Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 9 May, 2006

It often seems to be a make-or-break year for Chichester, but this one more than usual. If new artistic director Jonathan Church does not reverse the theatre's falling attendances, the West Sussex playhouse is likely to close next year. Church has therefore programmed a canny mix of safety and adventure for the 2006 season. Later this summer, the Minerva Studio will see Noël Coward succeeded by Strindberg, while the main house will offer Howard Brenton and David Hare's black press satire Pravda and David Edgar's legendary two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby.

However, its opening presentation, although a new work, is almost archetypally Chichester in its middle-class comfortableness. Richard Everett's play may ask questions about whether honesty is the best policy where infidelity is concerned, and muse about the relative efficacy of religious consolation and its secular counterpart, psychotherapy. But it does so within exceedingly decorous limits. Put it this way: this is a play which opens with Penelope Keith sitting in a vicarage garden, speaking on the phone about a hamster with cystitis whilst her missionary sister (Keith's, not the hamster's) noisily mows the lawn. Keith, whose character is significantly named Grace, compulsively chats with her deceased reverend husband (Benjamin Whitrow), but one thing he doesn't mention is that some 30 years ago he sired a son by her sister. (It took 99 minutes by my watch for the inevitable "missionary position" gag to be unleashed.)

That is pretty much all you need to know. It's a little bit funny, a little bit poignant, a little bit thoughtful, but none of it so much as to interfere with your digestion. Alan Strachan is a dependable directorial hand at this kind of material, and he does not disappoint. Paul Farnsworth's house-and-garden set is idyllic, despite a rather perfunctory stream and a frankly naff curtain of willow fronds which is periodically flown in. The production has a little bit of everything except for the even remotely unexpected. Which is not to dismiss it entirely; for needs must, and after all this is a Chichester season in which safety comes first only chronologically.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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