‘I was in tears when I saw the first run through’

Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in Harold Pinter's the Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre

Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in Harold Pinter's the Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Archant

Hampstead Theatre’s new artistic director Roxana Silbert welcomes the return of live performances of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and is optimistic for the future

Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in Harold Pinter's the Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre

Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in Harold Pinter's the Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Archant

Roxana Silbert admits watching the first post-lockdown run through of a play at Hampstead Theatre left her in tears.

“I really miss it. I really miss sitting in an audience and the communal experience of watching a play, feeling the energy in a group of people who have shared something,” she says.

“But it’s odd not be able to sit in the bar and talk about it afterwards.”

Silbert had just kicked off her debut season as artistic director when the pandemic hit. There was acclaimed opener The Haystack, then a scheduled run of vintage plays to mark the theatre’s 60th anniversary.

But the curtain came down just before tech rehearsals of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter.

“The set has been there ever since and although I loved the play when I chose it, I thought ‘let’s make sure we want to reopen with it’” she says of two hander about bantering hitmen awaiting instructions for their next target.

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“Re-reading it, it’s an extraordinary piece of writing, a 55 minute mix of music hall, naturalism and thriller. Two men sat in a room waiting for instructions on what to do makes new sense in a pandemic. Great writing reinvents itself in whatever situation you are in and it’s much funnier now because of our situation.”

The play was among the first staged by James Roose-Evans’ Hampstead Theatre Club which moved from Holly Bush Vale, to Swiss Cottage and now Eton Avenue.

When she first moved to London in the 1990s, Silbert lived in Belsize Park and worked as a script reader under artistic director Jenny Topper.

“Hampstead was my local theatre and I saw everything. I remember Maureen Lipman’s very funny performance in Peggy For You and an early play by Rona Munro, such a range of plays from mainstream to odd. It was an extraordinary training.”

Later Silbert ran new writing powerhouse Paine’s Plough, cementing her passion for nurturing talent including Dennis Kelly (Matilda, Pulling), and Nick Payne (Constellations, Wanderlust).

For the past six years she has run the Birmingham Rep where she championed diversity and accessibility for artists and audiences, including commissioning new work, staging community plays and popular hits.

“You learn by seeing your work in front of people, and to give writers a ladder into the theatre, to get their first play staged, then seeing them go on to become stars in film, theatre and TV, is incredibly satisfying.”

Future plans include opening Hampstead’s downstairs studio as “a space for new voices”. Playwright Roy Williams’ scheme working with young writers penning their first play continued during lockdown and Silbert had time to help mentor them.

“It was really inspiring. They are the future. A lot will make it into the studio and perhaps transfer to the main house. Get a play on in a studio in London and you get seen by every TV and film producer. That launches careers.”

Other plans include more community outreach and participation projects, and a relaunched “multi-lingual” youth theatre for youngsters with English as a second language.

When she landed the job, Silbert contacted past artistic directors Ed Hall, Michael Rudman and Roose-Evans to “get a sense of what Hampstead had meant to them” and work out “what it’s doing really well and how to move forward.”

“Theatres have personalities that outlive their artistic directors - they are only caretakers,” she says.

“Hampstead is a small theatre that punches above its weight. Progressive, forward-thinking, a local theatre with international reach.”

During the pandemic they “furloughed hard” to avoid redundancies, while free streaming past hits “to keep people engaged until we were back.”

“I’ve felt so much support from the community. They really miss the theatre and want to come back,” she adds.

Born in Buenos Aires, Silbert has Italian heritage from her mother and Lithuanian Jewish heritage from her father.

It gives her an understanding of the Jewish community who settled in Hampstead post war - and an interest in “how different communities in London rub along living cheek by jowl”.

“James (Roose-Evans) created a theatre out of the spirit of that community, it has grown from those roots and is still there. During the pandemic you see where all the different communities are and it’s really diverse. I want everyone to feel they can come here.”

As to what she seeks in new writing she says: “You can sniff a good play, it’s really easy to read. It’s a gift to be able to write dialogue. Line by line writing captures you and you don’t want to put it down.

“I like stories that haven’t been told before, or are told in a way you haven’t heard before. Plays where where I care about the people, where something in the soul of it captures you.”

Looking ahead, she believes Hampstead won’t be at full capacity until autumn 2021, but adds: “I’ve always felt positive that we would survive and hopefully thrive. We will carry on producing work until we are told we can’t.”

And like Pinter’s famous dialogue, she says the pandemic “is just a pause.”

The Dumb Waiter runs at Hampstead Theatre until January 16.