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Chichester Festival Theatre celebrates its golden jubilee in style

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Among this year’s show business anniversaries, that of the Chichester Festival Theatre must rank as one of the most important. Fifty years ago it opened, as a species of trial-run for Olivier’s eventual tenure of the National Theatre, with a glittering array of productions – personally I have fond memories of Uncle Vanya and Saint Joan in particular from those early years. Uncle Vanya, in the Michael Frayn translation of Chekhov, is fittingly the opening production of the 2012 season and will be staged in the Minerva Theatre.

Directed by Jeremy Herrin, it opens on 30 March and runs until 28 April. The cast includes Dervla Kirwan, Roger Allam and Timothy West. Another classic play with connexions to a previous iconic Chichester production, this time from 1984, is The Way of the World; Rachel Kavanaugh’s production with Penelope Keith as Lady Wishfort is between 13 April to 5 May in the Festival Theatre itself.

A world première follows, also in the Festival Theatre. It’s A Marvellous Year for Plums by Hugh Whitemore. Described as a political thriller, though one which has parallels in the world today, it centres on the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 when the British Prime Minister was an ailing Anthony Eden. From 11 May until 2 June, it is directed by Philip Franks. Casting has yet to be announced.

In the Minerva from 18 May until 16 June there’s another world première. This is a comedy by award-winning playwright Michael Wynne called Canvas. Three couples try to escape some of the pressures of high-powered modern life through a camping holiday. But, of course, rural idylls seldom live up to expectations. It’s directed by Angus Jackson. Then Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate brushes up its Shakespeare while pursuing its tuneful course in the Festival Theatre between 18 June and 1 September.

This is a Trevor Nunn production with choreography by Stephen Mear – the team responsible for the National Theatre’s staging of Porter’s Anything Goes. A translation by George Tabori of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with Henry Goodman in the title role is in the Minerva from 29 June until 28 July. Chichester’s artistic director Jonathan Church is staging this production.

A gala performance on 14 July to mark the Festival Theatre’s golden jubilee punctuates the run of Shaw’s Heartbreak House between 6 July and 25 August. Derek Jacobi plays Captain Shotover in Richard Clifford’s production. At the Minerva, a new comedy written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn takes the form of Surprises from 8 August to 8 September. This plays in repertoire with the same writer’s Absurd Person Singular, which opens on 10 August. As part of the London 2012 Festival, there are opportunities for you to see both plays on the same day.

The main season has a co-production with the Liverpool Everyman Theatre and Playhouse from 7 to 29 September in the Festival Theatre. It’s Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, to be directed by Janet Suzman – herself a renowned Cleopatra – with Michael Pennington and Kim Cattrall in the title roles. Jonathan Kent directs Coward’s Private Lives in the Minerva between 21 September and 27 October. Anna Chancellor plays Amanda with Toby Stephens (son of [Maggie Smith and [Robert Stephens) in Coward’s own role of Elyot.

The Minerva Theatre’s predecessor was, as some of us remember, The Tent. Its successor is Theatre on the Fly, where youth theatre work, play readings, concerts and films will jostle for attention. Notable among these offerings are David Suchet in a rehearsed reading of the Poirot play Black Chiffon on 15 July and Patricia Routledge in conversation with Edward Seckerson between 30 July and 1 August. This is called Facing the Music: A Life in Musical Theatre. And if you want to come away with a souvenir other than the programme for the show you’be just seen, what about Kate Mosse’s history of the theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre at Fifty?


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