The Winchester Festival has played to capacity houses for most of its events this year, but the hottest ticket has to have been for the Finale, "Great Eccentrics", which sold out on the first morning of booking back in May.
Unsurprisingly so, since it starred the Festival's President, Dame Judi Dench, with Charles Dance.
It was devised and directed by the Artistic Director, John Miller, who joined his two actors on stage at the Theatre Royal for this comic recital which was rapturously received.
The first laugh came just as Dame Judi was saying "Let us begin . . ." when a mobile phone went off in one of the front rows. She stopped instantly, and the baleful look she directed at the unfortunate who had disregarded the earlier request to switch them off brought the house down.
The laughter continued through the stories of the Sitwell family, Tennyson, Wellington, Gladstone, David Livingstone, Churchill, and many lesser-known names who merit inclusion in the gallery of eccentrics. These tales were interspersed with poems by Edward Lear and his American equivalent, Ogden Nash, beautifully rendered by the actors. The first half concluded with a rousing performance by Charles Dance of Stanley Holloway's monologue "The Battle of 'Astings".
The second half was devoted to the world of show business, beginning with a variety of approaches to "Hamlet", including performances by John Barrymore and Richard Burton, both re-created uncannily by Charles Dance. John Miller had a wonderful series of stories of the eccentric behaviour of both Sir Thomas Beecham and Ralph Richardson, and Judi Dench gave brilliant impersonations of Hermione Gingold, Edith Evans, Sarah Bernhardt and Madonna.
At the end John Miller thanked everyone in the audience who had responded to the 2005 Save the Festival Appeal, saying that it had since gone from strength to strength, "and Judi has become our President". This drew the biggest cheer of the entire evening, and was a tribute to the affection that everyone feels for this great actress, and a special gratitude for her close relationship with the Festival. Long may it continue.
By Amanda Steer