Arts: Star quality not enough to save legendary theatre

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Chichester Festival Theatre is likely to close for half of the year after a series of flops involving star names. David Lister, Arts News Editor, looks at a bleak future for the famous theatre.

Kathleen Turner came over from Hollywood in a blaze of publicity this summer to act at Chichester. Julie Christie and Lesley Caron were other film stars supposed to pack in the audiences at the delightful West Sussex theatre. But in the event they played to half-empty houses, and has ended the season with a pounds 500,000 loss.

Now Chichester Theatre director Duncan Weldon, the West End producer, is asking the board to close the theatre for the winter months, and to cut the summer season from 30 to 20 weeks. He has also asked the board to seek public subsidy for the venue for the first time in its 37-year history.

He told The Independent: "If the board do not heed me then I believe that in 12 months time there will be a crisis and the theatre could close permanently."

If Chichester were to close for good it would be a terrible blow to British theatre, as the theatre has an important historical legacy. It was there that Laurence Olivier played Othello, when he took his National Theatre company to Chichester in the summer months.

Adrian Noble, the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, grew up in Chichester and as a boy saw the late Robert Stephens perform for the National Theatre in The Royal Hunt Of The Sun, inspiring him to sign him for the RSC nearly 30 years later. Sam Mendes, the award-winning director, also began his career there.

But that golden age is long since past. Nowadays the theatre is a receiving house for other companies in the winter, and in an attempt to reinvigorate the summer festival this year, Duncan Weldon gambled on bringing in star names. The audiences, which no longer come from London to the same extent as they did in Olivier's day, seemed to be unimpressed by film stars.

Average attendances overall were 53 per cent of total sales in the main house, and 57 per cent in the studio theatre.

Kathleen Turner and Lesley Caron gave one-woman shows, averaging 59 and 46 per cent respectively. Julie Christie appeared in Suzanna Andler, an obscure play by Marguerite Duras, and attendances averaged only 53 per cent.

Other star names, such as Dorothy Tutin, Ruthie Henshall, Ian Richardson and Ian McShane, and Stephanie Beecham (who used to be in the long-running television series Dynasty) also played to houses that were sometimes less than half full. Only Twiggy, appearing in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, had a healthy attendance of 75 per cent.

Duncan Weldon said: "Julie Christie's play was a minority play. You would have thought she would have done better than she did on her name alone, but she didn't. As for Kathleen Turner and Lesley Caron, there's a distinct fear among audiences of one-man or one-woman shows. They don't think they are getting value for money."

He added that 200,000 people were still coming to see plays at Chichester, and this could be a healthy figure if put into a 20-week season.

But there was a problem in British theatre as a whole, he said. "Apart from the smash-hit musicals, theatre audience attendance in London and the provinces has shown a marked downward trend this year. Chichester has proved to be no exception.

"There is the added problem that Chichester has a population of only 22,000 people and a catchment area that is cut off by an ocean on one side. It is just haemorrhaging during the winter months."

Mr Weldon's business plan, which has been submitted to the Chichester board, says the only way to bring the theatre back into profit is "a reduction of the 1988 and future seasons to 20 weeks only, and to four plays in each house... This is the only way forward if Chichester is to remain an unsubsidised theatre.

"The plan has serious and wholly regrettable consequences for the loyal and hard-working staff. It will also significantly affect all those businesses in Chichester that benefit from the theatre being open."

Mr Weldon and the board have also begun discussions with the Arts Council about the prospect of public subsidy.