about the time of prohibition, and it was so successful in America that it just ran and ran. From the point of view of the author, it was very serious, but over time, people start to see the funny side. Brian J Burton has written the English version, and it is very English. But basically, it is a morality tale. It is set in the Victorian times because people seem to find Victorian times funnier!”

Picnics welcome. Bring your own, or they can be pre-ordered 24 hours in advance from the West Dean Gardens restaurant, which is also open for pre-theatre supper or drinks until 7.30pm on theatre nights on 01243 818215. Tickets £10; under-16s £8. Disabled access.

Tickets from Chichester Box Office, The Novium, Tower Street, Chichester, PO19 1QH; 01243 816525 or 775888;; [email protected]

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