“The Humans,” the Karam play that won the 2016 Tony Award, traveled to the Hampstead in 2018 with its American cast. An earlier Karam play, “Sons of the Prophet,” will receive an overdue British premiere on the Hampstead’s main stage on Dec. 12: further evidence of that two-way traffic.
Sure, not every Hampstead offering has been of comparable value. It has faltered of late with plays like “The Breach” and “The Snail House,” two misfires from Naomi Wallace and Richard Eyre; the current main stage play, Rona Munro’s history-minded “Mary,” is beautifully directed by the Hampstead’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, but doesn’t galvanize the audience as “Blackout Songs” does downstairs. (It also requires more background knowledge of Mary, Queen of Scots and her court than most playgoers will possess.)
Still, it’s important to the Hampstead to program a range of work across its two theaters and throughout the year. “What’s the point of a theater not having shows?” Greg Ripley-Duggan, the Hampstead’s executive producer, said pointedly by phone this week. But, he added, the lost subsidy was “an awful lot of money to make up, and to make up from one year to the next. The business model is going to have to change radically.”
An absence of state funding will mean greater reliance on corporate and individual philanthropy, and pressure on ticket prices in a city where playgoing — especially away from the West End — is still reasonably affordable. Tickets for “Blackout Songs” can be had for about $12, a sum unheard-of in New York.
Across town at the Donmar, a recent 30th-anniversary gala fell within days of the funding cut announcement, and the playhouse’s current and former artistic directors took to the stage at the event to celebrate the 251-seat powerhouse and argue for its survival. The Donmar is also lucky to be hosting a show just now that plays to its strengths: “The Band’s Visit.” On view through Dec. 3, the production is the first musical at this address from its current artistic director, Michael Longhurst, whose career spans both sides of the Atlantic, much like the Donmar itself. “Frost/Nixon” and “Red” are just two Broadway hits first seen there, as was Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” which is now back onstage in New York through Feb. 5.
“The Band’s Visit” has gone in the other direction. Much lauded on Broadway, this adaptation of a 2007 Israeli movie of the same name has an unshowy sweetness that suits the intimacy of the Donmar — all the better for a musical set in an Israeli backwater that is transformed by the unexpected appearance of a group of Egyptian musicians lost on their way to somewhere else.
Like “Blackout Songs,” this loving reappraisal of “The Band’s Visit” brought the audience to its feet. Let’s hope the Donmar, and the Hampstead, find creative ways to play on.
Blackout Songs. Directed by Guy Jones. Hampstead Downstairs through Dec. 10.
The Band’s Visit. Directed by Michael Longhurst. Donmar Warehouse through Dec. 3.