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Hampstead's false economy

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The Royal Court has this week two new plays opening written by dramatists - Bola Agbaje and Mike Bartlett - who partly cut their teeth with Hampstead Theatre's Heat and Light company, the producing wing of the theatre's creative learning department.

And now we learn that Hampstead is closing that department, blaming the cuts to its funding by the local Camden council. Ironically, of course, Hampstead itself is about to produce a Mike Bartlett play of its own, his adaptation of the film Chariots of Fire ("The British are coming," its writer, Colin Welland, famously, and fatuously, declared at the Oscar ceremony).

I think it's disingenuous, though, of Hampstead director Ed Hall to shift the blame for the Heat and Light closure onto Camden. The amount of money involved is comparatively small - £74,000 annually plus a newly added £5,000 rates bill; it's clear from the last Heat and Light show I saw that Hall doesn't place its work all that highly in his priorities.

Not surprisingly, Camden feel that Hampstead Theatre has lost touch with its local community, an indisputable fact of life - I live in the area - over the past ten years or so, but one which was mitigated by the excellence of Heat and Light during the Anthony Clark years. 

The chief tactic Hall needed to employ in order to win  back the council's trust and support was the maintenance and improvement of the creative learning department. Instead, he's aiming for West End glory while also running his Propeller touring company which has a slimmed down, cut-price version for schools all of its own.

The rates used to be waived by Camden council for Hampstead, but the new charge, albeit very small, of £5,000, is a much more significant indicator of the fall-out than is the cutting of the grant. We have yet to see Chariots of Fire, but it's almost certain that Miriam Buether's drastic re-design of the theatre - which will be transformed into a sports stadium - will have cost an absolute fortune, probably enough to run Heat and Light for three years.

So while I think Hall is right to deplore the Camden cuts, he should not blame them for closing his creative learning department. That's his decision alone, and one he could have easily avoided by making different choices.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner confirmed in an Evening Standard interview yesterday that he will be departing the National once the Olympics, the realignment and repositioning of the building on the South Bank, and the National's 50th anniversary in October 2013 are all out of the way.

He also has no intention of ever running another institution, big or large, but equally doesn't fancy the freelance life because he likes producing too much. Interestingly, he told Nick Curtis that actors are much better off working at the National than making films that are simply not worth doing:

"A single weekend's release in a handful of cinemas in London, with a dim afterlife on DVD... probably, numerically, you are not reaching as wide an audience as doing a show in the Olivier. And certainly in terms of the impact you can have as an actor, you are far better off here."

As a writer, too, if the fate of Heat and Light is anything to go by. But it's not just another Bola Agbaje or Mike Bartlett who might struggle to make an impact without such a start-up.

The real point of Heat and Light was the sheer joy and energy of young actors finding their feet and their voices in a professional environment untainted by commercial imperatives. The crude truth, though, is that even at Hampstead, those imperatives, and the aspirations behind them, hold ultimate sway.


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