Susan Hampshire turns full Circle

It's same play different part as Susan Hampshire comes full circle at Chichester Festival Theatre.

In the CFT's 1976 production of Somerset Maugham's social satire The Circle she played Elizabeth.

This summer she returns in the decidely-more colourful role of Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney aka Lady Kitty.

The key might just be in the name, Susan suspects. Kitty. Expect something kittenish, something playful.

Susan has returned to plays before in her career (Relative Values for instance), but this is the first time she's returned to a different role.

First time round, she shared the stage with a distinguished cast including Googie Withers, (Googie's real-life husband) John McCallum and Bill Fraser - and that real-life relationship filtered through to the production, contributing to its success.

In the play, thirty years ago, Lady Kitty abandoned her husband and young son to run away with politician Lord Porteous. Kitty returns from exile in Italy, worn down by age but clinging to her glamorous past.

At the family reunion, she discovers that her daughter-in-law Elizabeth is tempted to embark on an affair leaving Kitty, as events turn full circle, to decide whether or not to encourage the elopement.

"First time, I was playing Elizabeth, the young girl, a girl typical of her era, a young girl who married young, has all sorts of social niceties and comforts of her class and who happens to fall in love with one of the house guests. The dilemma is whether she runs off with him - something Lady Kitty did earlier."

Susan has been offered the Kitty role several times before - an attractive girlish role with that Kitty/kitten element.

"In a way, she is a ridiculous woman. She thinks she is young. She is over made-up, wearing unsuitable clothes, wearing the clothes she wore when she thought she was at her prettiest.

"She is a sort of joke - in a nice way," Susan says, providing plenty of the high comedy which surrounds the play's poignant dilemma.

In fact, first time round, from the perspective of playing the straight Elizabeth, Susan recalls finding the play's comedy quite a surprise.

"I suppose I knew the comedy was there, but I was so engrossed in my character that I didn't realise it."

The pleasure is that the play, from whatever perspective, remains utterly relevant. As Susan says, it's about love: "And love is something that happens all the time."

In other respects, we are all in a very different world - theatrically as well as socially.

Susan recalls the huge respect in which she held the three leading actors first time round - even though she came to the play very much with her own celebrity in the wake of successes including The Forsyte Saga.

These days, the attitude to the senior actors in the business is rather different: "It's much more 'You have had your chance'. But I won't say too much more on that."

It's symptomatic of our changing society: "Children don't stand up on buses any more."

Theatre itself hasn't escaped by any means: "Theatre has changed dramatically. First of all, there used to be rep. I was there in Bognor Regis. It was one of my first jobs. We did lots of rep. It knocked off the rough edges.

"It was a chance of being on stage, being in stage management, being an understudy - a huge amount of chances to do straight theatre. There were so many repertory companies."

And they produced stage actors.

These days many people will take to the stage directly from a TV soap ("and I am not diminishing the huge value of soaps"), but it does mean that some of actors with less stage experience find themselves having to resort to throat mics simply to get heard.

For millions, Susan Hampshire is and always will be Fleur, star of TV's Forsyte Saga.

It was originally shown in 26 episdoes on Saturday evenings between January 7 and July 1 1967 on BBC2.

But it was the repeat on Sunday evenings on BBC1 starting on September 8 1968 that secured the programme's success with 18 million tuning in for the final episode in 1969.

It was shown all over the world, and became the first British television programme to be sold to the Soviet Union.

As Susan says, it really was ground-breaking stuff: "It was the first time that any show had ever been the cause of church services changing their times. Even the vicars wanted to get back to see it."

Its success was simply that it told a wonderful story - and also the fact that it had the leisure of 26 episodes in which to do so, a real chance and luxury to develop the characters.

Susan recalls the impact it had - not just on the nation, but on the actors too. She and Nicholas Pennell, who played her husband, were treated like The Beatles when they visited Norway and Sweden.

But they kept their feet on the ground: "We knew that we were very very privileged and lucky to get the job."

The Circle plays in repertoire with The Music Man at Chichester Festival Theatre from July 22-August 29. Tickets on 01243 781312.