The opening show of the now always very much anticipated Chichester season comes just after hearing the news that the dream team of Jonathan Church and Alan Finch will be leaving the leafy venue next year after the 2016 season. Its easy to see why they have turned the once ailing Festival Theatre fortunes around as you sit and soak up the breath taking staging of this highly polished and rarely revived Alan Ayckbourn hit first seen at the National in 1982.
Of course the design of any production is important and in recent years Chichester has never scrimped on the visual element of their productions, but this is simply a masterpiece of ingenious engineering and production coup de theatre all overseen by Production Manager Paul Hennessy, a star of the show every bit as much as the performers that weigh anchor on the full scale boat that cruises its way through the naturalistic river that inhabits the CFT stage. With grassy riverbanks sliding in and out to act as moorings and the most beautiful forest of very real trees lining the muddied bankside it is easy to immerse oneself into this river tale of domestic unhappiness and dark comedy all moodily and idyllically helped along with Tim Mitchell’s beautiful lighting designs.
The strength of all CFT productions these days is that nothing is left to fall between two stools and whilst the visuals of this production may wow us, the content and performances are just as strong. There are power struggles aplenty within the small group of holiday makers on their boat trip heading towards the wonderfully named Armageddon bridge. Work partners Keith and Alistair can’t quite let go of the reigns of their company whilst away with their wives June and Emma. The bullying antics of loud mouth and self appointed Captain of the vessel Keith are nothing compared to what is to come in the form of Pirate Vince however.
As is the gift of Ayckbourn the ridiculous is used merely as a tool to demonstrate the domestic and the human. There are some genuinely tender moments here particularly between Jason Hughes’ bullied and self doubting Alistair and Jill Halfpenny’s timid yet determined Emma. Peter Forbes and Sarah Parish give a rumbustious turn as Keith and June, both as full of hot air and bravado as they are marital unhappiness. Jason Durr is a powerful Vince, complete with demonstrably good swimming skills!
Its a cracking opener to the season and is a great opportunity to see a production that, because of its scenic demands is rarely revived.