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An Enemy of the People review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘riveting’

Hugh Bonneville in An Enemy of the People at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The Festival Theatre in Chichester is, along with its ancient cathedral, one of the crowning glories of the city, helping to put it on the national cultural map in every way. But what if someone sought to undermine it somehow? To say that its dramatic well was polluted and a source of infection (instead of a launch pad for West End transfers like the Guys and Dolls or Gypsy)?

It’s an unlikely proposition, granted, given the decade-long tenure of success of artistic director Jonathan Church and his executive director Alan Finch, but it’s not too far fetched. The regime they replaced had virtually brought the theatre to its knees.

So it is strangely fitting that, to open their final season they have brought a drama to the Festival Theatre stage that looks at a community who puts its own economic self-interests ahead of its moral conscience. The town in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, much like Chichester, relies on a local attraction – a spa – to fuel its economic prosperity, but the source of that livelihood is threatened by the discovery that its waters are polluted.

There’s no denying the enduring power of Ibsen’s moral drama. It’s been given a persuasive production by Howard Davies and, as ever with this director’s work, at the National and at Chichester, he lends the play a fierce, driving intelligence and the urgency of a thriller. Hugh Bonneville’s Dr Stockmann, chief medical officer of the baths, becomes a principled whistleblower, revealing the industrially-contaminated soil that the fouled waters drain from.

Bonneville, best known nowadays for his TV work in shows like Downton Abbey, previously appeared on the Chichester stage 20 years ago, and was last seen on the London stage in 2004 (in Cloaca, Kevin Spacey’s first production as artistic director at London’s Old Vic). But he’s not lost his stage authority and presents a poignant, powerful portrait of a man trying to do the right thing even though it will ruin him and his family.

There’s a churning inevitability to the drama. In an age of contemporary whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, the story has a frightening resonance. Davies’ production – using a lively contemporary version of the play by Christopher Hampton that was first staged at the National in 1997 – make it feel both dignified and urgent.

There’s a strong set of supporting performances from fine actors including Adam James as the local newspaper editor, William Gaminara as Stockmann’s brother who is town mayor and wants to suppress the news,  and Trevor Cooper as a mill owner and Stockmann’s father-in-law. The results are riveting.

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Potent production of a Ibsen's ferocious moral drama driven by a star performance from Hugh Bonneville