'Private Lives' marks 50 years of Hampstead Theatre

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Time Out looks back at Hampstead Theatre's colourful history as 'Private Lives' kicks off its fiftieth birthday bash

  • 'Private Lives' marks 50 years of Hampstead Theatre

    Hampstead Theatre as it was © Sheila Burnett

  • The celebrations for Hampstead’s fiftieth birthday begin this week with a production of ‘Private Lives’ with Claire Price and Jasper Britton as the warring couple. It may seem odd that a theatre most famous for staging new plays by such authors as Michael Frayn, Mike Leigh, Brian Friel and Terry Johnson should choose Coward’s comedy to kick off the party. But ‘Private Lives’ had a crucial role to play in the theatre’s history – so vital that without it there might have been nothing to celebrate today.

    At the time Hampstead was housed in a cabin around the corner from the present building: a temporary structure that lasted 40 years. In 1962, the theatre was struggling to pay its bills when the artistic director James Roose-Evans decided to revive ‘Private Lives’ with a young cast. Coward’s reputation was then at rock bottom, his plays swept aside to make way for the new voices at the Royal Court. But Roose-Evans’s highly-praised, popular production helped to rehabilitate the playwright who even descended from Switzerland to inspect it for himself. A special matinee was arranged before he went to Buckingham Palace to have dinner with the Queen Mother. Later, the producer Michael Codron began his long association with Hampstead by transferring the show, its young cast intact, into the West End where it became the theatre’s first commercial hit.

    Hampstead was on the fringe before fringe theatre existed, which is perhaps why it sometimes seems to suffer from an identity crisis. The theatre was founded by Roose-Evans in 1959. Like so many directors, he wanted to do the plays that he wanted to do rather than those that others asked him to do. Inspired by working in a neighbourhood theatre in New York, he persuaded the vicar of Hampstead parish church to allow him to use Morland Hall, then next door to the Everyman Cinema. Roose-Evans was convinced that the cosmopolitan Hampstead inhabitants would turn out to see a bold programme of work. The first production to attract attention was a double bill of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Room’ and ‘The Dumb Waiter’. Harold Hobson, then theatre critic for The Sunday Times, was keeping a keen eye on Pinter and he took the trouble to pay the production a visit and declared himself impressed.

    But success came a little too swiftly for the vicar who feared that the scouts and mother-and-toddler groups were being pushed out because the theatre was monopolising the space. A temporary stay at the Three Horseshoes (now Pentameters Theatre) came to an end when the fire officers demanded expensive improvements. Luckily, Hampstead Council unexpectedly came up with a grant of £7,000 for a prefabricated building seating 157 next to the swimming pool and library at Swiss Cottage.

    The theatre was left to raise £10,000 for fixtures and fittings, which it did but only with great difficulty and the help of a growing number of friends. In its new home, the Hampstead Theatre audience became a phenomenon, interested in intelligent plays, nothing too adventurous formally, which often transferred into the West End. When Jim Broadbent fell ill during a performance of Mike Leigh’s ‘Ecstasy’ in 1975, someone asked whether there was a doctor in the house and 14 men stood up.

    As early as 1965, there was talk of building a new theatre since the limitations of the hut were obvious. The foyer was suffocating if the house was full and a piece of hardboard was all that separated the actors’ loo from the auditorium. The lottery finally made the dream possible and in 2003 the company moved into its current handsome, if somewhat cold, building and Anthony Clark became artistic director. But it’s proved hard to make the change from a tiny theatre to a state-of-the-art venue seating many more people. Costs have rocketed, income has not gone up as much as expected and both actors and audiences perversely romanticise about the scruffy, well-worn theatre they left behind them in which the walls were encrusted with the sweat of previous productions. It hasn’t helped that the West End today is less and less interested in transferring new plays. The good thing is that the theatre has used its extra space massively to expand its work for young people. On the main stage, the record so far has undeniably been patchy. But the theatre has survived difficult periods in the past and here’s hoping that the year-long celebrations, including a bold selection of both new and old plays, will help it to find its way.

    ‘Private Lives’ is playing at Hampstead Theatre until Feb 28.

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