Priority booking at Chichester has become in the last few years, a sort of glorious mania, pre-empting the excitement of the season itself, taking on a little of the spirit of theatre – booking is now a kind of ‘blink and you miss it’ live event. And like all great events there is joy to be found in the anticipation. This year especially there is a truly theatrical pause between booking and watching, as we await our new leading lady (fresh and blooming) to make her grand entrance in July. Until then we have the ever-reliable Minerva to keep us going, and this exceptional season opens with Hugh Whitemore’s Stevie. And as audiences walk into the Minerva, they will do so over new blocked paving – the very furthest extent of the refurbishment wave that has its start in the Festival Theatre.
Much is completed in the main house now, and is just awaiting its great reveal. The carpeting and new handrails have been installed in the auditorium, and the refurbished seats have been reinstated, and now wait calmly under acres of plastic sheeting.
Water has entered the miles of gleaming pipe-work for the first time, and soon the heating will be switched on for the first time, and workmen will stand listening to the gurgling like a hundred expectant fathers. The ground-source heat-pump, often the target of speculation and reinvention, has been flushed through for the first time.
Patches of finished work are appearing daily – the scene dock has been painted and the flooring is going down; the new triangular Terrace Bar (the one which abuts the park) has half of its cockle-shell paving down which will flow out into the outside space; the very complex electrical installation continues in all sections, constantly. In total over 180 workmen give their utmost effort to getting the Theatre across the finish line, from plan to physical object.
The most noticeable refurbishment, taking the form of a kind of heritage ping-pong match, is the concrete repairs to the front of the original hexagon. Visually there have been various advances and retreats, but there has always been a sense that the ideal solution is approaching. Attaching new concrete, while attempting to make it look like 50-year old weathered concrete, to a mix that you can only guess at, while making it secure, and preserving the look of the original material, is about as complicated as it sounds. The scaffolding will reappear in the next week or so, and more concrete repair will get underway. But however long the repairs take, one thing is certain – we all know a lot more about concrete than we did two years ago.
There is always an extra element to the arrival of spring in Chichester, bringing with it the excitement of a new Festival. And this season, gilding the lily in the most tasteful way imaginable, we can also anticipate the reopening of the Festival Theatre and the thrill of visiting an upgraded space, and still one of the most exciting producing theatres in the country.