Director Alan Strachan believes Enid Bagnold’s The Chalk Garden, starring Penelope Keith, Amanda Root and Oliver Ford Davies, will find exactly the audience it needs in Chichester.
“The play is a comedy and is also a serious drama about family life, especially in the dynasty of women that it portrays, but it is also a bit of a mystery, not an Agatha Christie whodunnit mystery, but there is an element of mystery that hangs over it like a cloud. It is a difficult one to do. It is quite an odd play, but a fascinating one. It is very subtle. It is often very funny, but also very, very absorbing. It’s a play that requires an enormous amount of concentration. It is a delicate piece, so it needs people to listen, and in my experience Chichester audiences do like to listen. Their attention span is one of the best I have ever come across… far better than the West End!”
Alan directed Penelope Keith in both Entertaining Angels (2006) and Mrs Pat (2015) at the CFT. The Chalk Garden runs until June 16.
“I enjoyed Entertaining Angels very much. We did it again. We had a long tour, but we could never find a West End theatre for it. It never had a West End showing. I think it was the timing, really. The tour finished about November which is always a hairy time in the West End. We were rather particular because of the set which couldn’t go into certain theatres without massive changes. But I thought it was lovely, and in Chichester it was the start of one of the most successful regimes at the theatre.
“I have worked quite a lot with Penny over the years. We did The Deep Blue Sea years ago in the West End. It must have been in the 80s, and she was very, very good in it. At that time, years ago, she was still on the box in To The Manor Born and things like that, and I think she rather surprised people in the theatre. There was a real emotional depth to her performance. What makes her special is her invention. It is her mental agility. She can turn on a dime from one quality to another virtually in the same speech. She can start in rage and end up practically cooing and vice versa. It’s that great ability to mint emotions in the moment. A lot of actors have it, but to have it at that speed is very unusual. She really communicates to an audience, and they never quite know what is going to happen next. It makes it very immediate. She can play anything. She can play high comedy and also do a very serious play. She can do such a wide range.
“We had mentioned this play, and I knew you couldn’t do it without a rather special Mrs St Maugham, the matriarch. I also thought it would make a very good part for Penny, but then various things came along for her. When we talked about the possibility of doing it, I think it was Penny’s suggestion to suggest it to Chichester, and so I mentioned it to them. And it was synchronicity. (CFT artistic director) Daniel (Evans) said he was in the process of trying to get the rights. The play is controlled, by Enid Bagnold’s youngest son who lives in America. He is well into his 80s and he takes a firm, but not dictatorial, control of the play. He wanted to be sure that it would be done properly. What is great about her writing is the language. She is a great stylist. This was by far her most successful play. She was known right from the start for her style which is unusual. It is not Wildean, it is not epigrammatic. She uses language in a very unique way. Language is a weapon for her characters… and also a defence.”
For other stories by Phil, see: https://www.chichester.co.uk/author/Phil.Hewitt2