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McKellen Marches on Chichester

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There is something marvellous about Ian McKellen leading a large company in a small theatre -- the Minerva in Chichester -- before taking the show on the road and resuming the hobbit trail in New Zealand.

This rather knocks the proposed West End transfer of Eduardo De Filippo's The Syndicate on the head, as producer Arnold Crook ruefully remarked to me as the lights went down last night.

McKellen himself shows no signs of wilting whatsoever. On my way to the theatre, an email pinged up on my Blackberry announcing that on 4 September he'll celebrate fifty years an actor -- to the very day -- on the very stage where he first appeared, in a Man For All Seasons: the Belgrade in Coventry.

For one night only he'll perform some of his favourite speeches, answer questions and raise money for the theatre's educational work. I know actors are generous, full-hearted people by nature, but you still have to admire McKellen's dedication to the cause and the sacrifice of a rare day off; and not only that, a day off in Coventry.

I was just absorbing this information when Suzanne Bertish hailed me from a hotel lounge window and charged out on the street to say how much she'd appreciated an obituary I'd written about the great British director Michael Langham, who shaped the Stratford Ontario summer seasons and its thrust stage.

Later in the evening, someone said to me that the current Chichester revival of The Deep Blue Sea, which I've not seen, really looks a bit lost on the vast Chichester open stage.

Of course, Chichester was very much modelled on Stratford, Ontario, but they got it hopelessly wrong, and the piercing, focussed intimacy you can experience on a well designed big open or thrust stage -- as in Ontario, Epidaurus, sometimes the Olivier -- is an idle dream in Sussex.

Anyway, Suzanne was in town to support Serena (Sir Ian) and her own sister, Jane, who plays a bustling housekeeper in The Syndicate. She was taking tea with play adaptor Mike Poulton and Frances Barber, another fixture in the McKellen family.

Several more were lounging on the lawns around the theatre in Oaklands Park after completeing a matinee in Rattigan's Nijinsky, the two main combatants -- Equity president Malcolm Sinclair as Rattigan and Jonathan Hyde as Diaghilev -- bemoaning the fact that they only had eight more performances of a play they have much enjoyed doing.

Jonathan Hyde lives in Bath, so half the Syndicate company will be staying with him when they go on tour there. He was more concerned tonight, though, with finding somewhere decent to have dinner in the neighbourhood before returning for the first night after-party. He was not looking optimistic.

Those of us not directly involved were more concerned about the trains back to London. Services have been disrupted on the South Coast lines out of Victoria due to a burst water mains and the unlikely geological upheaval of a landslide in East Croydon.

My train down had run half an hour late, but all was not too bad coming back, except for the hilarious kerfuffle of a gaggle of critics running up and down the platforms and through the underpasses at Three Bridges trying to find the connecting train to Victoria only to realise that they had been on the right platform to start with.

Some were scribbling. Some were punching iPads. Some were tapping on laptops. On the night bus north from Victoria, where the roads around Wicked resemble downtown devastation in Beirut -- does no-one care what tourists must think when they arrive here? -- three of us discussed our Edinburgh schedules. Good grief, by the time we got home, it was already tomorrow we were all going...


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