Ambition marches on for Hampstead Theatre's founder

PUBLISHED: 16:37 15 October 2009 | UPDATED: 16:29 07 September 2010

James Roose-Evans isn't capable of resting on his laurels. Anyone else who founded a major institution like Hampstead Theatre might put their feet up in their 80s. But he still has the energy, vision and passion to found a new theatre - appropriately tit

James Roose-Evans isn't capable of resting on his laurels. Anyone else who founded a major institution like Hampstead Theatre might put their feet up in their 80s.

But he still has the energy, vision and passion to found a new theatre - appropriately titled Small is Beautiful.

Fifty years ago, Roose-Evans did the same thing at Hampstead's Morland Hall, starting a theatre club with a season that included the British premiere of Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter.

In his memoir Opening Doors And Windows (The History Press, £18.99), Roose-Evans describes how writer Bill Ingram suggested the idea at The Coffee Cup in Hampstead High Street.

"Typical of me, without thinking, I went to see the vicar about hiring the hall then I jumped in and announced it to the Ham&High who put it on the front page," he says.

"Some say the only way to start a theatre is to take a three-year management course but I think the best way is to just do it."

With characteristic ingenuity, Roose-Evans raised the money by rattling a tin while reciting Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas to queues outside the Everyman.

The box office was at High Hill Bookshop, the rehearsal rooms above the Three Horseshoes pub, and the plays could only be staged at weekends thanks to scout meetings in the hall.

"People who want to make theatre always start their own groups," explains Roose-Evans, displaying the charm and infectious enthusiasm that dragged others along with his vision.

"I may have been the initiator - with a vision of a neighbourhood playhouse for this area - but I couldn't have achieved anything without many other people bringing their talents."

The venture almost folded after the first season when the parish said the plays interfered with the hall's community use. But an enlightened local council granted land at Swiss Cottage and money for a pre-fabricated 180-seat theatre - provided Roose-Evans raised £10,000 for lights and seating.

Even then, with no money for publicity, they played to tiny audiences.

"It was an eclectic programme, 10 productions a year of experimental new plays, classics and revue with late night and Sunday shows. When some people wrote to say they hadn't liked a particular play, I wrote back and said, 'This theatre is for everyone, you may not like the present play but I hope you like the next one.'"

Luck and good contacts helped on many occasions. Roose-Evans' landlady Eleanor Farjeon was their first patron, wealthy benefactor Max Rayne cleared their early debts, and local resident and Central School of drama principal sent Roose-Evans the Pinter plays.

"I read them, they were so different and so intriguing, I said, 'Let's do them.' Luck plays a huge role in life."

Pinter was depressed following the critical mauling of his debut play The Birthday Party and delighted that anyone wanted to stage his one act dramas.

Following a rave review by The Observer's Harold Hobson, they transferred to the Royal Court.

"I love working with writers, some are more flexible, Pinter wasn't. He was very intense, he knew exactly what he wanted."

In 1962, his inspired revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives put the new theatre on the map. (Princess Margaret came to see it and spent the interval in Roose-Evans' tiny office.)

"We were on the edge until that production, working on a shoestring, making sets from nothing. I earned £10 a week and lived in a garret. The actors weren't paid for rehearsals and we relied on volunteers to make coffee and sell programmes."

The play transferred to the West End, as did Roose-Evans' adaptation of Cider With Rosie and over the next few years, they staged new work by David Hare, John Mcgrath and Tennessee Williams.

"There was no fringe theatre at the time and we benefited by getting great writers. It was day and night, total commitment, exhausting but exciting - you can't have one without the other,"

Roose-Evans quit after a decade and went on to direct numerous productions including his own successful adaptation of 84 Charing Cross Road, as well as founding a spiritual centre in Wales and taking orders in the Anglican church.

Yet there was nothing in his background to suggest a life in the theatre.

He had a chaotic and traumatic childhood in Gloucestershire with a remote, sometimes violent father and a neurotic overpoweringly loving mother.

A happy spell living with the family of a school friend, the religious upright Pollard family gave him discipline and security.

"But for them and my analyst, I would have been a mess, a hopeless dreamer with my head in the clouds."

As a teenager, he found the chutzpah to approach buskers and ask to have a go at reciting Shakespeare to audiences queuing for the West End theatre.

He unsuccessfully auditioned for drama school, converted to Catholicism, flirted with becoming a monk, and had a nervous breakdown in his early 20s before finally studying at Oxford University where he met his first love, the actor David March.

"I realised from an early age I was an odd man out, I was searching for a strong inner centre that my childhood lacked."

After university and by now in regular therapy, he finally worked in repertory theatre where he met unknown Kenneth Williams and directed his first play.

"Ken said: 'you should direct Roosey' and I would say 'piss off' because I thought he meant I shouldn't act, but I think he meant I was different, he and I would have long walks. I had a passion about painting, writing and a strong visual sense. The moment I directed I knew that was where all those talents came together, the ability to choreograph a production to understand a text, how it should look."

Many years later, in the Belsize Park flat he shares with his partner of 50 years, Hywel Jones, Roose-Evans sat up listening to Williams tell his famous anecdotes.

"He was telling story after story, he would become all the different characters, then around midnight the mask feel away and I saw the real Kenneth, the lonely man who never really found what he was looking for in life."

Roose-Evans was happy to let go of Hampstead Theatre which has now grown so large it depends on corporate funding and co-productions to stage work.

"That's a real problem. If you want to do new work, you have to keep the costs low. The original place allowed us to take risks because we didn't have huge overheads. There were seven of us plus a lot of volunteers. Now there's a staff of 70 and it has become institutional."

He will soon announce the details of his latest theatre venture, Small Is Beautiful in central London.

"I love making theatre, my contribution is in the mise en scene; how I see how it would work on stage. I like challenges. If you are in reasonable health you should go on asking questions and searching out new challenges."

o Piers Plowright is in discussion with James Roose-Evans about his memoir tonight at Burgh House, Hampstead, at 7.30pm. Tickets are £12/£10 from 020-77431 0144.

Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Hampstead Highgate Express

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists