There was a great sense of anticipation before the production of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House at Chichester Festival Theatre last week. Sir Derek Jacobi and Ronald Pickup were on the bill for this morality tale about how the indulged elite failed Britain in the build-up to the First World War.

It starts bravely, in that no one speaks for at least two minutes after the lights go down. Instead, a woman sits on a chair and falls asleep. As time ticked on, I heard an elderly man behind me ask his companion in the not-so sotto voce of the partially deaf: ‘Has it started yet?’ Her reply that she ‘wasn’t sure’ was followed by the squeak of hearing aids linked to the theatre’s loop being turned up.

I’m not surprised that audiences young and old don’t want to miss a thing at the provincial theatre of the moment. Playing that same night at the Minerva was the acclaimed The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and, outside, a youth group was putting on a dynamic production about Restoration actresses. Singin’ in the Rain, Sweeney Todd and Yes, Prime Minister have all transferred to the West End.

Laurence Olivier, who launched Chichester in 1962, would be thrilled. Now, the theatre has nearly raised the necessary millions to renew the premises for the next 50 years. Encore!

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