New era for Hampstead Theatre as Sainsbury’s chairman David Tyler joins the board

Boardroom supremo David Tyler is the first to modestly protest at being labelled a “man of extraordinary talents”.

The 59-year-old chairman of J Sainsbury’s supermarkets is at the top of the corporate world. But this month the lifelong theatre fan was announced as the new chairman of the board at Hampstead Theatre – a role he will take on in his spare time.

He joins at a time of great promise and uncertainty for the arts venue in Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage. The theatre’s recent sell-out production of Judas Kiss, staring Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox, was the best-selling ever in its history.

“I feel very fortunate to be joining at a time of such momentum,” says Mr Tyler, who is divorced and lives with his new partner in Regent’s Park. “There’s a vigour about the place that hasn’t been there for a while.”

But like art venues across the country, Hampstead Theatre faces a bleak outlook as state subsidies are slashed

This year a �94,000 black hole in the budget led to the tough decision to end the theatre’s immensely popular education programme after 14 years. The move prompted a 500-signature petition calling for the scheme to be reinstated.

It is not a decision the new chairman of the board can promise to alter.

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“I think we’ll have to simply say we’ll look at everything and try to do the best we possibly can for the theatre itself and for the community as a whole,” says Mr Tyler. “One of my important priorities will be to secure the longer-term funding of the theatre to ensure it can do that wider work in the community.”

The businessman’s own love of the theatre began as a child when his father took him to pantomimes as a six-year-old to see stars like Danny La Rue.

He later graduated with an economics degree from Trinity Hall College, Cambridge University, in 1974 – where National Theatre artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner would also study a few years later.

He then embarked on a management career spanning 33 years and taking in Unilever, NatWest, Christie’s and GUS.

Despite the demands of running top multinational companies, the businessman still manages to indulge his passion and visit the theatre every two weeks or so and says some of his “most exciting moments over the years have been being thrilled by a new Tom Stoppard, Peter Shaffer or David Hare play”.

His love of 20th-century plays was what drew him to Hampstead Theatre, which is known for staging new writing.

Mr Tyler’s arrival is timely as the arts sector turns its sights to the philanthropists of the corporate world for new sources of funding. So can regulars expect to see future productions sponsored by Sainsbury’s?

“You shouldn’t expect Sainsbury’s because that would be a direct conflict, that would be inappropriate,” Mr Tyler says firmly. “But who knows, let’s see whether over a period of time corporates of one sort or another might get involved with Hampstead Theatre.

“In general, I think it’s a very beneficial two-way relationship between a commercial sponsor and a theatre.”

His appointment has already won ringing endorsement from artistic director Edward Hall.

“I am delighted to be working with David who is a man of extraordinary talents,” he says. “His love of the theatre, combined with his experience as chair of a company that puts philanthropy at the centre of its agenda, gives him a unique perspective from which Hampstead will benefit enormously.”

Mr Tyler takes over from Dame Jenny Abramsky, who is credited with steering the theatre through a turbulent period to its current stability under Ed Hall and executive producer Greg Ripley Duggan.

“We’ll just be looking to build on the success,” adds Mr Tyler, who has two adult children. “Because I think there is a great opportunity for the future under some brilliant leaders in Ed and Greg, and we shall be able to achieve a great deal more as we go forward.”