Lenny Henry among the stars for Chichester Festival Theatre summer season 2015

Lenny Henry. Photo by Nobby Clark. SUS-150223-145349003
Lenny Henry. Photo by Nobby Clark. SUS-150223-145349003

FUNNYMAN Lenny Henry is among those topping the bill as the line-up for the Chichester Festival Theatre’s season is unveiled.

Henry will star alongside Lashana Lynch – best known for her roles in the Brit film Fast Girls and the TV drama The 7.39 – in Educating Rita which follows the relationship between a young Liverpudlian working class hairdresser and a middle-aged university lecturer.

The pair will join Sarah Parish, Anna Chancellor, David Haig and Samuel West who are also among the stars in artistic director Jonathan Church’s record tenth summer season at the CFT.

Mr Church has brought together a summer of Ayckbourn, Gershwin, Willy Russell, Michael Morpurgo, Somerset Maugham and Chekhov for the CFT’s first normal season since 2012.

The main-house shut for refurbishment in 2013 with plays transferring to a purpose-built tent. Last year the newly-redeveloped main stage was unveiled, but much later in the year for a season running through to December.

Now, for 2015, it’s back to business as usual, says Jonathan, by far the CFT’s longest serving artistic director.

Even so, the pressure is on. Last year’s displaced summer season brought the biggest attendance ever at the CFT, with a remarkable 225,000 people seeing shows – a new high in Mr Church’s tenure. And it wasn’t because of more performances.

“We actually had fewer performances than we have had in some years. The attendance capacity across the season was 95 per cent, which was astonishing. I think our previous highest was 210-216,000, so this was a long way above.

“It will be a relief to be back to normal, though the other thing we are going to try to do with some of our productions this year is to push the boundaries of what the theatre can now cope with.”

All of this is thanks to all the innovations which came with the redevelopment.

“In things like Gypsy last year, we were able to take the pit out for the first time (for the orchestra), and we were able to bring the scenery in from the back. I am hoping this year we will be able to present even more challenges to the space.”

They will certainly be doing that with the season’s opening production, Way Upstream by Alan Ayckbourn (April 23-May 16), starring Sarah Parish.

“This is famously the play that nearly broke the Olivier theatre. It’s a play set on a river in a boat.

“We have to fill the stage with water and put a real boat on it. When they did it at the National more than 20 years ago, the liner that was holding the water was cracking and a lot of the water ended up under the stage!”

It’s certainly a production Jonathan could never have contemplated with the old, pre-redevelopment stage: “We can put in this amazing tank of water. It will be a bit like Neville’s Island. It will be great, and we haven’t done an Ayckbourn on the main-stage here in my time. It’s a very funny play, but like a lot of Ayckbourn, there is a dark underside!”

Next up will be A Damsel In Distress, music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson. Based on the novel by P G Wodehouse and the play by P G Wodehouse and Ian Hay, it will be directed by Rob Ashford from May 30-June 27 on the main-house stage.

“We have such an extraordinary track record with musicals, and this is a new stage musical. It’s a wonderful story about an American songwriter that comes to England. It opens outside the Savoy which I am tickled about because it will be on at the same time we have got (last season’s) Gypsy on at the Savoy. The songwriter ends up at the equivalent of Blandings (Wodehouse’s fictional location), a very quaint country house peopled with all the kinds of people you would get in Wodehouse.

“We have been developing this for three years. I think one of the big achievements we have got is Rob Ashford directing. His might not be a name that means much in Britain, but he is one of the most important director-choreographers in America. He works on the Oscars, and he has got a string of Broadway hits.”

Continuing the main-house season, as previously announced, will be Mack & Mabel, directed by Mr Church himself, running from July 13-September 5 and starring CFT favourite Michael Ball.

Completing the main-house season will be a triple offering which Mr Church hopes will become one of the great events of the season: Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull by Anton Chekhov in new versions by David Hare, directed by Jonathan Kent from September 28-November 14, starring 
Anna Chancellor and Samuel West.

He said: “For me, our main stage suits these big epic projects. David Hare and Jonathan Kent have been combining with this dazzling idea. A lot of people know Chekhov’s later plays. These are his first three plays. They are a little less refined. They are slightly funnier. We see the young man growing, and they are all brilliant plays in their own right.

“One company will do all three plays, and some Saturdays you will be able to see all three plays in one day, though it’s important people don’t feel they have to do it that way.

“They can see one play or two plays or, if they want the full experience, they can see all three. It should be a great theatrical event.”

Season at a glance

Way Upstream by Alan Ayckbourn. Director: Nadia Fall. April 23-May 16, Festival Theatre. Cast features Sarah Parish.

The Rehearsal by Jean Anouilh. Translated by Jeremy Sams. Director: Jeremy Sams. May 8-June 6, Minerva Theatre.

A Damsel In Distress. Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Book by Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson. Based on the novel by P G Wodehouse and the play by P G Wodehouse and Ian Hay. Director: Rob Ashford. May 30-June 27, Festival Theatre.

Educating Rita by Willy Russell. Director: Michael Buffong. June 18-July 25, Minerva Theatre. With Lenny Henry and Lashana Lynch.

Mack & Mabel. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman; book by Michael Stewart. Director: Jonathan Church. July 13-September 5, Festival Theatre. Cast features Michael Ball.

For Services Rendered by W.Somerset Maugham.Director: Howard Davies

July 31-September 5, Minerva Theatre.

Running Wild by Michael Morpurgo in a new adaptation by Samuel Adamson

August 2-16, Cass Sculpture Foundation. Director: Dale Rooks.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness. Director: Michael Attenborough. September 10– October 10, Minerva Theatre. Cast features David Haig.

Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull by Anton Chekhov in new versions by David Hare. Director: Jonathan Kent. September 28-November 14, Festival Theatre. Cast features Anna Chancellor and Samuel West.

Priority booking for Friends of Chichester Festival Theatre opens: Monday, March 2 (online and booking forms only); Monday, March 9 (phone and in person).

Public booking opens: Wednesday, March 11 (online only); Monday, March 16 (phone and in person).

Box office 01243 781312; online cft.org.uk.