Nine months after its gala opening, the new £15.7 million Hampstead Theatre (pictured) in north London is facing financial crisis.

After 40 years in a pre-fabricated temporary structure, Hampstead moved into the new high-tech facility, the first stand-alone producing theatre to be built in London since the National opened in 1976, officially opening its doors on 13 February 2003 (See News, 12 Dec 2002). Now, according to a report in today's Times, the theatre has been forced to appeal to Arts Council England for an estimated £500,000 rescue package to secure its future for the next two to three years.

Former artistic director Jenny Topper was the driving force behind the establishment of the new building, which was funded by a £9.86m National Lottery grant, with the rest raised from over 3,300 private donors including celebrity supporters such as Lindsay Duncan, Ewan McGregor, Alan Ayckbourn, Kathy Burke, Prunella Scales, Timothy West, Michael Blakemore and Tim Pigott-Smith. After overseeing the move - and 13 years in the job - Topper stepped down in June 2003 (See News, 13 May 2002).

In an interview with this past September, her successor Anthony Clark hinted that there were already economic concerns: "It's a terrific building. We still have a lot to learn about it, though ... How much does it really cost to run? It's so much bigger than what the company is used to. We must now ask: what do we need to make the most of this facility and how are we going to get there? It's got two auditoriums, it's got these wonderful foyer spaces - it needs to be made accessible to people in a variety of different ways. This is a very different concern than the old Hampstead Theatre, it's a lot more responsibility ... It is very exciting. The only thing I'm worried about is what the real costs of all that are ... I reckon by the end of the financial year, by February/March 2004, the chickens will come home to roost" (See "Changing of the Guard: Hampstead", Features, 29 Sep 2003).

This morning, a theatre insider confirmed the "alarming situation" to, explaining that, upon moving into the new building, they discovered that it was much more expensive than had been anticipated.

Though the final production in the old facility, a 25th anniversary revival of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party (which premiered at the theatre in 1977), was a huge success, transferring to the West End after an extended sell-out at Hampstead, productions of new plays - which is the theatre's designated purpose - have met with less critical and audience favour. According to the Times, the last two transitional plays - Adam Pettle's Sunday Father (commissioned by Topper) and Clare McIntyre's The Maths Tutor (commissioned by Clark) - have made box office losses of up to £90,000.

Describing the present situation, Hampstead executive director James Williams told "We're in discussion with funders and key stakeholders, and we're looking at revised operations for the theatre post-opening. The important thing to emphasise is the commitment of all of our funders." He added that all involved were optimistic and determined. "What we've got to do is make sure that Hampstead Theatre is still here. It's too important to lose. We're looking forward to the future with enthusiasm, but clearly we've got to look at all options."

The new theatre features a scalable auditorium that can be reconfigured for audience sizes from 140 up to 325, while other features include a dedicated rehearsal room, bar and café and extensive backstage and office facilities. Hampstead's old portakabin - a temporary structure erected in 1962 and only ever intended for a decade's use - officially closed on 9 November 2002 and has since been demolished with the area being converted into a new park.

Despite its less than ideal facilities, over the past four decades, the shed established Hampstead's formidable reputation for new plays, which in the past 14 years alone, have included 22 productions that have transferred to the West End such as: Burn This with John Malkovich, Dead Funny by Terry Johnson, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs with Ewan McGregor, Peggy For You with Maureen Lipman and Feelgood with Henry Goodman.

Currently playing at the new Hampstead Theatre is Gregory Burke's award-winning second play The Straits. Clark's inaugural 2003/2004 season continues with new plays by Barbara Norden, Stephen Lowe, Drew Pautz and Hanif Kureishi.

- by Terri Paddock