On 18 June the refurbished Festival Theatre welcomed its first audience – more than 800 local schoolchildren were invited to join us in the restored darkness to watch Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s production of The Witches. With very few having had any previous experience of the Festival Theatre, they were the perfect audience to put the Theatre through its paces.
Around ten days before this pre-adolescent whirlwind, the foyer and auditorium had been completed by Osborne and handed over to CFT. Since then theatre technicians, like Odysseus returning to Ithaca, had set about the new auditorium vigorously installing and testing to ensure it was all fit for use.
Once The Witches had departed it was time for a few more tests, an evening of comedy for the builders, contractors and sub-contractors, followed the next day by Sandi Toksvig, and finally a selection of the music of Gilbert and Sullivan. Each event gave the Theatre a chance to try out different elements, to interact with a different audience and to adjust to inevitable niggles. Every thought and comment has been logged and will be considered and acted upon. Such is the real purpose of these ‘test’ evenings.
However there will be no time for lengthy consultation or deliberation, for on 12 July, the Theatre will fling wide its doors for the first of its previews of Amadeus, and audiences will experience the full, finished product of so many months of work. Now, with the extension and refurbishment no longer left to the imagination, but physically realised, the Theatre has softened. It has lost a little of its PT Barnum meets Erno Goldfinger hostility, and instead seems light and open. The eye is drawn in and across the foyer and there is space to sit and move, and in the auditorium the audience now feels closer, the stage surrounded.
All of the dashed and dotted lines, treated like glyphs on the Rosetta stone, printed on vast lengths of paper, and tucked beneath the arms of management and visiting architects, have become objects that were built and have a purpose. And although some of us pored over these plans, and expressed them to interested friends and visitors, it now seems there was simply no way of visualising the completed structure; certainly no way of imagining the improved acoustics in the auditorium, or the gentle drop in pressure as the lift descends into the foyer.
The refurbishment is an achievement for so many individuals to be proud of.
All of whom I’m sure, will receive such pleasure from the crowds of people who will enjoy watching productions here, but before that there are jobs to be done, staff to be trained and a few little kinks to be ironed out. It will be a glorious relief when the audience hush falls on 12 July, and an incredible achievement when the house lights dim in that reimagined space.