1962: Opening Season Productions

Chichester Festival Theatre welcomed audiences for its opening night on Tuesday 3 July 1962, a hotly anticipated debut across Chichester, the UK, and the world. Hollywood megastar Sir Laurence Olivier was at the helm as CFT's first Artistic Director, programming John Fletcher's Jacobean comedy The Chances as the opening production. It received mixed reviews with the critics, but ticket sales were respectable, perhaps because of the allure of an astounding cast including John Neville, Michael Redgrave, Sybil Thorndike, Keith Michell, Olivier himself, his wife Joan Plowright.

After the glitter and celebration of the opening night had faded, all eyes were on Chichester to draw the crowds and please the critics. Audience numbers for the second play, John Ford’s The Broken Heart, were disappointing (Olivier himself admitted it was a “terrible flop”). The pressure was on the final performance of Chekov's Uncle Vanya to revive the reputation of the new Theatre. When asked if he’d slept the night before Uncle Vanya opened, Olivier replied, “Oh yes, like a man in a condemned cell, I spent a night untroubled by hope”. He needn't have worried, the production was a huge success, cementing Chichester’s place in British theatre. Harold Hobson of The Sunday Times described the production as "a master achievement in British twentieth-century theatre [...] it is doubtful if the Moscow Arts Theatre itself could improve on this production" while The New Yorker called it "probably the best 'Vanya' in English we shall ever see".

Audiences queued overnight for tickets, and the production was brought back the following year. To cope with the surge of people the Theatre brought to the quiet cathedral city of Chichester, a train service was put on to transfer audience members back to London after the evening’s performance. The Daily Mail commented that it was “the chattiest and most un-British train that British Rail runs”. Scroll down to explore some highlights from the first season, including silent colour film from our archive.

Photograph of the first season company and staff. On the left are the administration and appeals staff, in the middle are the cast, and on the right are the technical staff.

Chichester Festival Theatre Opening Night, 3rd July 1962

Footage by Roger Gibbons

My father stopped me before we went in and said, 'Now look, I want you to really, really appreciate this because you may never again in your life see so many great actors on the stage together at one time.

An audience member recalls The Chances, 1962

HM The Queen attends Chichester Festival Theatre Gala Performance of Uncle Vanya Tuesday 31 July 1962
HM The Queen signed programme for the 1962 Gala Performance of Uncle Vanya Tuesday 31 July 1962

The first sight the audience had of Olivier was absolutely AMAZING. He came out at the very topmost level and stood there...the whole audience gasped.

An audience member remembers Olivier performing in the opening season

First Season Programme Signed
First Season flyer including cast
Ticket stubs from 1962 season