Hampstead’s season combines past and present

Published November 11, 2008

Hit plays by Noël Coward, Michael Frayn and Frank McGuinness will be revived at Hampstead theatre in 2009 as part of its celebratory 50th anniversary season.

The season, which Artistic Director Anthony Clark (pictured) said had been designed to both “celebrate past achievements and look to the future”, centres on a revival of a successful play from each decade of the theatre’s 50-year history. Coward’s Private Lives, produced in 1962, Frayn’s 1975 comedy Alphabetical Order, and McGuinness’s Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme, first staged in 1986, will be revived in the first six months of 2009, each one complemented by two rehearsed readings of plays which premiered at the Hampstead in the same decade.

New plays by Ian Kennedy Martin and April De Angelis are interspersed among the revivals, “maintaining our dedication to new writing and leading us boldly into the next 50 years,” said Clark.

The anniversary season kicks off with a new production of Coward’s 1930 dark comedy about a couple’s love-hate relationship, Private Lives (22 January to 28 February). Originally staged at the Hampstead in 1962, three years after the venue was founded by James Roose-Evans, the play was one of the theatre’s early hits and contributed to a renaissance in the career of Coward, whose work had fallen out of fashion. It also attracted a new audience to the fledging Hampstead theatre which, until that production, had previously suffered from “audiences smaller than the casts”, according to Clark.

This revival will be directed by Lucy Bailey and stars Claire Price and Jasper Britton. Bailey, known for her recent productions of Titus Andronicus and Timon Of Athens at Shakespeare’s Globe, has previously directed Coward’s Tonight At 8.30 at Chichester Festival Theatre.

Frayn’s Alphabetical Order (16 April to 16 May) is revived at the Hampstead “in recognition of his long-term association with the theatre”, said Clark. The playwright, whose other work includes Donkeys’ Years, Noises Off, Democracy and Afterlife, was a board member of the theatre for more than 25 years and helped oversee the theatre’s move into its present, purpose-built venue in 2003. The theatre’s studio space is named after him.

Alphabetical Order premiered at the Hampstead in 1975 and transferred to the West End, earning Frayn an Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. Inspired by his early working life as a newspaper reporter for the Manchester Guardian – which, Frayn noted, began around the time the Hampstead was founded – Alphabetical Order is set in a provincial newspaper office and follows the routines of a group of befuddled journalists whose lives are reordered by the new girl. Speaking today, Frayn said he had “happy memories of the first production partly because it was the first play of mine that got reasonable reviews”.

Director Christopher Luscombe (The Merry Wives Of Windsor at Shakespeare’s Globe) will retain the 1970s setting for this revival of Alphabetical Order, for which casting is yet to be announced.

Irish playwright McGuinness’s World War One play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme (18 June to 18 July) established him as a key voice in contemporary playwriting when it opened at the Hampstead in 1986. He went on to stage Carthaginians and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at the Hampstead and has had his plays and translations performed in the West End, at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company and on Broadway.  

This revival of Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme is directed by John Dove, a previous long-serving Associate Director of the Hampstead.

Another key figure in the theatre’s half century returns to direct the first of two new plays in the anniversary season. Michael Rudman, Artistic Director from 1973-78, directs The Berlin Hanover Express (5 March to 4 April), the stage debut of television writer Ian Kennedy Martin, who created the series The Sweeney and Juliet Bravo. Set in the Irish consulate in Berlin in the autumn of 1942, The Berlin Hanover Express explores the implications of a country remaining neutral in a time of war.

The second premiere of the season is Amongst Friends (21 May to 13 June), a new play by April De Angelis whose previous work The Positive Hour was staged at the Hampstead in 1997. Clark directs this darkly comic satire which centres on a successful couple who receive an unwanted guest for dinner at their home in a fashionable ‘gated community’.

Hampstead’s birthday celebrations will also include a new community-based project initiated by the theatre’s Creative Learning department. Playwright Jane Bodie has been commissioned to write a new play in consultation with local community groups of all ages and backgrounds. The theatre hopes to gather some 50 volunteers to appear in the production and work behind the scenes to stage a large-scale piece of theatre on the main stage in late July. With the working title All Of Us, the play will focus on “what unites and separates us”, said Bodie.

Though the second half of the anniversary season will not be announced until spring 2009, Clark indicated that it is likely to include a revival of a play from the 1990s, plus an emphasis on new work. The Hampstead currently has 15 writers on commission, including Steve Thompson (Whipping It Up), Leo Butler (Faces In The Crowd), Shelagh Stephenson (Ancient Lights) and Alexis Zegerman (Lucky Seven). Clark also indicated that a number of young writers emerging through the theatre’s Heat & Light young company may soon present work on the main stage.

CB