Review: a truly magical Midsummer Night from Chichester Festival Youth Theatre

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, West Dean Gardens, until Saturday, August 19.
Chichester Festival Youth Theatre - A Misummer Night's Dream. Pic by Peter FludeChichester Festival Youth Theatre - A Misummer Night's Dream. Pic by Peter Flude
Chichester Festival Youth Theatre - A Misummer Night's Dream. Pic by Peter Flude

The fabulous thing about Chichester Festival Youth Theatre is that they don’t just challenge themselves; they also challenge us, the audience. The result, tonight, has been a very, very special night indeed.

Confession time. I have never yet seen a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I have remotely enjoyed… until this evening. Too many productions are predicated on look-at-me aren’t-I-cleverness. Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, however, attack the play with the two things it cries out for, youthfulness and energy. And they match them both with supreme skill, wonderfully directed to their maximum potential by Jon Pashley and clearly very well assisted by vocal coach Marcia Carr.

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The joy is that nobody tonight said a line that they didn’t understand; and it’s a total comprehension which transmits itself to the audience. The young performers’ full absorption and complete engagement translate themselves into a remarkable fluency which is simply stunning to hear. Nothing is laboured; everything flows; and the fun mounts and mounts.

Adding to the spectacle of it all, of course, is the fact that we are in West Dean Gardens, simply the most perfect setting. Watch this and you will wonder why anyone ever attempts to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream indoors. Why would you? It’s surely missing the point. Even when the drizzle finally started to fall towards the end, it somehow added to the magic. Watch this and you will walk away feeling that you really have participated in the most extraordinary dream. Finally, the play’s title completely makes sense. And as the natural light fades, so the lights take over – a huge part of the growing enchantment.

We move from location to location within the gardens, each perfectly matched to what is unfurling. The organisation of it all is exemplary. You never feel herded. Instead you are simply chaperoned ever deeper into this fabulous fantasy.

As for the performances, well, as ever, it feels wrong to single out names when clearly the whole thing works so well because everyone is working together so brilliantly. But Elise Christina Donoghue’s love-lorn Helena, so wonderfully expressive, is superb; Francesca McBride’s Oberon teases out a complex character, pretty rotten, but certainly not all bad; Milena Ruiz Harrison is a wonderfully elegant Titania; and Priya Uddin is the perfect Puck, energetic and playful. But the scene stealer, initially Bob the Builder, ultimately and hilariously the tragic hero, is Devon Sandell’s Nick Bottom. Such ease and confidence, such fabulous comic timing. He sends us home beaming.

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Lovely too is the music from Zoë West, Luc Garner-Gibbons, Theo Bracey and Eleanor Mead, especially the song which takes us into the fairy kingdom. Otherwise they help lead us from place to place, a key part of the night’s continuity.

To stage this play in this location was a brilliant idea; to stage it with a cast so delightful and accomplished takes it to the next level. Already it’s seeming that when the 2023 Chichester Festival Theatre season is done and dusted, this might be the night – for its sheer inventiveness and charm – that stands out above all else.