James Roose-Evans obituary

James Roose-Evans, the founding director of the Hampstead theatre club, who has died aged 94, was a unique link between the flourishing interwar London theatre club scene and the new, off-West End small-theatre phenomenon of the 1960s.

His 1963 revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives in the new Hampstead theatre – a Portakabin erected as a temporary home but which lasted 40 years – signalled what Coward himself dubbed “Dad’s renaissance”; the following year, the National Theatre’s revival of Hay Fever restored Coward’s waning reputation.

In addition, at Hampstead, Roose-Evans directed commercially successful productions of Laurie Lee’s glorious Cider With Rosie and Jack Pulman’s advertising agency comedy The Happy Apple, both of which, like Private Lives, transferred to the West End.

Having moved on from Hampstead in 1969, he directed and produced two of the most charming and delightful West End shows of the 80s, both based on civilised, literary correspondences, and both his own adaptations: 84 Charing Cross Road, charting the long-distance friendship of the American bibliophile Helene Hanff and the antiquarian bookshop owner Frank Doel; and The Best of Friends, a three-way exchange of views and devotion between an extraordinary abbess and two intellectual agnostics, Sir Sydney Cockerell, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and George Bernard Shaw.

The first featured deliciously muted and nuanced performances by Rosemary Leach and David Swift, the second a trio of star turns by Rosemary Harris, Ray McAnally as the best onstage Shaw ever, and John Gielgud, as Sir Sydney, returning to the stage for the first time in 10 years, and his last appearance.

Roose-Evans’s third most notable adaptation was of Joyce Grenfell’s letters into a great solo show for Maureen Lipman, Re: Joyce! (1988) at the Fortune, directed by Alan Strachan. His spiritual, contemplative character struck a deep chord with Grenfell’s unflinching devotion to Christian Science, while Lipman provided the outer carapace of brilliant observational comedy and satire.

Roose-Evans’s chaotic childhood contributed largely to his meditative outlook in later life and the quality of his theatre work. He was born in London, the second son of Jack Roose-Evans, a commercial traveller in ladies’ lingerie, and his wife, Primrose (nee Morgan).

The marriage was a disaster. After the family moved to the Forest of Dean, his mother sent James to lodge with the parents of a schoolfriend, Mary Pollard. He stayed with them for two years and settled down, excelling as a pupil at the Crypt grammar school in Gloucester and winning a scholarship to St Benet’s College, a religious private hall at Oxford University, where he read English.

James Roose-Evans and the actor Patricia Routledge at the Hampstead theatre in 2006.
James Roose-Evans and the actor Patricia Routledge at the Hampstead theatre in 2006. Photograph: Shutterstock

During two years of national service in the Royal Army Educational corps he converted from his childhood Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism (later in life, he would revert to Anglicanism and, in 1981, become a non-stipendiary priest).

By then, his parents had reunited and bought a house in Golders Green, north London. But they parted for good a year later. James had a nervous breakdown and embarked on years of psychotherapy.

He started out as an actor in rep in the early 50s, but his interest in behaviour and psychology suggested a career as a director. He found a job in 1954 as resident director at the Maddermarket theatre in Norwich, founded by Walter Nugent Monck, a notable pioneer in clean-cut, modern, fast-paced Shakespeare productions.

In 1955, Roose-Evans was invited to run an experimental studio theatre in the Juilliard school in New York, where dance, drama and music were studied on an equal footing. He returned to London in 1957 to teach at Rada, staying on the staff until 1961 and further developing his interest in methods of ritual and communication.

One of his students was the future film director Mike Leigh, who was particularly influenced by Roose-Evans’s exercises (imported from the Actors Studio in New York), which involved expressing the inexpressible through movement and touching hands.

Leigh also shared with Roose-Evans an abiding enthusiasm for Harold Pinter, with Roose-Evans directing Pinter’s early short play The Dumb Waiter in its London premiere at the Royal Court in 1960. It was a nice touch that, some years after Roose-Evans had left, Hampstead presented Leigh’s first hit (by no means his first play), Abigail’s Party.

In 1959, Roose-Evans had persuaded Hampstead parish church to rent out their scout hall to him. His first season, in 1959-60, comprised a Welsh language classic (translated into English), Siwan, by Saunders Lewis, in which Siân Phillips played the illegitimate daughter of King John; a Pinter double-bill; Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist Jacques; and Ann Jellicoe’s The Sport of My Mad Mother, which had been slaughtered by the critics at the Royal Court a year or two before.

Asked by the parish church to move on in 1962, Roose-Evans’s now-galvanised Hampstead theatre club was instantly rehoused when the local council came up with a £7,000 grant for a temporary prefab two miles away at Swiss Cottage. Roose-Evans raised £10,000 for fixtures and fittings.

The temporary home had 125 seats, rudimentary toilets, a couple of offices up a small staircase and a tiny bar and foyer area. When Roose-Evans moved on he was succeeded by Vivian Matalon, and then in 1973 by Michael Rudman. A new purpose-built Hampstead theatre (no longer a club) opened in 2003.

Roose-Evans never stopped working, directing, teaching, or talking. He remained a familiar figure on the streets of Hampstead, a snowily white-haired regular, always affable, often swathed in a long black overcoat and muffler. He was both a one-off and an embedded emblem of Britain’s theatre culture, straddling the best of the new and the glories of the past.

His last intervention, in 2015, was to found Frontier theatre productions, a company formed to employ older actors “in a world obsessed by youth”. The inaugural production, in 2016, was The Lovers of Viorne by Marguerite Duras, a psychological thriller based on a real-life murder. It was critically acclaimed, but the company closed soon after.

In 1958 Roose-Evans had met the actor Hywel Jones, and they were inseparable partners until Jones died in 2013. Five years later, Roose-Evans published a memoir, A Life Shared. His other books included children’s stories and clever, disarming studies in ritual and psychology.

• James Humphrey Roose-Evans, theatre director and writer, born 11 November 1927; died 26 October 2022