Blog: Memories of early Chichester Festival Youth Theatre: in loving memory of Phil Hall

Chichester Festival Theatre The Tent 1987
Archival photo of The Tent – one of Rob’s favourite memories of CFYT

What do an estate agent, a filmmaker, an office manager, a comedian and an actor have in common? Not much. Yet one evening this winter, a group such as this came together in a London pub; some of us had not seen each other for decades. To us the common factor was clear – we had all been members of the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre together. The bond we formed then was still as strong after a quarter of a century.

But why now? Why had we rekindled that bond? What had changed?

To answer this I need to take you back to one afternoon the previous October. As I was about to leave my office for a meeting, the phone rang. “Rob, it’s the police?!” said my colleague. I never made it to that meeting.

My younger brother Phil, another old Youth Theatre member, had passed away suddenly at his home, and a concerned neighbour raised the alarm after he’d not been seen for several days.

Thanks to Facebook the news spread like wildfire. Instinctively, I wrote on Phil’s wall “I love you, Phil.” Fairly ambiguous in itself, but my best mate, another CFYT alumnus, Dan, who knew what had happened, also put a message. “Rest in Power, buddy.” Soon messages of sympathy, bewilderment and shock started to arrive. I realised many of these messages were from CFYT people that I hadn’t heard from for many years, sharing fantastic memories of Phil, offering support and sending Facebook friend requests as though I had seen them yesterday.

Back to the five of us in that London pub. What was it about this experience we shared at CFYT, at what was essentially an ‘after-school’ club? Our time at CFYT together gave us a strong affinity long after we had gone through university, careers, marriage and children. I felt that nothing else had come close in terms of this shared affinity and my memories of CFYT.

Over a short series of posts, I’d like to share three of my favourite memories with you – of both CFYT and my brother, as for me, the two are irrevocably intertwined. The first is of Captain Stirrick by Jeremy James Taylor and David Scott, which was performed in the CFT Tent in August 1987.

The play, written for the National Youth Theatre, centred around a gang of child pickpockets which operated in St. Bartholomew’s Fair in the London of 1807, led by the titular character, Ned ‘Captain’ Stirrick’.

Captain Stirrick me in costume
Rob in costume for ‘Captain Stirrick’ (1987) performed in The Tent

As a performing space, ‘The Tent’ certainly added a uniqueness to Captain Stirrick. A ramshackle yellow and white striped marquee, it sat where the Minerva does now (it could have come straight from the St. Bartholomew’s Fair of 1807 itself!) It was The Tent in particular that left a deep impression on me as in spite of the many plays I have done in the 27 years since, Captain Stirrick is one that I can still remember with crystal clarity. I can still smell the musky, dampness of The Tent, still get goosebumps when I recall the eerie ballads of the show, and still remember the nerves turning to adrenaline as I crossed the stage for the first time.For me, this show was personally important as it sparked a love for creative writing, acting and history that has stayed with me. It was also the first time I had been in a show outside of school, in an environment that was, essentially, professional theatre.

The audience and cast were transported back in time each night by the entire performing environment to the world of the play, a vital feat when putting on any show, especially one such as this. And inside that tent, in August 1987, the world became the London of the reign of King George III. I believe it was this magic which stuck with me and that I also shared with Phil in our CFYT debut, and with many others in subsequent years, which created that subconscious bond that has stayed with me to this day. And it is this bond that brought us together again after the loss of one of our number.

Read Rob’s second post.