THEATRE / First Night: Middle-class spirit proof against recession: 'Getting Married', Chichester Festival Theatre

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IT SHOULD have been Glyndebourne opening the summer season for the arts this week. But with the opera house closed for a year for rebuilding, it was across the Sussex Downs to Chichester for the opening night of the Festival Theatre's five-month season.

Here, too, were picnics on the lawn and music, but of a different variety. A brass band played under the Union Jack in the public park outside the stone and glass octagon of the theatre. Champagne was not much in evidence. Arrive early and the lady in the theatre shop will make you afternoon tea personally.

Chichester is the great middle England success story. A safe repertoire - it is 30 years since Olivier's National Theatre Company set the opening seasons alight - serves a loyal middle-brow audience.

Chichester remains proof that without a penny of public money you can take pounds 1m in advance bookings. Some 83 per cent of the theatre's money comes from the box office.

The formula this year, according to the artistic director Patrick Garland, is 'a recession-proof season with an emphasis on comedy'. In a few weeks, Noel Coward, Thornton Wilder, and a musical of Dickens's Pickwick Papers with Harry Secombe will join George Bernard Shaw.

'Subsidised theatre boasts of the right to fail,' Mr Garland said. 'We literally cannot afford that right.'

Last night, Shaw's comedy on middle-class attitudes to marriage creaked rather as rarely performed comedies tend to, but was enlivened by a cameo from Dorothy Tutin as the coal merchant's wife whose secret passion drives her into an ecstatic trance. Overall, though, the production may not have been Chichester's most judicious choice to fill the seats.

Afterwards, Mr Garland said: 'When the bands play and the people are in the park, I can't help but look at them and think that it would seem very inappropriate for them to go back after the interval and see Ibsen. This particular year people definitely require heartening and uplifting. There is an audience to be found, but my goodness you've got to be careful to nourish it.

'Our audience is widening from just middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow. But it isn't radical intelligentsia. I do get a bit sore when people expect me to provide fare for an upstairs pub in Kentish Town. We are not a corner of a large urban audience. We're in a field in the middle of Sussex with a hinterland of Sussex, Hampshire and Kent.'

On stage, Shaw's exploration of marriage fizzled out a little in the second half, but did approach issues such as paid housework, still radical now and certainly radical when he wrote the work.

He best summed up his own challenge to the institution of marriage: 'When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition until death do them part.'

(Photograph omitted)