History of a Hampstead treasure: Pentameters Theatre gets ready to celebrate 45 years
12:15 14 January 2013
Harold Pinter, Adrian Mitchell, Russell Brand, Jennifer Saunders and Dustin Hoffman are among the stars to have graced the Pentameters Theatre in its long life. Rhiannon Edwards looks back as the theatre approaches its 45th anniversary this month.
In the year that it celebrates its 45th anniversary, the founder of Pentameters Theatre and long time creative director Leonie Scott-Matthews sits in a small theatre that has a big history.
It was her decision to start the theatre as a poetry club in 1968 after she had success with a poetry picnic travelling from Marylebone station in the same year.
“1968 was a big year, it was the end of censorship, the arts lab in London was thriving and everything was getting going,” she says as she looks through the archive.
Lots of big poetry names began there. Early poets during the final years of the 1960s and the bulk of the 1970s included Dannie Abse, Ivor Cutler, John Brunner, Libby Houston (whom Scott-Matthews describes as “Terribly mysterious and attractive”) and Cream lyricist and poet Pete Brown. Brown and Houston will return to the theatre this month to celebrate the 45th anniversary with a special performance. Later in the year an archive exhibition will be revealed to the public, including photographs, books, posters and other memorabilia from the 45 years the theatre has been at the heart of Hampstead.
There was always something new at Pentameters and it was driven by Scott-Matthews (along with her partner Godfrey).
An example is in 1970 when an audience saw Roq Brynner, son of Yul Brynner, read Ezra Pound’s Contreras after Scott-Matthews went to see him in Opium by John Cocteau where he had a very well-reviewed performance.
Mysterious Rosemary Tonks, the poet and writer who disappeared in 1970 leaving only her much-praised work behind, also performed there - Scott Matthews has some original books of her work, which will go on show. Scott-Matthews also gave Roger McGough his first London reading on October 30, 1968, The Strawbs, performed in 1969.
In the early 1970s, Scott-Matthews began to stage a little theatre too - beginning with Keith Johnston and the Theatre Machine. “Johnston was the protagonist of improvisation and with the success of that theatre, I realised things were going that way,” she explains.
The 1970s saw more poetry too. Paul Ableman, author of critically acclaimed book Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empsom, Alan Brownjohn and Adrian Mitchell all performed. “I always had a laugh with Adrian and people would queue through the pub for his readings.”
Scott-Matthews published anthologies of work at the time and hopes to collect one together this year, publishing poets who appeared at Pentameters.
1971 was the year that the theatre moved to the Haverstock Arms from the Freemason’s Arms, a temporary home before a bigger space opened up where the theatre is now, above the Horseshoe pub. Following a relocation to its rightful home the theatre saw more success, notably a reading from Edna O’Brien in 1972 and a 200-strong audience packing the theatre out for a reading by Harold Pinter.
Scott-Matthews also enjoyed working with RD Laing, who was big in the anti-psychiatry movement (indeed, from the Broken Minds: Poetry of Insanity event in 1969, lots of the work there explored mental illness and still does). Other big names followed including Index On Censorship founder Stephen Spender, Ted Hughes and Kingsley Amis (who never performed, but was involved with the anthologies that Scott-Matthews created).
Many acting careers were also launched there in new plays that Scott-Matthews made the lifeblood of the theatre. Nigel Havers and Celia Imrie were notable figures who did some of their early work at Pentameters. Imrie performed in a duo called The Two Seals, “they were both called Celia” explains Scott-Matthews.
But famous names were not only attracted to the stage of Pentameters.
“We put on a play about Edith Sitwell in 1979 and someone rang up to reserve two tickets in the name of Hoffman,” says Scott-Matthews. “I said jokingly, ‘It could be Dustin Hoffman’, and I was very surprised to see that it was. He didn’t make a fuss and neither did anyone else, even my mother, who was playing Edith Sitwell.”
Scott-Matthews also championed the playwriting of Robert Calvert, the lead singer of Hawkwind and will also be commemorating the 25th anniversary of his death this year.
The 1980s saw a change of pace for the theatre as it became a launch pad for some of the best comedians the UK has produced after Scott-Matthews was approached by renowned promoter Arnold Brown. “He asked if I wanted to stage some alternative comedy. I agreed and things started changing quite rapidly.” The Alternative Comedy pack, including Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall, Alexi Sayle and Ben Elton all cut their teeth there. “Of course, as things like The Young Ones came along they all got more famous, they moved on and I focused more on theatre and poetry.”
Theatre continued at Pentameters throughout the 1990s and into the last decade - at an average rate of 14 plays a year - and has done ever since (apart from in 1991 when 20 shows were staged there). Famous faces can also still be found there - Russell Brand compered at Pentameters just before he became incredibly famous “and you shouldn’t believe what you read in the papers because he is lovely” says Scott-Matthews.
Countless other young stars who have performed there have yet to emerge. Scott-Matthews isn’t interested in celebrity though, she prefers starting something new to worshipping what has already been found.
“We try and do things differently, for example we put on 12 Angry Men with a cast of only barristers. That was a lot of fun.”
It has also never lost its sense of adventure, of playing around with who does what - only last year, The Office and Inbetweeners actor David Schaall put on Brotherly Love, a play where he was the writer. Old friends are also welcome back and last year also saw the staging of Pythagoras Smith, a play by Dannie Abse, who has been with the theatre since 1968.
All around the country, local theatres are closing their doors because of lack of funding. Even Hampstead has seen the demise of the New End Theatre. Pentameters endures.
“Nothing lasts but I will, and I’m going to live to 106,” insists Scott-Matthews. “Looking through all the history, all the notes I made and all the things I kept - it just makes me want to live. It is as if all the horrible things that have happened in my life haven’t happened at all, it’s a fabulous feeling.”