Hampstead Theatre founder James Roose-Evans ponders Dylan Thomas ahead of Hampstead Arts festival celebration

James Roose Evans

James Roose Evans - Credit: Archant

A boutique arts festival of words and music runs in Hampstead next month. The small but perfectly formed programme of events takes place at St John’s Downshire Hill and Burgh House, in New End Square, from November 1 to 22.

Music director Eric Usadi promises something “beautiful, interesting and unique” in a line-up of internationally renowned classical performers, including Crouch End-based cellist Natalie Clein, pianist Angela Hewitt, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, tenor Ben Johnson, the Prague-based Wihan String Quartet and the combined talents of pianist Gwilym Simcock and guitar virtuoso John Etheridge.

The words element of the festival has been curated by Hampstead-based broadcaster Piers Plowright and spotlights politics and the arts – best embodied by Glenda Jackson who discusses her twin careers as an Oscar-winning actress and Member of Parliament for Hampstead on November 20.

On November 11, local treasure, writer, theatre director and founder of Hampstead Theatre James Roose-Evans celebrates the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas with readings and recordings of his work.

Roose-Evans is assisted by Welsh actress Sian Phillips, who played the lead role in the inaugural Hampstead Theatre production in 1959 above the Three Horseshoes pub.

“It was The King’s Daughter by Welsh political activist Saunders Lewis and Sian at the time lived on Heath Street. There was a lovely moment when she turned to [her co-star] Robert Marsden and asked, ‘Are we going to be paid Jimmy?’

“We were just starting out and hadn’t a penny.”

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Lovely accident

Roose-Evans says it’s a “lovely accident” that they are jointly commemorating Wales’ national poet with excerpts from Under Milk Wood, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and recordings of both Richard Burton and Thomas himself reading from the works.

“Hopefully it won’t bore anyone,” says Roose-Evans, who lives in Belsize Park and turns 87 on the day of the event.

“The joy of Dylan Thomas is his wonderful sense of humour and the way he plays with words. He said how as a child he fell in love with the sound of words like a deaf man suddenly being able to hear the horses on cobbled streets, and realised he wanted to spend his life with words. He wasn’t Welsh speaking but his writing is informed by the rhythms and images of this beautiful language. You need a good vocal range to do justice to Dylan Thomas.”

Thomas achieved success in his lifetime but his life was overshadowed by heavy drinking and an unhappy marriage and he died in New York aged just 39.

“The marriage was tormented, he drank to excess and a mixture of emotional and psychological immaturity meant the adulation went to his head.”

Roose-Evans this year celebrates the 40th anniversary of founding the Bleddfa Centre for creativity and spirituality in Powys and is working on a new production of his directorial hit 84 Charing Cross Road.

“I am nearly 87, time’s winged chariot is hurrying near, but the wheels are humming away and it’s a hugely busy time.”

Other word events feature former Catholic Herald editor Peter Stanford who speaks on the impact of Pope Francis on the world, journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on immigration and multiculturalism, Hampstead resident Melvyn Bragg on his long-running Radio 4 series In Our Time, and composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley on his Radio 3 series Private Passions which sees him interview guest from across the arts.

Usadi hopes the festival will “lift the spirits between the lawn festivals of summer and the carols of winter in a special corner of the city”.

“We want our presentations to be competitive with the best on offer in London and to attract both north Londoners and people from further afield.”

Further details and bookings on hampsteadartsfestival.com