REVIEW: Entertaining Angels, New Theatre Productions, West Dean Gardens, Festival of Chichester.

Barbara McWhirter and Dennis Harrison
Barbara McWhirter and Dennis Harrison

Chichester Festival Theatre, in their production 11 years ago, grew the grass on stage and watered it assiduously.

New Theatre Productions have taken a much more direct approach.

Entertaining Angels, by Richard Everett, calls for a perfect English garden setting – and that’s precisely the setting New Theatre Productions have given it in their traditional home at West Dean Gardens.

And after last week’s rather dodgy weather, they were rewarded on Wednesday with a beautiful summer’s evening – to which they responded with one of their finest performances in the 20-plus years I have been watching them.

There is something terribly English about Everett’s tale of a recently-widowed vicar’s wife discovering new freedoms but hardly daring to move on, and the cast – individually excellent – work wonderfully well together to bring out every last nuance.

Barbara McWhirter is simply outstanding as Grace struggling to come to terms with her new reality, particularly when a shock revelation seemingly brings into question the life she’s been leading for the past 30 years.

It’s a monumental part, but McWhirter rises to it superbly, catching the frustration, the anger and above all the hurt.

But she can do so because everyone is playing their part in this poignant, gentle and yet haunting drama. Literally haunting. Dennis Harrison judges beautifully his appearances as the departed, imperfect husband Grace conjures in her grief.

Tiffin Jones is excellent as the slightly-batty sister whose need to unburden herself adds crisis to bereavement; and Rebecca Knights and Angela Barber as respectively daughter and successor (lady) vicar add to the depth of it all. Knights and Barber are particularly impressive in the relationship they develop between them as psychotherapy meets faith – and somehow connects.

Everett seems intent on running through all the permutations between his characters, and there’s never a false note in dialogue which is as absorbing as it is natural. Huge credit to Carol Hicks’ fine direction – and a cast which realises just what a fine play they’ve got on their hands.

The best drama is the drama that sucks us in. This play in this production does so beautifully –

underlining and double-underling just what a treasure we have got in New Theatre Productions.

Remaining performances:

Entertaining Angels, by Richard Everett and directed by Carol Hicks, will be at the Pergola Open Air Theatre, West Dean Gardens on Friday, July 7 at 7.45pm – alternating performances with The Drunkard or Down with Demon Drink!, Thursday, July 6, Saturday, July 8 also at 7.45pm.

Picnics welcome. Bring your own, or they can be pre-ordered 24 hours in advance from the West Dean Gardens restaurant, which is also open for pre-theatre supper or drinks until 7.30pm on theatre nights on 01243 818215. Tickets £10; under-16s £8. Disabled access.

Tickets are available from Chichester Box Office, The Novium, Tower Street, Chichester, PO19 1QH; phone 01243 816525 or 775888; website www.thenovium.org/boxoffice; email boxoffice@chichester.gov.uk.

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