Chichester Festival gets under way tonight (9 May 2006, previews from 5 May) with the opening of Entertaining Angels, starring Penelope Keith (pictured).

The 45th annual summer season – the first under new artistic director Jonathan Church (See News, 2 Nov 2005) – continues until 1 October 2006, with other highlights including: the first UK revival of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s colossal 1980 dramatisation of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic Broadway musical Carousel; and Howard Brenton and David Hare’s indictment of Fleet Street, Pravda, co-produced with Church’s former company, Birmingham Repertory Theatre; as well as revivals of Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward and August Strindberg (See News, 20 Feb 2006).

In the Festival Theatre

Opening the season in the Festival Theatre, Penelope Keith returns to Chichester to play a vicar’s widow in Richard Everett’s new comedy, which continues until 27 May 2006. After many years of being on her best behaviour - and personally baking two tons of light crust pastry - the death of Grace’s much-loved husband gives her the freedom to do and say exactly what she pleases. Keith has previously appeared at Chichester in The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Importance of Being Earnest and Relatively Speaking and was last seen in the West End in Blithe Spirit in 2004. Alan Strachan directs the new production.

The season’s main musical is Carousel, the doomed love story of naïve mill worker Julie Jordan and swaggering free spirit Billy Bigelow. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1945 musical drama is in the main theatre from 5 June to 1 September 2006, directed by Angus Jackson (Elmina’s Kitchen, Promises Promises) and choreographed by Javier De Frutos (Rambert Dance Company).

The centrepiece of the season is The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, newly adapted by David Edgar and directed by Jonathan Church and Philip Franks. The two-part epic features a cast of more than 20 actors, who tell the tale of Nicholas as he embarks on a thrilling journey through 1830s England. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s groundbreaking 1980 production by Trevor Nunn and John Caird has gone down in theatrical lore. This updated version is the first major revival since then. It runs in repertory from 24 June to 2 September 2006.

Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda is also directed by Church at the Festival Theatre, running from 8 to 23 September 2006. The political satire became one of the National Theatre’s greatest hits when it premiered there in 1985. Written at the height of Thatcherism, it put the new world of media arrogance on stage for the first time. Following Chichester, it transfers to Birmingham from 29 September to 14 October 2006.

In the Minerva Theatre

Opening the season in CFT’s smaller auditorium, Terence Rattigan’s last play, In Praise of Love (1973), runs from 9 June to 8 July 2006. In the drama about love and death, a wife conceals an incurable disease from her husband, who, in reality, knows but does not think his wife does. Based on the true story of Rex Harrison’s wife, Kay Kendall, Rattigan’s play deals with a highly repressed English marriage.

These themes are echoed in Noel Coward’s series of one-act plays, Tonight at 8.30, performed in two triple-bills from 13 July to 2 September 2006. The plays, directed by Lucy Bailey, were originally developed for Coward to perform with Gertrude Lawrence in 1935, and feature characters ranging from bickering music hall performers to domineering wives and down trodden husbands.

Concluding the season in the Minerva, August Strindberg’s psychological drama, The Father, runs from 7 to 30 September 2006. When a wife hints that her daughter’s father may not be her husband, a fight to the death ensues as both parents bid to control their daughter’s future and win her exclusive affections. Mike Poulton’s adaptation is directed by Angus Jackson.

The season also includes Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s promenade performance of Grimm Tales from 1 to 12 August 2006, as well as workshops and rehearsed readings.

- by Caroline Ansdell & Terri Paddock