Caroline Quentin in Me And My Girl, Penelope Keith in The Chalk Garden, Gary Wilmot in Flowers For Mrs Harris and Rufus Hound in Present Laughter, are several of the highlights in the 2018 Chichester Festival Theatre summer season.
Other actors include Amanda Root, Oliver Ford Davies, Charles Edwards, Paul Jesson, Clare Burt and Joanna Riding in a season which will also include new plays by Charlotte Jones, Bryony Lavery and Laura Wade.
This season is about reflecting ‘the huge and genuine thirst for theatre’ that artistic director Daniel Evans and executive director Rachel Tackley discovered in the city last year.
This season there will be three new plays that happen to be by women; two musicals, one new, one classic; a couple of mid-20th century classics and also a couple of contemporary revivals, one the provocative Cock, a play about sexual fluidity by Dr Foster writer Mike Bartlett.
“We are really proud of the season,” Rachel said. “It has been hard work. There were some last-minute changes, but we wanted to produce something that we were deeply proud of – and we are.”
Daniel said: “I think the main difference between this year and last year is that we have been talking to the audience and enjoying their feedback on the 2017 season, which on the whole was really lovely.
“We have seen that there is an appetite for contemporary works and that we have one of the most theatre-literate audiences in the country. We have been able to programme some challenging works in the Minerva alongside the more popular pieces in the season.”
Directors new to the Festival are Natalie Abrahami, Michael Blakemore, Tinuke Craig, Sean Foley and Kate Hewitt, alongside Daniel Evans, Jonathan Munby, Alan Strachan and Samuel West.
Daniel added: “This season we will achieve a 50:50 gender balance in our acting company, which includes some of the most exciting and beloved names in British theatre.”
Opening the season, Sean Foley directs Rufus Hound in Noël Coward’s Present Laughter.
“It is about making sure that the audience come along and have a rollicking good time,” Daniel said. “It is just brilliant. I think it is Coward at his best, about a very narcissistic actor having a mid-life crisis. It borders on farce, but the one-liners that Coward comes up with are just amazing.
“Rufus has been here before. He was in Neville’s Island, and as an actor he has just got great comedic gifts and effortlessly connects with his audience.”
The main house continues with Penelope Keith, Amanda Root and Oliver Ford Davies in Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, directed by Alan Strachan – a play set on the Downs from a writer who lived in Rottingdean.
“Kenneth Tynan said it was the funniest play written since the Restoration. It was always played by the great grandes dames, and you think who could be fabulous in such a role, and you immediately think of Penelope Keith. That kind of effortless comedy is one of her unique skills.”
Daniel himself will direct the next two main-house shows, both musicals – Me And My Girl with Caroline Quentin and then Flowers For Mrs Harris featuring Clare Burt, Joanna Riding and Gary Wilmot.
Me and My Girl appeals for the contrast it will bring to last year’s considerably-darker big musical, Fiddler on the Roof, Daniel says. Quentin will be a great addition.
“We needed someone that had funny bones and that could play a duchess who is part battleaxe, part flirt, and we have seen that in Caroline ever since Men Behaving Badly. She is also a wonderful singer. She was in the original ensemble of Les Miserables.”
As for the show: “I just love those brilliant old jokes. It has to be seen in the music-hall context. I love all that, that kind of language and those great tunes that make people want to dance.”
Next up in the main house, Flowers For Mrs Harris, based on the novel by Paul Gallico, will also be directed by Daniel, a show which has grown out of his days in Sheffield where the piece was first performed and has since been reworked into its present form. Gary Wilmot will star.
“It’s such a wonderfully-joyful piece,” Rachel said.
“Very uplifting. It’s about a woman who sees a Dior dress and decides that she wants it, but it is about her saying yes to life and moving on from the death of her husband,” Daniel added.
Taking the main house into the autumn will be The Midnight Gang by David Walliams, adapted by Byrony Lavery, music and lyrics by Joe Stilgoe, directed by Dale Rooks.
“It will be wonderful to have a family show during the festival where the whole family can come together,” Rachel said.
Daniel added: “David is an award-winning writer and Dale is an award-winning director. It will be great fun.”
Concluding the year on the main-house stage, Chichester Festival Youth Theatre presents Rufus Norris’s version of Sleeping Beauty.
Priority booking for Friends of Chichester Festival Theatre opens Saturday, February 24 (online and booking forms only); Wednesday, February 28 (phone and in person). Public booking opens Saturday, March 3 (online only); Tuesday, March 6 (phone and in person). cft.org.uk; 01243 781312.