Why these are the best shows I've ever seen at Chichester Festival Theatre

With all our beloved venues sadly shut, there’s surely no better time than now to wallow in the fabulous memories they have given us over the years.
Flowers for Mrs Harris, 2018Flowers for Mrs Harris, 2018
Flowers for Mrs Harris, 2018

That’s the great thing about theatre. Good theatre, at least. It stays with you.

If you had to choose the best shows you’ve ever seen at Chichester Festival Theatre, which would they be?

The fact is that we would all choose different ones.

And that’s what makes it so interesting… and even more interesting still when we turn the question on the people who welcome us to Chichester Festival Theatre, the people whose job it is to make our visit as enjoyable as possible.

We have asked the CFT staff to select their favourite shows.

Dale Rooks is Director of Learning, Education and Participation and directs both the Youth Theatre shows and, recently, The Butterfly Lion and The Midnight Gang.

She first worked with CFT in 1997 in a freelance capacity, joining full time in 2002.

She’s picked two shows: the 2007 Macbeth and 2018’s Flowers for Mrs Harris.

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The Greatest Show – Dale Rooks

Macbeth, 2007 and Flowers for Mrs Harris, 2018

I have enjoyed so many CFT productions during the past two decades; however, there are two that, for very different reasons, stand out as my most memorable.

Rupert Goold’s re-envisioning of Macbeth, in the Minerva Theatre in 2007, blew me away in so many ways. I have not seen a more gripping production anywhere, before or since.

From its visually disturbing opening scene – where a hospital trolley burst into the auditorium pushed by the three weird sisters (dressed in nurses’ uniforms), who then proceeded to rip out the heart of a living man and attach it to a bag of blood to keep him breathing – to the final fulfilment of the witches’ prophecy, I think we knew that we were in for a unique and utterly mesmerising retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most popular, powerful and darkest of tragedies. And it didn’t disappoint as I was captivated throughout!

The idea of setting the production in and around a post-world War II zone was genius, although brought about a lot of violent action. One of the most striking features was Anthony Ward’s set design; it was a kind of industrial chamber which transformed into military hospital, kitchen, torture chamber and abattoir. I remember it being quite clinical, a stark, white space which accentuated the graphic detail of blood in scenes such as Lady Macbeth washing her hands in the old white butler’s sink with blood running from the taps; and the ghostly presence of Banquo walking eerily down the banquet table, kicking over a glass of red wine which splattered across the white table cloth. Upstage, there was an elevator with heavy-folding metal doors which allowed seamless transitions into different settings. And it felt as though each time Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appeared from the elevator, their psychological state and behaviours had become more extreme and insane. The set was greatly complemented by superb atmospheric lighting and sound design, both of which added to the eeriness of the play.

I can remember thinking how perfectly the Minerva studio auditorium, with its thrust stage, wrapped around this production; giving such an intimate and penetrating experience into the claustrophobic world of the play.

The superb cast delivered gripping, edge-of-your-seat storytelling, but the stand-outs for me were the two main characters. Patrick Stewart’s characterisation of Macbeth was spellbinding, transforming from a decent, upright soldier to brutal, soviet-style tyrant, whilst sadistically disposing of his friends and family in his all-consuming ambition to become political leader. He played a cruel dictator, with echoes of Stalin-like sadism, which gave this production a more powerful, chilling and intense feel. Kate Fleetwood was brilliant, realistically playing a disturbingly cunning and manipulative Lady Macbeth: the chemistry between them was electrifying!

Of course, I was delighted that two teams of Youth Theatre members were cast to play the role of Fleance and of the Macduff children.

It was no surprise to me that this production gained brilliant critical acclaim and had such a quick transfer into the West End, followed by a stint on Broadway. It is a production that is much talked about today. It did come as a surprise to me that any Shakespeare production could leave me feeling so riveted as, if I’m honest, I would opt for a great musical over and above Shakespeare!

In complete contrast, my favourite CFT musical to date has been Daniel Evans’s magnificent production of Flowers for Mrs Harris, which played the Festival Theatre stage in 2018 and more recently streamed online. Rachel Wagstaff’s script alongside Richard Taylor’s music and lyrics made this musical heartbreakingly beautiful. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Ada Harris, a widowed charwoman, who becomes so enchanted by an exquisite Christian Dior dress she sees in her employer’s wardrobe that not only does she dream of owning one, but pursues her ambition to do so. By scrimping and scraping, and with the generosity of friends, she manages to make the trip to The House of Dior in Paris. The message that clearly shines through is her dream of wanting a better life, of reaching the unreachable: and how kindness and generosity help her to achieve her goal. But it doesn’t turn out to be the happy ending that you might expect and through a cruel twist of fate she doesn’t get to wear the dress, as it gets accidentally burnt after she kindly loans it to an actress for her premiere performance.

It was wonderfully staged with superb casting. Clare Burt, playing Ada Harris, gave a stunning performance: truthful and emotive but never over sentimental. Her song ‘Rain on Me’ took my breath away and I make no apology for weeping through that scene, and others! I also loved the eccentricity of Louis Maskell playing the roles of Bob and André and Gary Wilmot’s characterisation of the rather cantankerous old Major and Monsieur Armande in Paris!

The set and costume design were both brilliant and wow, those divine Dior dresses! Again, I was so thrilled that some of the older Youth Theatre members were cast to model them.

It’s such a beautiful and uplifting story; one in which society’s class difference looms large. I love the message it brings, that the most important things in life are not materialistic and that happiness comes more from true kindness, generosity, love and friendship. You can’t buy those.

I think a touch of nostalgia set in, subconsciously transporting me back to some of my early childhood memories of my Nana’s kitchen. Similar in style to Ada’s: modest and small with a central table where our family gathered for my Nana’s delicious homemade cakes and dandelion and burdock. And her house was never devoid of beautiful, freshly cut flowers from her garden, though not as abundant as we see in the final scene of Flowers for Mrs Harris!

Dale Rooks

Director of Learning, Education and Participation (LEAP), Chichester Festival Theatre

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