“Brakes screech, air hisses, lights flash, smoke billows: the train arrives, and with it Lauren Bacall. Auburn hair, dark glasses, ghostly face: the Chichester audience are as bewitched by the entrance of a screen icon as the citizens of Guellen are by the arrival of a multi-millionairess.”
Known for her feisty femme-fatale roles during Hollywood’s Golden Age of Film Noir (think Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) in which she starred alongside her would-be husband, Humphrey Bogart), the casting of Bacall in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit as a wealthy heiress who comes to seek revenge on the man who destroyed her reputation, was deemed by some to be perfect. The play was performed as the first in the 1995 Summer season and Bacall herself thought “it’s a wonderful part…although she’s diabolical, one can use various facets of her personality.”
Bacall was always interested in theatre – she worked as a theatre usher in America in 1941 and stated in an interview held on the first day of rehearsals for The Visit that “my original ambition was to go on stage – not into movies – and I keep going back to it…I would never be given the opportunity to do this in films.”, Bacall had been in talks with Duncan Weldon about the production for 3 years before it came to fruition, waiting for the right space to hold the large cast of 36. When Weldon was appointed Artistic Director in 1995, they decided the Festival Theatre would be the perfect place to try it.
The CFC: Chichester Football Club, the building between the Squash Club and the Theatre. It’s a space the Pass It On team has been working in during the restoration of the Festival Theatre. It’s also where I’ve recently been part of a group opening large parcels wrapped in layers of bubble-wrap and sticky tape, containing framed advertising posters and production photographs of many of the actors who have appeared in plays put on at Chichester Festival Theatre.
The task involved carefully opening the ‘parcels’, each of which had been labelled with various identification numbers and recording information about the contents of each ‘parcel’. We were given a chart to complete for every step of the way, so that nothing was missed. This included details of the label, the condition of the piece, its size and whether it was in colour or black and white. This forms part of the archiving process that is taking place throughout the project. We then had to try and identify the subject/s in the photograph and the production from which it came. Not an easy job. Hardly any of the boards, on which the work was mounted, had any information as to what it referred. They were like lost souls waiting to be remembered.
Over a series of posts, I’ll be exploring the casting of a handful of Hollywood actresses who have performed at Chichester Festival Theatre, including Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Joan Collins and Kim Cattrall. There is something of an air of mystery about a Hollywood star; how watching their screen performance is as close as us mere mortals could ever get. And yet, we must remind ourselves those immortal stars of the silver screen are indeed, real-life actors and actresses, and a thespian’s true calling removes all cameras and puts them onto a stage. A thrust stage, to be precise.
Joan Collins comes to Chichester
Joan Collins starred as Mrs. Cheyney in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, the first production of the 1980 Summer Season, which also included Terra Nova, Much Ado About Nothing, and Old Heads and Young Heart. She was no stranger to the stage, having performed in the West End as a young girl since 1946 before heading to America to make her mark in Hollywood (although, of course, it was the television show Dynastythat she is most remembered for) .
@DrumheadDave follows the Pass It On account on Twitter. After nominating ‘Theatre on the Fly’ for CFT’s 100 Greatest, we asked him to share more of his memories about this unique temporary structure.
Of all the celebrations that took place for Chichester Festival Theatre’s 50th anniversary in 2012, ‘Theatre on the Fly’ was the one thing that really captured my imagination and compelled me to get involved. Theatre on the Fly seemed like a blank sheet of paper. It was temporary, it was on the fly, it was an opportunity do and try so many things that the conventions of the main house precluded.
“Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us”
Those of us who, like Oscar Wilde, instinctively know that we attend the theatre for the sheer love of the experience, will realise that it has something to do with the metaphysical scrapbooks locked away in our skulls – memories – the stuff of life. Like a good book, a humdinger of a tune, or a masterful piece of cinema, a Chichester Festival Theatre stage production is up there with the best of those cherished memories.
Nothing illustrates this so well as the transcripts of some of the interviews conducted by the dedicated team of oral history volunteers in the Pass It On project. These transcripts reflect a rich history of story-telling that complements the art of stage performance perfectly. Take, for instance, the reminiscences of Catherine Lambert, wife of the late Jack Lambert, Literary and Arts Editor of the Sunday Times. Catherine evokes the magic of a summer evening trip to the theatre in 1964 to see Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun.
“It was a lovely journey in the car going down from London… I used to look for the line of the South Downs and I knew we were coming near to Chichester.”
“I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Robert and Philip in the Youth Theatre play, Jane”, said my mother’s friend to my mother, one day in late April, 1991. A stunned silence, then: “What. Youth. Theatre. Play?” was mum’s reply. The play in question was Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations; mum’s response was due to the fact she and my dad had expressly forbidden my brother Phil and I to be involved in it so near to our exams. So I’m ashamed to say, we snuck out of the house anyway each evening for rehearsals and performances. In hindsight, it was an extremely irresponsible thing to do, but I did say I would be candid about these memories.
Recalling memories of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre has been like re-reading a favourite book over again. And Ernie’s is my favourite chapter! As suggested above, recounting these would not be complete nor honest, if left to what we did on stage. When you have outgoing youngsters together in a theatrical environment you will always get the ‘high spirits’, and for me, these were the best bits of Ernie.
On Wednesday 25 June, 60 eager people gathered at the Library in Chichester to hear from Simon Barker, Head of English and Creative Writing at Chichester University. An English Professor and Theatre historian, Simon had been the first professional researcher to be granted access to the Theatre’s emerging archive and we were all looking forward to finding out what he had selected to share with us.
The musical has been around since the mid-nineteenth century. Since about 1866 theatregoers have been packing out auditoriums to see story, song and dance come together. Although opened in 1962, it wasn’t until 1981 that the Chichester Festival Theatre stage brought life to the musical with The Mitford Girls by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin.
The Mitford Girls opened to mixed reviews, some dubbing it ‘marvellous’whilst others preferred the straight acting of the plays they had become used to at their theatre. However, in 1993, the hit show of the season was Pickwick; a musical based on Dickens’Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Both audience and Theatre staff adored the production and it went on to play at Sadler’s Wells, London.
Writing in 1986, Leslie Evershed-Martin reflected on the Festival Theatre Building; the strengths and weaknesses of its design and the reactions and perceptions people held about it. The below extract comes from his book The Miracle Theatre (1986:p33).
‘Over the years there have been many amusing descriptions applied to the look of the building. Correspondents have vied with one another in their inventiveness and the following are some of the examples:-
– “An enormous home plate in a tight little ball pitch.”