Chichester Festival Theatre’s impressive new season starts with Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On. EDWIN GILSON speaks to artistic director Daniel Evans. 

AS IF taking the reins of one of the UK’s most reputable theatres wasn’t enough, Daniel Evans is also directing Forty Years On, by much-loved playwright Alan Bennett. Set in a public school on the South Downs, Forty Years On is based around a retiring headmaster whose final task is to appear in the school play.

The only thing is, he’s yet to read the script. The first play Alan Bennett wrote, Forty Years On explores the themes of nostalgia, identity and what it means to be English (a much-contended concept in the wake of the Brexit vote). Evans, who was named artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre (CFT) last year, tells The Guide about the social relevance of Forty Years On and why the perception of theatre as elitist is “disappearing”.

How do you emphasise Forty Years On’s themes of nostalgia and identity in your production? Is there a danger of over-emphasising it, thereby changing the tone from subtle and poignant to mawkish?

Good question. It’s a delicate path to tread. Luckily, Alan Bennett gave us a clue by saying that nostalgia and parody are closely related. Once you process that thought, you realise the play is full of ambiguity. You get the sense that Bennett himself is both attracted and alarmed by the milieu explored in the play.

Is there a linear plot or is it less conventional? Have you added any devices that aren’t in the original play?

It’s not linear for the most part. In fact, the timelines of the play jump about constantly. We yoyo between the beginning of the 20th century and the World War Two period. To help guide us through the time travel, we’ve added some music here and there, as well as some projection.

What do you think the play tells us about Englishness?

One of the themes of the play is the dichotomy that exists between conservatism (with a small “c”) and radicalism in the English sensibility. In this day and age, this is one of the ways in which the play feels contemporary and pertinent. There is a hint at the rise of populism towards the end of the play that feels incredibly prescient.

Yes – is there modern resonance in the play with the concept of national identity under intense scrutiny?

It is that division I mentioned that makes the play so relevant to our times. That division exists within families, within political parties, within classes, and sometimes within individuals themselves. Bennett himself is an ambiguous figure: he seems to espouse a traditional streak alongside a more progressive ideology.

There are 50 young local actors in the play – are they all members of Chichester Festival Youth Theatre?

We auditioned around 105 young people. We took on 52. Some of them are members of our Youth Theatre, but by no means all.

When you curated your programme, were you conscious of balancing respected playwrights – Tennessee Williams, Alan Bennett, William Shakespeare – with new and cutting-edge productions for this programme?

Yes, of course. During any season, you’re hoping to reach out to as many people as possible. We are a not-for-profit organisation and we exist to provide thrilling theatre experiences for our region and beyond – whether that’s at a show or at a workshop, at the theatre or in a school or on tour.

What was the main motivation behind the move to Chichester?

I had spent seven glorious years in Sheffield. I loved it. I got to a point where I was either going to stay for a much longer time or make the move. I was excited to experience a different region of the country and a different audience. I love a challenge, and CFT poses many wonderful challenges.

New Park Cinema in Chichester say they are perpetually frustrated at the lack of young people watching films there. Do you share this frustration with CFT, or are you seeing a diverse audience at the moment?

We just slashed prices for those aged between 16 and 25 to £5 for our first season. So, we’re encouraging as many different people as possible to come to see a play this year. So far, the uptake has been really encouraging. We’re also lucky to have a core audience who also want to see more young people attending.

Do you think some people see theatre as elitist? How can you appeal to people who wouldn’t think theatre is for them, for whatever reason?

There are so many ways to reach out to different kinds of people. It usually starts with putting on plays they want to see. That can mean programming a play with a pertinent theme or a certain actor who people recognise or an adaptation of a film or novel or a local story. I think the idea of theatre as an elitist activity is disappearing, thankfully.

Future CFT highlights

Caroline, Or Change

Minerva Theatre, May 6 – June 3

Tony Kushner, who wrote the award-winning Angels In America, is behind this production set in 1960s Louisiana. Caroline Thibodeaux is an African American maid working for the Jewish Gellman family. Eight-year-old Noah Gellman visits Caroline in the basement as she works, but when the boy begins leaving loose change in his laundry, his stepmother Rose devises a deterrent with revealing social consequences. This musical mixes blues, soul and Motown.

Sweet Bird of Youth

Festival Theatre, June 2 – 24

Chances are you might be familiar with Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire – with its famous “Stellllaaa” – but this story, set on the Gulf of Mexico – is lesser known. Alexandra del Lago is a fading Hollywood legend who has fled the ridicule that greeted the premiere of her comeback movie. Desperate for anonymity, she holes up in a small seaside town. Joining her is Chance Wayne, a young waster trying to find meaning in his life. Williams examines failed ambition, lost youth, love, the allure of celebrity and the corruption at the heart of the American Dream in this searing play.

Fiddler on the Roof

Festival Theatre, July 10 – August 26

Omid Djalili makes his Chichester debut in this Russia-set play, directed by Daniel Evans. In a small village in Imperial Russia, Tevye and Golde are contemplating the prospect of their daughters being married off by the matchmaker Yente. But the daughters have their own ideas about whom to marry.

King Lear

Minerva Theatre, September 22 – October 28

Sir Ian McKellen, who last appeared in Chichester in 2011, returns to play one of the most iconic roles in theatre. Violent, moving and shocking, King Lear is often considered to be the greatest tragedy written for the stage. This contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s epic sees the world of two men crumble around them. Director Jonathan Munby has previously put on productions of The Merchant Of Venice and Anthony And Cleopatra.

Round and Round the Garden

Festival Theatre, September 25 – October 28

This trio of interconnecting plays by the esteemed Alan Ayckbourn are told from wildly differing perspectives but performed by one ensemble of actors. Each play can be enjoyed as a single show or in a sequence of three. The tangled plot includes love triangles, social mix-ups and slapstick comedy. Ayckbourn sculpts the ups and downs of family life into a comedic tour de force.


Minerva Theatre, November 3 to December 9

Is Quiz: a) The world premiere of a new play by acclaimed writer James Graham? b) 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? c) A celebration of the great tradition of the British quiz show? d) An analysis of the 21st century’s dangerous new attitude to truth and lies? Answer: You decide.

Beauty and the Beast

Festival Theatre, December 16 – 31

Long-running youth theatre director Dale Rooks is behind this adaptation of the classic fairy tale. 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. He offers Beauty luxury and riches in return for her hand; but can she bring herself to accept his proposals of marriage?