A small town drama as director challenges 'prim' audiences with radicalism and nudity

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The theatre is one of the best-known and best-loved in Britain. Its audiences are loyal and knowledgeable. The trouble is, they are also "too old and too conservative".

That condemnation came yesterday from the man the patrons might have expected to shower them with plaudits - the Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director, Andrew Welch. Mr Welch, 50, said he had become frustrated at constantly finding himself the youngest person in the audience. He also lamented the middle-of-the-road fare Chichester patrons demanded and said he was accused of bringing in "a political radical" when he first put on a David Hare play.

Now he is to get his revenge. "Unless I make changes, the theatre will die," he said, noting that box-office bookings had fallen from 95 per cent in the Sixties to 60 per cent now. Mr Welch said he would be putting on new plays that would include new writing from young playwrights, with young actors and directors.

He would consider "shockdrama" such as the cult youth play Shopping and F***ing by Mark Ravenhill, and was prepared to introduce gay plays. In this summer's season, which he launched yesterday, he will put on a production of Hare's The Blue Room, which recently starred a naked Nicole Kidman in London. She will not be appearing in the Chichester production but it is likely to feature nudity. He will also stage The Sea, by the late Edward Bond, a shocking dramatist in his time. Asked if he would put on Shopping and F***ing, Mr Welch replied: "I don't see why not. I don't see why Chichester shouldn't be ready for that."

His outburst is certain to engender controversy at a theatre whose audiences are solidly Middle England, whose senior usher is the wife of the Bishop of Chichester and whose board includes the Bishop and the dean. Mr Welch's frustration echoes that of many regional theatre directors who want a younger audience to sit alongside the predominantly middle- class, middle-aged and elderly.

Like other artistic directors before him, Mr Welch looks back with longing to the golden age at Chichester between 1962 and 1965, when Laurence Olivier took the fledgling National Theatre Company there for summers and put on plays including the now-legendary productions of Othello, Uncle Vanya and The Royal Hunt of the Sun.

During that period and for years afterwards Chichester was a summer haunt for London theatregoers and had a national reputation for top drama. Even in the late Eighties its studio theatre had a young Sam Mendes as its director. But in recent years the Chichester Festival has been the home for what Mr Welch describes as "safe and unadventurous plays" with safe star names (sometimes television sitcom stars) such as Dora Bryan, Penelope Keith, Googie Withers, Maureen Lipman and Patricia Routledge.

Penelope Keith is on the theatre's board of trustees, which is chaired by Lord Young of Graffham, a former minister in Margaret Thatcher's governments. Mr Welch, who has been artistic director for two years, said yesterday: "They like to see well-known names down there. But I want to move away from that. I want young actors and young directors. Two of our directors this season are over 70.

"The audience likes well-made plays, plays from a particular period, from 1890-1940. You begin to say, 'Well, do I do anything risky?' If you look back to the early days, when I used to travel down there and queue, Chichester was at the centre of British theatre. It no longer is. My intention is to put it back there. The audience is conservative and it is too old. I have to look at that audience and say, 'Where is the future?' The future has got to be bringing in a younger audience.

"When critics come, they tend to review the audience and say how old they look. It is most disconcerting. I'm saying things are going to change and they must change, as with any business. I want Chichester to be a cutting-edge theatre. Some of my present audience will say 'It's not for us.' So be it. I'm putting on a Tom Stoppard and an Alan Ayckbourn, both for the first time at Chichester. You may well say that's hardly revolutionary but for the audience in Chichester it's a change. When I said I was putting on David Hare, a number of people said to me, 'He is a political radical; you can't possibly put on his plays in Chichester.' When I decided not to have a Noel Coward in the season, I got an angry letter telling me this was a break with tradition."

Matt Woolf, a writer on theatre and London theatre critic of Variety, said: "Chichester epitomises a certain piece of British life: interval teas and cucumber sandwiches. That model doesn't work any more. When the Hollywood star Kathleen Turner acted there a few years ago I walked down the high street with her and no one recognised her.

"More people in the audience knew Dora Bryan better than Kathleen Turner. The best thing David Welch can do is engender controversy."

There seems little doubt of that. After Mr Welch's observations yesterday his press spokesman added: "If his remarks upset the locals it will do the locals good to be upset."