North London’s Hampstead Theatre marks its 50th anniversary in 2009, and as previously tipped (See The Goss, 3 Nov 2008), will kick off the year “celebrating half a century of new writing” with a new production of Private Lives, the classic 1929 comedy by Noel Coward (pictured), which famously launched Hampstead’s fortunes in 1962.

The first half of the 50th anniversary season will continue with revivals of Michael Frayn’s Alphabetical Order and Frank McGuinnessObserve the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and readings of other key plays from the theatre’s history, as well as premieres of new work by April De Angelis and renowned television writer Ian Kennedy Martin, making his stage debut.

Speaking at a press conference today to announce the season, Hampstead artistic director Anthony Clark said that the anniversary “gives us the opportunity to celebrate past achievements and look to the future. Looking back, the diversity of style and content at Hampstead Theatre has been quite astonishing. Our programme for 2009 pays homage to that diversity by reviving a successful play from each decade, complemented by two rehearsed readings of plays which premiered at Hampstead in the same decade. Between each revival we will present a new play, maintaining our dedication to new writing and leading us boldly into the next 50 years.”

Hampstead founder and first artistic director James Roose-Evans added in an issued statement: “Fifty years ago, in September 1959, when I launched the Hampstead Theatre, it was as a neighbourhood playhouse, a theatre-on-the-doorstep for those living in that part of London. Within a very few years, however, it acquired first a national, then an international reputation, so that today audiences come from far and wide. Today, in its handsome, purpose-built theatre, it not only offers a platform for new writing, as well as revivals, but with its educational and other outreach programmes under Anthony Clark, it has become an integral part of the whole community.”

Revivals & premieres

In 1962, Roose-Evans presented a celebrated production of Private Lives, Noel Coward’s comedy about warring exes Elyot and Amanda, which became the theatre’s first West End transfer and resulted in what Coward himself, then in his 60s and out of fashion, referred to as “Dad’s renaissance”. Lucy Bailey directs the new production, which will run from 22 January to 28 February 2009, with a cast including Claire Price (currently in The White Devil) a the Menier Chocolate Factory) as Amanda and Jasper Britton (currently in Oedipus at the National) as Elyot.

The accompanying readings of other Hampstead plays from the 1960s will be Dutchman, a tale of an interracial affair by Amira Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), and Colin Spencer’s gender-swapped pregnancy piece Spitting Image.

Ian Kennedy Martin, the creator of screen classics such as The Sweeney and Juliet Bravo, will turn his attention to the stage after writing more than 150 hours of TV drama. The world premiere of The Berlin Handover Express runs from 5 March to 4 April 2009, directed by former Hampstead artistic director Michael Rudman. Set in the Irish consulate in Berlin in the autumn of 1942, it explores the implications of a country remaining neutral during wartime.

The next revival, running from 16 April to 16 May 2009, will be Michael Frayn’s Alphabetical Order, which premiered at Hampstead in 1975 before transferring to the West End and winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. Inspired by Frayn’s early career in journalism, it’s set in a provincial newspaper office where the lives and routines of a group of befuddled journalists are systematically ordered by new girl Leslie. Christopher Luscombe directs.

The accompanying 1970s rehearsed readings will be Death of a Blackman, Alfred Fagon’s drama about being black in swinging London, and Pam Gems’ feminist play Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi.

April De Angelis’ darkly comic social satire Amongst Friends premieres on 21 May and continues until 13 June 2009, directed by Anthony Clark. In it, a successful couple who’ve moved into a fashionable gated community, invite their old friends to dinner, but the security system fails, letting in an unexpected guest.

It’s followed, from 18 June to 18 July 2009, by First World War drama Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, which won Irishman Frank McGuinness the Standard prize for Most Promising Playwright after its Hampstead premiere in 1986. Associate director John Dove helms the new production. The accompanying 1980s readings will be Michael Wall’s Amongst Barbarians and Stephen Jeffreys’ property boom satire Valued Friends.

Community & future plans

Contingent on a £40,000 fundraising effort, the first half of Hampstead’s 50th year will conclude the last week in July with the largest-scale production ever staged at the theatre. A 50-strong company of volunteers assembled via the Creative Learning department will perform a specially commissioned community play written by Jane Bodie, inspired by interviews with diverse local residents and tentatively titled All of Us.

The second half of the year’s programme will be announced in the spring, but speaking today, Anthony Clark said it will include a key 1990s revival from Jenny Topper’s reign as artistic director, and hinted that it may conclude with premieres of work by young writers discovered and nurtured via Hampstead’s Heat and Light programme. Clark anticipates that several of the anniversary productions, starting with Private Lives, will have a commercial life beyond Hampstead, with talks already under way for possible tours or West End transfers.

Clark was joined at today’s press conference by Michael Frayn, Lucy Bailey, Christopher Luscombe, April de Angelis, Ian Kennedy Martin and others involved in the new programme. He also thanked the theatre’s staff who, over the past two years, have all been involved in reading the 500 plays produced by Hampstead over the past five decades and deciding which to highlight as part of the anniversary celebrations.

History

Founded in 1959, Hampstead Theatre Club started as a series of dates at Morland Hall in Hampstead, after which it moved briefly into the Three Horseshoes Pub (now the home of Pentameters Theatre). In 1962, it took up residence at its “temporary” prefabricated home, with a 160-seat auditorium, at Swiss Cottage, where it remained for the next 40 years. In 2002, the pre-fab was demolished and, at the start of 2003, it inaugurated its current, £15.7 million purpose-built home, where it has two auditoria: a 325-seat main house auditorium, and an 80-seat downstairs studio named in honour of Michael Frayn.

Over the past 50 years, other playwrights whose work Hampstead has been key in championing have included: Harold Pinter, Ann Jellicoe, Emlyn Williams, Athol Fugard, John Aubrey, David Hare, John Antrobus, Michael Hastings, Sam Shepard, Brian Friel, Mike Weller, Martin Sherman, Anthony Minghella, David Edgar, Tom Kempinski, Christopher Hampton, Richard Cameron, Philip Ridley, Doug Lucie, Terry Johnson, Tony Kushner, Shelagh Stephenson, Jonathan Harvey, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Zinnie Harris, Snoo Wilson, Alan Plater, Ron Hutchinson, Alistair Beaton, Gregory Burke, Richard Bean, Antony Sher and Mike Leigh, who’s seminal social satire Abigail’s Party premiered at the theatre in 1977 and was revived as the swansong production at its old home.

- by Terri Paddock