Chichester Festival Youth Theatre - why this play set at West Dean Gardens is a dream come true

The acclaimed Chichester Festival Youth Theatre staged William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the perfect location – in woodland at West Dean Gardens north of Chichester. Gary Shipton was in the audience to give his verdict on the opening night.
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Shakespeare rarely attracts mass audiences these days. For too many his work is regarded as incomprehensible and academic – rather than easily accessible, joyous entertainment.

So what a delight to attend this promenade production – where the audience walks round the gardens at West Dean and witnesses each scene in its own unique setting – performed by a young cast who make the Bard’s words both utterly meaningful and compelling.

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It is no overstatement to say that thanks to the inspirational leadership of Dale Rooks over many years, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre has a global reputation both for excellence and identifying and nurturing some of the finest potential talent.

A scene from Chichester Festival Youth Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream staged at West Dean Gardens. Photo: Peter FludeA scene from Chichester Festival Youth Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream staged at West Dean Gardens. Photo: Peter Flude
A scene from Chichester Festival Youth Theatre's A Midsummer Night's Dream staged at West Dean Gardens. Photo: Peter Flude

This production directed by Jon Pashley proves the point. Rather than the cast reciting the words parrot fashion – such an easy but lazy course to adopt –they prove they understand every syllable they are uttering. It not merely gives the scenes authenticity it enables them to convey the meaning of every word with empathy and passion – and lots of humour.

As a result, this is exactly what Shakespeare should be all about – loads of fun, lots of music, and tons of action.

On a damp Tuesday evening, as the young cast rolled and sat on the garden grounds one felt a pang of pity for the costume team under Becky Livermore. Very few items of clothing escaped a caking in mud.

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It’s tough to single out individual performances. Everyone was brilliant.

But a few special rounds of applause:

Devon Sandell as Bottom – can he really only be 11 years old as was suggested? – who oozed giggling fun from every line. Wow, what a star of the future he will be. Sheer magic.

Priya Uddin as the mischievous Puck – what a lovely touch to have her eating popcorn as she watched the chaos her magic had unleashed, and even offering it to the audience.

Milena Ruiz Harrison as Titania – who gets to the very heart of this extraordinarily complex character.

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Olivia Dickens, Elise Christina Donoghue, Luke Wheeldon, and Alex Witcomb as the four ill-fated lovers. It takes some accomplishment to make their ill-starred romances seem real but they deliver with power, pathos and a sublime honesty.

Hannah Dickinson as Petra Quince. The Hard Hands putting on their wedding production is every bit the riot that Shakespeare intended.

The music from the Court hits just the right note too.

A few tips. Wear stout footwear and take some kind of seat on a stick if you don’t want to stand throughout – and be prepared for the rain.

2 Even if you would not normally book for Shakespeare – please don’t miss this unassailable treat.

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It was great to see Chichester’s new Artistic Director Justin Audibert on the audience trail with us. I have had the privilege of meeting him and I know our theatre could not be in better hands for the next stage in its exciting, courageous journey – starting with the one through the muddy woods of West Dean.