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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 30 December 2008
Harold Pinter: playwright and political campaigner to the end - pictured here at a Support Solidarity with Venezuela event in September
Harold Pinter: playwright and political campaigner to the end – pictured here at a Support Solidarity with Venezuela event in September
How a stroppy caretaker was one of the first to ‘get’ Pinter

In an exclusive extract from his memoirs,
James Roose Evans tells how the unknown young writer was crucial to the success of the Hampstead Theatre. Interview by Gerald Isaaman

HAROLD Pinter’s death last week comes at a poignant moment in the history of the Hampstead Theatre, which celebrates its golden anniversary in 2009.
For it was in the theatre’s very first season that two one-act plays by the unknown Harold Pinter, The Dumb Waiter and The Room, were performed at the Moreland Hall, behind the Everyman Cinema in Hollybush Vale.
That was due to the enterprise of James Roose-Evans, founder and first artistic director of what was originally called the Hampstead Theatre Club, after Pinter’s first play, The Birth­day Party, was panned by the critics and taken off at the end of its first week at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
“It put us on the theatrical map,” Roose-Evans, now 81, told me at his home in Belsize Park Gardens, Hampstead. “Not only did it mean that people started coming to the Hampstead Theatre, it helped us tremendously in gaining the support of Hampstead Council to build the first theatre at Swiss Cottage. And it made Pinter’s name when the plays were transferred to the Royal Court.
“It was a tremendous combination of events – and luck – that helped us all in those days when nobody was paid to appear at the Moreland Hall – we just didn’t have any money – and even Pinter wasn’t paid for his plays.”
Roose-Evans, then living in Perrins Court, Hampstead, was tipped off about the potential of the two Pinter one-act plays by Walter Hudd, himself a distinguished actor and a patron of the Theatre Club, who lived in South Hill Park, Hampstead. Roose-Evans read them and met Pinter in a pub in Fitzrovia.
Roose-Evans recalls the events in his memoirs, Opening Doors and Windows, published next September by the History Press, to coincide the theatre’s 50th anniversary events.
Here is an exclusive extract from Roose-Evans’s memoirs:
He writes: “The high spot of the opening season in 1959-60 was, undoubtedly, a double bill by the then virtually unknown Harold Pinter whose first play, The Birthday Party at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, had been panned by the critics and taken off at the end of the first week of its run, only to receive the next day, in The Sunday Times, a rave review from the all-powerful theatre critic Harold Hobson.
It was Hobson who now came to the Moreland Hall, next to the Everyman Cinema, and wrote: ‘What worries me about Mr Pinter is why his plays do not come to the West End. It is a matter of astonishment to me how both the English Stage Company and the Arts Theatre, which can recognise a molehill at five hundred yards’ distance, have overlooked this mountain.’
Referring to The Birthday Party, he recalled ‘how its fate will be long remembered. It ran only one week and that week furnished me with one of my most extraordinary experiences in the theatre. This bizarre extravaganza’s humour and violence and menace, funnier than most comedies, as exciting as Agatha Christie, and as disturbing as The Turn of the Screw, was treated in London as it if were an act meriting public derision and disgrace.
‘But still, if you want to see The Room or The Dumb Waiter, you have to go to the Hampstead Theatre Club and not to the West End. The performances are crowded. Gone is the hostility which, in a moment of collective madness, greeted The Birthday Party. Not a jutty, frieze, buttress nor coin of advantage but has its spectator. If the Hampstead Theatre Club keeps to this standard it not only deserves success, it will command it.’
Faced with Hobson’s review it was not surprising that George Devine, who then ran the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, and which had broken the barriers of change with John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, came to see the plays and subsequently arranged for them to transfer to the Royal Court where they opened on 8 March 1960, with The Room directed by Anthony Page, and The Dumb Waiter directed by James Roose-Evans.
The key to The Dumb Waiter lies in a remark that Pinter made on the first occasion we met in a pub off Charlotte Street. Removing his glasses and leaning intensely towards me, he said, ‘You see, what I am interested in is: Suppose you and I were locked together in a cell, what would happen to us?’ In the play, Gus and Ben are locked into a room, the only other character being a dumb waiter which descends with mysterious messages.
The sophisticated audiences who packed in to see the play argued intensely over its meaning. However, to the delight of Harold and myself it was the obstreperous caretaker of the hall, a man who begrudged our presence and had constantly to be taken care of with tips, who understood the play intuitively. Of all the productions that season it was the only one he watched during its entire dress rehearsal. Here were two Cockney characters who spoke his language and with whom he could relate.
At the end he turned to me and said, ‘Hey, the reason that little fellow gets bumped off is because he asks too many questions, isn’t it?’
In that one sentence he had grasped the core of the play. If, like Gus, or like Socrates, you ask too many questions, you are likely to be destroyed.”
IT WAS indeed the start of something marvellous for Hampstead, the more so because it was at the Everyman Theatre that Noel Coward earned his first triumph with his play The Vortex – and subsequently came to the Swiss Cottage theatre to see Roose-Evans’s revival of Coward’s great comedy Private Lives.
It was along the queue outside the Everyman that Roose-Evans busked to raise money for his now famous project in 1959.
And it will be Private Lives that is also being revived again in January as part of Hampstead Theatre’s golden jubilee celebrations.

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