Stepmother faces an unsettling truth at Chichester Festival Theatre

Joanna David
Joanna David

Maybe there’s been the odd recital at Chichester down the years.

But Joanna David can safely say she hasn’t performed at Chichester Festival Theatre in a full production since The Rivals in 1971, the year she met her husband Edward Fox as part of the CFT company.

Now she is back, her first time in the Minerva, for The Stepmother by Githa Sowerby, directed by Richard Eyre (August 11-September 9).

“I was 23 when I was last here,” Joanna recalls, “and in those days, I was absolutely naïve and very, very young. I had done a lot of rep but I had not worked before with magnificent theatre actors like Dame Edith Evans. I was in The Rivals, and I was in an Anouilh play as well.

“It was a wonderful cast. Margaret Leighton was playing Mrs Malaprop. It was a fantastic cast, wonderful people, very remarkable, but in those days you would not dare speak to a senior actor unless they spoke to you, and then it was always Dame Edith or Miss Leighton until they told you you could use their first name.

“I was certainly very anxious back then.”

Her future husband, however, she mistook for the stage manager: “He was going to the cigarette machine to get a pack of fags at the hotel where we rehearsed in Earls Court.

“It had its complications because I was involved with someone.”

But they got over the false start, and marrying a fellow actor has worked out well: “I think it is better in the long run! It has its downsides, but hopefully you can better understand each other’s work and pressures, and our children are both actors too, which means everybody has an understanding of everybody else’s life. But it is very unusual when we can all sit down together!”

As for The Stepmother, it is set in 1924 in a comfortable house in Surrey. When the orphaned Lois Relph accepts a marriage proposal from an older man, Eustace Gaydon, she believes she’s been rescued from an uncertain future.

Establishing a successful business as a dress designer, Lois leaves her fortune in her husband’s hands.

But when one of her devoted step-daughters needs her help, Lois is forced to address what drew Eustace to her in the first place – and, at last, to face the dark truth at the heart of her marriage.

Joanna said: “It’s a great thrill to be working with (director) Richard on such a wonderful play.

“I had never read any Githa Sowerby. I didn’t know anything about her. I had go google her, but it is just part of preparing to start rehearsing.

“And you can see that she was a remarkable woman for her time, a Fabianist. She writes for women and was a feminist. And she writes remarkably. I think she has got a superb eye for detail for every character. She very much paints the picture of the character.

“My character is the old person in the play. In the prologue she is 60 and she ages to 70 when Act One begins. She is the maiden aunt, the spinster aunt that is there to help everyone all her life, to look after everybody. I had an aunt like that who never stopped bailing my mother out. And my father was partly along the lines of Eustace in this play… so it is interesting!”

Ticket prices for The Stepmother start at £20.

Call the box office on 01243 781312 or visit www.cft.org.uk.

Fiddler on the Roof starring Omid Djalili and Tracy-Ann Oberman is also at the venue (in the theatre) until September 2.

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