Michael Coveney: Nick's farewell knees-up at the National

The great and good of theatreland gathered at the NT on Friday to bid farewell to Nicholas Hytner

Proud mentor: Nicholas Hytner and James Corden in 2011
Proud mentor: Nicholas Hytner and James Corden in 2011
© Dan Wooller

Nicholas Hytner, stepping down as artistic director of the National Theatre at a party in the theatre's hangar-like new paint frame on Friday night, made an emotional speech at odds with his steely, cold-eyed exterior manner. The main theme was the extent to which he felt privileged to have worked with all the other people who work at the NT, and he listed every single department: "I never knew why I did my job before I came here; now I do know."

Like Alan Bennett – who, at an event at the Oxford Literary Festival on Thursday with Hytner, declared that he would never perform on a stage again; he's 80 and, like Michael Gambon, can no longer remember his lines – he was proud to have played a small part in the rise and rise of James Corden, who has received a mostly positive response to his debut as an American television chat show host.

And he roundly praised the work on his watch of his successor, Rufus Norris, saying that the NT would now change, and should change. He didn't regret much – "we've provoked, tears and laughter and earth-shattering boredom (the flip side of the opposite)" – but he was sorry that, unlike Norris, he never made it onto the Grazia chart of lust.

What he still marvelled at was the final technical and dress rehearsals of other colleagues' work, the miracle of how everything had come together. It was as if he was an outsider in his own back yard. And he was just that, quite literally, he revealed, when he got locked out during the first of the 50th anniversary galas he directed last November; he'd gone to watch part of the show in the Green Room with the actors, but had forgotten his pass card and was left bashing on a pane of glass – which he smashed. Next day, the glass was replaced and nothing was said.

This was one of the very few times he said he'd been angry. His Gaydar was hopeless, though, and he never knew who was sleeping with whom, still doesn't. He has very few friends on Facebook, he said, probably because he goes under a pseudonym, but he sure pleased all the playwrights and directors on hand – Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard, Howard Brenton, Polly Stenham, Mike Leigh, Nicholas Wright, Patrick Marber, Marianne Elliott, Tom Morris, Nick Dear, Richard Eyre, Dominic Cooke, Indhu Rubasingham, Roy Williams, Adrian Noble – by closing with the stage manager's rousing speech at the end of Bennett's The Habit of Art about the sheer diurnal persistence of the theatre in this country, the National's non-stop bloody-mindedness in making plays, plays, plays.

The speech was originally delivered by Frances de la Tour, who revealed that "Nick is my husband," – well, they have a lot of picnics together and go to the ballet – though hubby hadn't given her very much direction in The History Boys as he was more interested in spending rehearsal time with the young lads. In fact, when she first worked with him she didn't even know who he was. And she doesn't know who Rufus Norris is, either, though she made it clear she was open to bigamous offers.

Hytner's great friend and colleague Alex Jennings traced their collaboration back to the riotous Royal Exchange, Manchester, and Her Majesty's production of The Scarlet Pimpernel (starring Donald Sinden) which also featured other Hytner regulars, Des Barrit and Iain Mitchell.

Lisa Burger, the NT's former finance director and new executive director (staying on to work alongside Tessa Ross, the new chief executive), gave an idea of how much Hytner was loved by the staff and added, more importantly, that he was never ill. She then gave him a deck chair to go and sit in, signal for a short film in which NT personnel tried to formulate some plans without him.

In desperation, someone rang Nick Starr, the outgoing executive director, who was seen sipping a ridiculous cocktail on a sun-kissed beach, not taking calls. Simon Russell Beale and Zoë Wanamaker – such a glorious double act in Hytner's swimming pool Much Ado About Nothing – flew in as guardian angels while Rufus Norris got on with some painting and decorating, proving his qualifications for the new job (he's also been a model and a rock musician).

The party started up in earnest. I left before it was too loud to hear anyone, but I did gather from Sir Nick that he owns a house in France he's hardly ever visited and now plans to check it out, though of course he is going into a theatre production company with Nick Starr, plans soon hatching. One rumour is that they are looking for a fringe venue to either take over or initiate.

Hytner paid tribute to his three chairmen, but most of all he wanted to spend the evening with his colleagues, and you felt that the entire staff were in the room; quite apart from all the actors – I managed a nod or a "hello" with SRB, Rory Kinnear, Penelope Wilton, Deborah Findlay, Helen McCrory, Damian Lewis, David Calder, Adrian Lester, Lesley Manville, Hattie Morahan, Anna Carteret, Stanley Townsend, Marianne Bailey – there were catering and gardening staff, press and marketing personnel, technicians and designers… hell, there were even a few long-serving critics, as well as the essential Baz Bamigboye, so I guess hostilities were on hold. You really could feel the lurve.

See Also: Michael Coveney and Matt Trueman on Hytner's National – 'a golden era'