Popular outdoor Sussex theatre company gets ready for its 40th birthday

New Theatre Productions - Staff pic: ks190326-1
New Theatre Productions - Staff pic: ks190326-1

One of Chichester’s great summer favourites, New Theatre Productions are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, with two sparkling productions at their West Dean Gardens home for the 2019 Festival of Chichester.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare will be directed by company founder John Hyatt. It will alternate for the first couple of weeks of July with Tons of Money by Will Evans + Valentine, adapted by Alan Ayckbourn and directed by Barbara MacWhirter.

John admits to a growing feeling of pride at the company’s enduring and popular success across four decades: “I am just beginning to feel it is an achievement. What did you for your summer holidays? Well, I went to West Dean Gardens which I have done for the last 40 years! But the point is that it has been a wonderful company and in a wonderful place. It is such a great combination. Our idea was simply to do plays that people would enjoy in the open air on a summer evening. And it has worked wonderfully, and we have had splendid support from the Chichester Festivities as it then was and from the Festival of Chichester and from West Dean Gardens.

“It all began when I was down here doing a lot of work with local drama companies, and I thought that we just never got the chance to do Shakespeare because there are so many men required to do a Shakespeare.

“The individual companies just didn’t have that many men. So I had the idea of getting a group together, and I called it New Theatre Productions, for want of a better title. This was early 1979, and I just thought let’s do some classic plays. And we started off tremendously. But we started not with a Shakespeare, but with a Chekhov. We did The Cherry Orchard at Bishop Otter College as it then was. People said it wasn’t a very good choice, but I said it is a very funny play, and we did it and we brought out all the comedy. It went better than we could have expected, and the local papers were full of it and said how splendid it was. I thought this had better continue, and we did a couple more productions marking time at Bishops Otter College here in Chichester and in Bognor Regis.

“The Chichester Festivities had for one or two years been doing an open-air Shakespeare at West Dean, but the chap that was directing those productions went on to pastures new. I went along to see Richard Gregson-Williams at the Festivities and I said ‘I am sorry your Shakespeare is finishing at West Dean. Is there any chance of me being considered to take it over?’ He said ‘Yes, by all means!’

“And so we mounted a big Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor in the summer of 1980. I directed it. I had toured it in Germany and it had gone down very well indeed. It is Shakespeare’s only farce really, and everybody thought it was terribly, terribly funny. We were coming to the end of the run and somebody had the idea that we should take it to London, which we did, to London House.

“We did one production a year at West Dean for about three years, and then we moved to two productions. It doubled the audiences we had and it doubled the number of opportunities that we had, and it has gone on like that now for the past 37 years, doing two plays a year.”

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare runs on July 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 7.45pm; Tons of Money plays on July 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12. 7.45pm.

Tickets £10; children under 16 £8. Picnics welcome.

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