The new £15.7 million Hampstead Theatre, the first new stand-alone producing theatre to be built in London since the National opened in 1976, will officially open its doors on 13 February 2003. At a press conference held at the new site on Eton Avenue NW3, 50 metres north of the temporary "old shed" of the previous theatre, outgoing artistic director Jenny Topper, executive director James Williams and playwright Michael Frayn (chair of the Hampstead Theatre Foundation) unveiled the new, state-of-the-art facility (pictured, artist impression) and announced the inaugural season.

Described by Topper as a "confident, bold opening season" in celebration of the ambition of the new building, Hampstead's spring 2003 will feature six new works, including: the London premiere of Tim Firth's comedy The Safari Party, the UK premiere of the first play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, the author of the Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated Jesus Hopped the A Train, three world premieres of Hampstead commissions and a site-specific performance piece.

The last, How to Behave by Station House Opera, will open the season, running from 13 to 21 February 2003 (previews 11 February). Specially commissioned to launch the building, the work - meshing music, video, live performance and special effects - starts off by taking the audience on a tour of the theatre.

The Safari Party - a comedy about a peripatetic dinner party in deepest darkest Cheshire - received its world premiere in a sell-out run at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre this past April. At Hampstead, it's directed once again by SJT artistic director Alan Ayckbourn with the original cast of Amanda Abbington, John Branwell, Daniel Casey, Daniel Crowder, Christine Moore and Helen Ryan reprising their roles.

In addition to his other stage plays such as Neville's Island, Firth wrote the book for the recently opened Madness musical Our House, which has been nominated for five Whatsonstage.com 2003 Theatregoers' Choice Awards. The Safari Party runs at Hampstead from 5 March to 19 April 2003 (previews 27 February).

It's followed by two productions: Adly Guirgis' In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings and Debbie Turker Green's Born Bad, directed by Kathy Burke, which will run concurrently from 25 April to 17 May 2003. The former features a cast of 12 (the largest ever at Hampstead as the old theatre could not accommodate large companies) and is set in a seedy bar in downtown Manhattan in the days of zero tolerance. The latter is full-blooded family confrontation between two generations.

The season concludes, from 28 May to 28 June 2003 (previews 22 May), with Tamsin Oglesby's U.S. and Them, directed by Jennie Darnell. A witty dissection of a 'special relationship', the play follows the development of a friendship between an English and American couple who meet in New York. They seem to have a lot in common, but are they speaking the same language?

Meanwhile, in the 80-seat Space, dedicated exclusively to working with young people and the local community, Tanika Gupta's new play about two Asian schoolgirls pressured to stick to their own kind, Fragile Land, runs from 27 March to 12 April 2003 (previews 25 March).

Hampstead's new high-tech facility 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 (who attended today's press conference), Ewan McGregor, Alan Ayckbourn, Kathy Burke, Prunella Scales, Timothy West, Michael Blakemore and Tim Pigott-Smith.

The new Theatre features a flexible auditorium that can be quickly 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. Architect Rab Bennetts of Bennetts Associates said that although it's compact, the theatre "is among the most complex and sophisticated buildings we have designed" with a particular eye towards sustainable, energy-efficient and economical long-term operations.

Hampstead's old portakabin structure - a temporary structure erected in 1962 and only ever intended for a decade's use - officially closed on 9 November 2002, with a final performance of the 25th anniversary revival of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, now transferred to the West End's New Ambassadors Theatre. The "old shed" (as Michael Frayn described it today) will be demolished with the area around it 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.

- by Terri Paddock