You enter a totally different world when you enter a Botho Strauss play – surreal, unsettling and very unEnglish. Which is perhaps why Strauss, one of Germany's most prolific and most performed living playwrights, has not been seen on British stages since 1996. We do like to know where we are. And with Strauss' Seven Doors, we're in alien, disconnected territory.
But then, Chichester's theme this year is “Out of This World”. Devils and supernaturals abound. In Strauss's 1988 social satire on the evils and absurdities of modern life, purgatory takes an existential, cabaret turn.
Now I have a great deal of time for Chichester's current artistic aims. It seems to me, if the first night's reception is anything to go by, that, with their European sensibility, the McKenzie/Pimlott/Duncan triumvirate are transforming their hitherto witheringly derided `middle England' audience into a far more hospitable, open-minded collection than many more self-regarding venues.
Mind you, Martin Duncan's jaunty production with Jeremy Sams' easy-on-the-ear translation smartly points the way, painting Strauss' 11-scene pageant in the most primary of comedic colours, just so we get the message. This may be German irony but, hey, it's okay to laugh. There's something here for everyone.
And so there is. There's a running gag about a failed quiz show contender, later voted “the most insignificant man in the world”, a couple of super-car salesmen in thrall to gimmickry and a laboured but quite funny dig at the petty isolationism of couples with a bride and groom who fall apart on their wedding night over a decoration.
The strongest moments by far, however, have to do with a deeper clash of the mundane and the absurd – in a manic exchange between a security guard who ludicrously wants a burly bouncer to safeguard him; and that between a suicide and a track-suited, blandly boring Void with whom he's going to have to spend eternity, talking, talking... Both scenes hilariously satirise, in the first place, public paranoia and, in the second, the humdrumness of the unimaginable.
Wonderful flights of fancy. Duncan - who directed an acclaimed production of Strauss's Time and the Room at Nottingham Playhouse and for the Edinburgh Festival in 1996 - makes things more of a caricature than he might but is powerfully served by the Chichester ensemble and outstandingly by Steven Beard, as the twitchy guard and supercilious suicide.
- Carole Woddis