When a theatre production opens in a big house, preparation follows something of a pattern (albeit one with almost infinite variations): months or even years of planning take place, and then a slow swell of activity, culminating in a short period of intense work and action when everyone involved draws on all of their experience and skill, works unsociable hours and gets rather emotional, before the opening night and (hopefully) joy at the creation and the reaction of the audience. There are many similarities with the construction of a new building when the deadline for completion is absolute and immovable. So it is at Chichester with the Festival Theatre.
Dozens of workmen work swiftly and skilfully, many of them through the night, to get to a place where the building can welcome an audience again. Organising this round-the-clock activity must be like tracking bees out of the hive, but somehow the synchronicity is sublime, and indeed the work has reached the ‘men with clipboards’ phase, which always means things are almost ready to use. The dramatically titled ‘Life Systems’ (such as ventilation and electrics, namely those that keep occupants safe and comfortable) are being tested and witnessed, as is the rather more aptly named ‘Building Management System’ which tracks boilers, heating, lighting etc., maintaining records of temperature across the system and regulating automatically, rather like an innocuous Hal 9000.
Of course if one were to walk past the Theatre it would appear as though there was a huge amount left to be done, but the external landscaping always happens last. Adding to the apparent industry in front of the Theatre are the concrete repairs, however the end is in sight at last – with work to the front beam due to be completed in a week’s time before testing again in June.
For those of us who have watched the work with close attention for the last eighteen months it is almost beyond expression that in less than two months the Festival Theatre will be in action again. Miles and miles of protective sheets, coverings and bags protect every surface or finish which could be chipped or scratched or discoloured between now and the 12 July. Indeed in preparation for this momentous event an artist has climbed a ladder – Antoni Malinowski (below) has been adding his careful preparations to the white walls and ceilings – drawing colour from the uniformly restrained finishes, while backstage in the scene-dock, black is supreme, as the surfaces receive their matt finishes.
In between the brick and mortar, porcelain and wood, other things go on almost undisturbed, as they seem to do, year in and out: a production in the Minerva Theatre, Stevie, has received excellent reviews; a Chichester Festival Theatre musical, The Pajama Game, has opened in the West End to raves; and in a small corner section of unturfed ground near the windows of the Box Office, bees have taken residence in a small system of holes in the ground. It is all so expected it feels like nature.
It will be an extraordinary moment when we as an audience finally push open the double doors into the foyer to buy programmes and ice creams, to hang coats and drink glasses of wine, and then, finally, to watch theatre. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself with this final stage of anticipation, and perhaps we should enjoy the muscular ballet that’s currently taking place in and all around the Festival Theatre, because soon once the activity has died away, we will grow so used to the finished building, we will forget all of this drama ever took place.