A confident-sounding annual report from Hampstead Theatre shows somewhere teetering on the brink of losing its artistic respectability (somewhat unfairly, but that’s another matter) and with finances accordingly in decline, renewed in confidence and prestige.
The front-man for this is current artistic director Edward Hall, and there are two things about him. First, as son of the man who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and took the National Theatre company into its own home, he’s had a close source for ideas on running theatres and putting on a show, in all senses.
Secondly, as his productions, and founding of all-male Shakespeareans Propeller, make clear, he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to run the show. In any sense. If there’s one person who brought Hall forward, it wouldn’t be any family member, but the late Jill Fraser, who ran the Watermill Theatre near Newbury during one of those magical periods which remain distinct in the memory, regardless of how good work before or since has been.
Hall, E’s time at Hampstead might turn out on of those. And if it does, it won’t just be for the emblazoned, high-quality casts that strut and fret with panache and control on the stage in an auditorium which seems almost to float in suspension within the overall building.
For there’s a secret down below, in a place alternatively known as Hampstead Downstairs or The Michael Frayn Space (after he playwright, novelist, translator, etc who had several early comedies premiered in the first Hampstead Theatre incarnation round the corner from the current, more spacious and secluded building.
As a secret it’s becoming more open, judging by the growing audiences for shows in the flexible studio at the foot of that long staircase running across the foyer from the main bar.
The point about it is that, except for productions which hire Downstairs to give a London showcase, Hampstead’s own productions are not to be reviewed. There’s no press night, and a critic publishing a proper review would face, if not necessarily permanent exclusion for a first offence, at least severe disapproval.
The idea seems to have been this would make the space somewhere for new writers, directors, actors, designers etc to gain experience, and for the more established to try their hand at doing something different.
If that’s what they’re doing, it’s not apparent to my naked eye. The first show I saw there was a play that had already won an award in Australia, performed by two highly reputed and experienced actors. It later went on to acclamation at the Traverse during an Edinburgh Festival.
The ‘different’, let alone, experimental elements of other productions has been pretty well hidden too. Though it might not always have felt like it for the writers in particular. What Downstairs has been doing is the traditional lot of the studio theatre everywhere, to mount productions which would struggle to find sufficient audience numbers in a larger space.
Sometimes this has been because of a serious examination of a political situation or medical condition, though, with the notable exception of that beautifully-performed first piece I caught, these have tended to be a ouch sketchy o, carrying a sense of elements not quite given a context or ending prematurely – before all te matters raised had been seen through.
But more widely, there’s an argument that Hampstead is fulfilling its mission to focus on new work at least as much Downstairs as up. There may be more sense of occasion, thanks to casting and reviewing, Upstairs, but for honest hour-by-hour quality I’d match the below-stairs experience with some of the grander material selling-out above.
Most Hampstead main-house productions are full by the later weeks of their run, and it’s not unusual for them to be at, or near, that position by the time they open. Apart from Katie Mitchell’s Gertrude Stein piece Say It With Flowers, that isn’t happening yet underneath. Mitchell, of course, is a star director among aficionados and any experimental production from her is likely to be par for the course.
There is, to, quite a pleasant feel to be in an audience none of whom is following the critical stars, to sit amongst a population all, or most, of whom are trusting to their local theatre, or trying out something different, or have come tipped-off by word of mouth.
And for a newish writer, Hampstead on any level can provide a strong cast. Right now, how could Alexandra Wood, writer of The Empty Quarter not appreciate a cast where the female conflict is played out between Geraldine Alexander and Jodie McNee? It seems the worldwide recession has hit money-built Dubai, where poverty is a crime, with indebtedness bringing imprisonment.
But organising, fitness-aware Gemma, confident in her husband Patrick’s health, trips about the stage organising her friend’s life, it becomes increasingly apparent, to keep herself from acknowledging her own emptiness. Meanwhile, McNee’s Holly starts asserting herself against her friend’s anschluss, while the husbands, Gunnar Cauthery’s semi-assertive Greg and David Hounslow’s Patrick, an element of uncertainty eventually sighted within his mature, grey-haired confidence, leave most of the talking to the women.
There’s no false note, the cast ensure any trap inviting caricature is skirted and Wood’s action develops with satisfying steady logic.
No sooner said than disproved. Seats for the unreviewed, little-publicised new plays downstairs at Hampstead Theatre are going closer to hot cakes than warm doughnuts. Without famous names on or around the stage, recent shows have booking up days ahead. And, once there, there’s a pleasant atmosphere connecting actors, play and audience.
Without the heavily expectant breath of critical opinion clouding the atmosphere, the plays suddenly become everyone’s in the house that night. You can complain to the management, or (more likely, I’d suggest) congratulate them on their choices. Nor it there any hostage to plot or thematic fortune. You’re not waiting to see how things come round to what you’ve read, or heard, the piece is about.
It’s a freedom that operated differently in recent shows. Ali Taylor‘s very funny, increasingly serious Fault Lines is very funny and very serious, the office sex and politics drama brought up to date as last night’s office party recedes and the consequences of relationships emerge.
Find any better cast anywhere in London and you deserve more than a reheated doughnut. Find a more memorable moment than Nichola McAuliffe’s charity office-manager moving from cheer to defeat in a moment and you’ll have had some very fine theatregoing.
After which Jeremy Brock’s The Blackest Black takes forward the old Two Cultures Science and Art debate. Though it might be better to say two mindsets, two approaches to life, that of a voluble English artist (female) and two taciturn American astronomers (males). Love’s the devil that drives hem, and complicated things. Physical force is strong but doesn’t remove different ways of viewing the world.
The staging of Lisa Spirling‘s and Michael Longhurst’s productions might have been designed to show the space’s flexibility – Fault Lines ranges its audience in a couple of rows using the length of the room. It feels all-inclusive, the audience and the co-workers. Blackest Black sets its two locations apart from the viewers, using Downstairs’ narrower width for seating, with sets that emphasise separation between characters and from spectators.
So, diversity in space, feel, tone and subject, but with realistic pieces that have solid construction and characters. So far, still so good.