Starry line-up unveiled for Chichester Festival Theatre summer season

Ian McKellen, Omid Djalili, One Foot in the Grave star Richard Wilson and Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden are the big names in the Chichester Festival Theatre 2017 summer season announced today.

Thursday, 16th February 2017, 12:54 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st March 2017, 9:20 am
Chichester Festival Theatre's Executive Director Rachel Tackley and Artistic Director Daniel Evans. Photo by Tobias Key.
Chichester Festival Theatre's Executive Director Rachel Tackley and Artistic Director Daniel Evans. Photo by Tobias Key.

Unveiling their first season in charge, new CFT bosses – executive director Rachel Tackley and artistic director Daniel Evans – are promising “great plays with great actors.”

McKellen will star as King Lear in a Minerva production which may well be relayed to a big screen outside to accommodate anticipated demand; British stand-up comedian and actor Omid Djalili will take the lead in the classic musical The Fiddler on the Roof; and Richard Wilson will open the summer season as the Headmaster in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On.

The season will also see a major Tennessee Williams revival, with Marcia Gay Harden starring in Sweet Bird of Youth.

Rachel and Daniel said they were delighted with the season which has come together: “I love the broad range of it,” said Rachel. “Announcing a season is a bit like inviting someone into your house. You want them to love all the individual rooms, but you want them to love the overall effect, and I think what we are offering is thrilling.

“It has taken a long time to put the season together. We can’t wait for people to see it.”

The season also offers a brand-new play about Charles Ingram, the infamous “coughing Major” in the Who Wants to be A Millionaire? scandal – one of three new plays in the programme.

The season will also include The Norman Conquests, a classic trio of interconnecting plays by Alan Ayckbourn. Seen from differing perspectives, the plays are performed by one ensemble of actors.


The season embraces classic and contemporary plays and musicals.

In major revivals:

Richard Wilson leads the cast in Forty Years On, directed by Daniel Evans.

Marcia Gay Harden makes her UK theatre debut with Brian J Smith in Sweet Bird Of Youth, directed by Jonathan Kent.

Jonathan Munby directs King Lear with an ensemble cast including Ian McKellen.

Richard Eyre directs Githa Sowerby’s The Stepmother.

Blanche McIntyre directs Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests.

Also coming up are two musicals:

Michael Longhurst directs Sharon D Clarke in the first new UK production of Tony Kushner & Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, Or Change.

Daniel Evans directs Fiddler On The Roof, with Omid Djalili.

There will also be three new plays:

Quiz by James Graham, directed by Daniel Evans.

The House They Grew Up In by Deborah Bruce, directed by Jeremy Herrin.

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, directed by Lisa Blair.

The new team

Chichester Festival Theatre’s executive director Rachel Tackley and artistic director Daniel Evans are delighted to reveal the season ahead. Daniel said: “We are dealing with huge expectations, but the team here is wonderful, and the audience so sophisticated and passionate.”

As for planning it all: “We just got in a room together and splurged all the ideas and all the people we wanted with a lot of post-it notes!”

A major musical for the summer was a clear starting point: “We both love musicals, and we know that the audience do. It’s an opportunity for us to reach a broader audience.” And so the first “tent post”, as Rachel calls it, fell into place, Omid Djalili and Fiddler On The Roof converging for the big summer musical.

As Daniel says: “If you know his stand-up, a lot of his best comedy is about feeling an outsider. He knows what it feels like to be from a minority living in a dominant culture, which fits in with the show, and as stand-up comic, he is very used to addressing the audience which is what Tevye does in the show. You think of the people that have played the part, Zero Mostel, Topol. Omid is in that line of actors that are larger than life and that are very warm and generous and have a very cheeky glint in their eye. I have never worked with him before but have always admired him.”

The show also gives Daniel the chance to introduce himself as Chichester’s new artistic director – the second of three shows he will direct in his first CFT summer. The first is the season opener, a revival of Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On starring One Foot in the Grave’s Richard Wilson as the Headmaster.

“It felt right that I should direct the first play,” Daniel says. “I am doing a musical, a new play, and this one, a revival, a play set in a public school in the South Downs, a play by a cherished playwright. Our audiences will love it. We are very fortunate to have a comedy genius playing the lead. It is a play examining Englishness at a time when we are all now examining Englishness again. It is very poignant and very funny. I have known Richard for a while. He has directed me twice in plays, and this is the first time I am directing him. It is great. We can be very honest and have great trust between us. He has been a mentor for me. He sees my productions and gives me notes. He is very generous.”

Another of the great attractions this summer will be Ian McKellen as King Lear in the Minerva: “Ian has played the part for the RSC in a main-stage production, I think, six years ago, and he just felt he had unfinished business with the part.

“He really wanted to revisit it and to do it in an intimate setting. His famous Macbeth was in an intimate setting. Those big parts like Hamlet or Macbeth or Othello are so rich that you play them and never think you have exhausted them.

“As an actor ages, he will always think he can bring something different to a part.”

Inevitably there will be huge demand for tickets – but this was always going to be a Minerva production, with a capacity of just 320. But as Rachel says, they will be looking at ways of expanding the show, perhaps a big screen in the car park or in the park next to the theatre: “It would be so wonderful to offer a wider audience a chance to engage with the play.”

The season

Forty Years On by Alan Bennett; directed by Daniel Evans; April 21-May 20, Festival Theatre. 1968. A public school on the South Downs. The Headmaster is retiring and today is his last day. His final task is to appear in the school play. The problem is: he’s yet to read the script... Daniel Evans will direct a cast which includes more than 50 local young people. Richard Wilson leads the cast

Caroline, Or Change; book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, music by Jeanine Tesori; directed by Michael Longhurst, May 6-June 3, Minerva Theatre. 1963. Lake Charles, Louisiana. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American maid earning thirty dollars a week working for the Jewish Gellman family. She is thirty-nine, a single parent and the mother of four children. Eight-year-old Noah Gellman visits Caroline in the basement as she works, washing and ironing. But when the boy begins leaving loose change in his laundry, his stepmother Rose devises a deterrent with revealing and far-reaching consequences.This Olivier Award-winning musical mixes blues, soul, Motown, classical music and Jewish folk songs to promise a “beautiful, uplifting and deeply-moving portrait of America” at a time of momentous social upheaval spurred by the civil rights movement. Sharon D Clarke makes her Chichester debut.

Sweet Bird Of Youth by Tennessee Williams; directed by Jonathan Kent, June 2-24, Festival Theatre. 1956, a hotel on the Gulf of Mexico. Alexandra del Lago, a fading Hollywood legend, has fled the ridicule that greeted the premiere of her come-back movie. Desperate for anonymity and forgetfulness, she is holed up in a small seaside town on the Gulf of Mexico. Tennessee Williams examines failed ambition, lost youth and love and the corruption and bigotry that lurks beneath the American Dream. Oscar and Tony Award-winning actor Marcia Gay Harden makes her UK theatre debut as Alexandra.

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien; directed by Lisa Blair, June 9-July 8, Minerva Theatre. The 1950s. Rural Ireland. Kate and Baba are best friends who long to escape their traditional families and convent school. When they finally rebel and make a break for it, their lives burst open. As they forge new identities in Dublin, the childhood friends must discover if it is possible to grow up without growing apart. Edna O’Brien’s novel The Country Girls was banned in Ireland on publication in 1960. From her much-loved book, she has created a new free-flowing play which is offered as a “frank, lyrical and wrenching exploration of young women, the loss of innocence and the tenacity of love and hope.”

Fiddler On The Roof, based on the Sholem Aleichem Stories; directed by Daniel Evans July 10-August 26, Festival Theatre. 1905. A small village in Imperial Russia. Tevye, a poor dairyman, and his wife, Golde, are blessed with five witty and beautiful daughters. The matchmaker Yente, who believes any husband is better than no husband, is busy making sensible marriage plans for them all. But Tevye’s bold daughters have their own ideas about whom to marry... Omid Djalili makes his Chichester debut.

The House They Grew Up In, a new play by Deborah Bruce; directed by Jeremy Herrin; July 14-August 5, Minerva Theatre. The present day. A residential street in south-east London. The house where reclusive siblings Peppy and Daniel were born is now stuffed full of everything they have ever owned. This hoard, their eccentric appearance and rampant garden hedge, set them conspicuously apart from others on their road. When young Ben visits from next door he is simply looking for friendship; but what happens next challenges everyone’s idea of neighbourliness…

The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby; directed by Richard Eyre; August 11-September 9, Minerva Theatre. 1924. A comfortable house in Surrey. When the orphaned Lois Relph accepts a marriage proposal from an older man, Eustace Gaydon, she believes she’s been rescued from an uncertain future. Establishing a successful business as a dress designer, Lois leaves her fortune in her husband’s hands. But when one of her devoted step-daughters needs her help, Lois is forced to address what drew Eustace to her in the first place – and, at last, to face the dark truth at the heart of her marriage. The drama is promised as “a searing look at manipulation, money and matrimony.”

King Lear by William Shakespeare, directed by Jonathan Munby, September 22-October 28, Minerva Theatre. Two ageing fathers – one a king, one his courtier – reject the children who truly love them. Their blindness unleashes a tornado of pitiless ambition and treachery – and their worlds crumble. The CFT is promising an “explosive, charged and contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s epic masterpiece in the intimate setting of the Minerva Theatre.” The ensemble of actors includes Ian McKellen in the title role, who last appeared at Chichester in The Syndicate in 2011.

Norman Conquests, a trilogy of plays by Alan Ayckbourn; directed by Blanche McIntyre; September 18-October 28, Festival Theatre. An English country house. A summer weekend. A family gathering... This classic trio of interconnecting plays, seen from differing perspectives, is performed by one ensemble of actors. Each play can be enjoyed as a single performance or seen as one event in any sequence, either over different days or on trilogy days.

Quiz, a new play by James Graham; directed by Daniel Evans; November 3-December 2, Minerva Theatre. The play offers a provocative re-examination of the conviction of Charles Ingram, ‘the coughing Major’, for cheating, following his appearance on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Youth Theatre

There will also be two contributions from Chichester Festival Youth Theatre:

Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales for Young and Old, adapted by Philip Wilson; directed by Dale Rooks; August 4-19, Cass Sculpture Foundation. In a fantastical fairy tale world, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel follow their destinies alongside other folk: mythical creatures, proud princesses, wicked witches and bold princes.

Beauty And The Beast, a new adaptation from the original fairy tale; directed by Dale Rooks, December 16-31, Festival Theatre. A cursed prince sits alone in an enchanted castle, destined to remain in monstrous form until he can learn to love and be loved in return. But who could ever love a Beast?


Priority booking for Friends of Chichester Festival Theatre opens: Saturday, February 25 (online and booking forms only); Wednesday, March 1 (phone and in person).

Public booking opens: Saturday, March 4 (online only); Tuesday, March 7 (phone and in person). or 01243 781312.

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