Westbourne hosts classic farce

One of the landmark plays in Chichester Festival Theatre history gets a new outing courtesy of Rogues and Vagabonds WemsFest Theatre Company.

An Italian Straw Hat, written by Eugene Labiche, was a huge hit at the CFT in 1967 when it was staged at the very last moment. Julian Sluggett, who remembers the production well, directs it now for Rogues and Vagabonds at The Westbourne Club in Westbourne for four performances from Thursday-Saturday, May 14-16.

“They were supposed to be doing A Servant of Two Masters at the CFT with Danny Kaye, but then along comes Israel’s Six-Day War. Danny Kaye was a representative of UNICEF and he was also obviously Jewish. He flew off over there, and they had to turn things around very quickly at the CFT indeed. An Italian Straw Hat had been lurking around in the background there as a potential part of their repertoire, and so they did it.

“It’s a very, very funny play, written in 1851 by Eugene Labiche. He wrote it originally for the Comédie Française. What is fascinating about it was it was the first play to weave together vaudeville and a plot. It became the first French farce, and it was the great inspiration for much that followed, other great writers including Feydeau. It was just the sheer brilliance of it that knocked everyone out. It has been performed dozens and dozens of times since.”

As Julian says, the great thing from his perspective is – apart from the lead – it has got lots of parts that are not particularly demanding, just what he wants for his emerging Rogues and Vagabonds.

“The company started really with the first WemsFest four years ago. What I decided to do was to put on an amusing history of the area, which we called Racton Follies. That drew on all sorts of lovely stories of the history of Westbourne and Emsworth, how they grew up and the great stories that came out of that. We put that together as an anthology that then developed. This coming year we will be doing Racton Follies 4. There is still a lot of stuff and material we haven’t been able to get around to doing yet. People seem to like it. It is very much an anthology-type programme, though, and I wanted to get away from that with them towards a more serious piece of theatre in the sense they have got words to learn.”

The ambition led to last year’s Tomorrow Will Be Another Day, part of Emsworth’s D-Day anniversary commemoration: “A lot of the cast were in that, and that was really their breakthrough piece that has encouraged them to do something more demanding.”

The point is that Julian’s company is comprised of people who are interested in drama but hadn’t necessarily even been on the stage before: “I believe in trying to nurture people to do things. That comes from my days as a drama teacher. Everybody has got the skills. It is just a question of finding the opportunity to explore those skills and to feed them.”

Set in Paris in the naughty 1890s, An Italian Straw Hat centres on a curvaceous lady trying to protect her modesty when a horse eats her hat while she’s having an illicit affair. Tickets: www.wegottickets.com and 01243 378742.