As the founder of the New End Theatre in Hampstead and Camden’s Offstage Downstairs, Buddy Dalton was a leading figure in London’s fringe theatre for nearly two decades from the mid 1970s.
Both venues made a virtue out of their intimate size – the New End an 84-seat transformation of a former hospital mortuary, the 48-seat Offstage a basement beneath a performing arts bookshop. And both shared the same aspiration, as Dalton confided to the TheatreVoice website in 2008: “I thought by creating a comfortable fringe theatre, people would be pleased to come and have an enjoyable evening… and, of course, to do exceptional work in.”
Born in Whitechapel, London to publican parents, Dalton had been an avid theatregoer since the 1940s and was managing the export division of her husband’s engineering firm when the pair decided to become impresarios.
The New End’s early years were marked by periods of inactivity as the venue, said to have been haunted, established itself in economically difficult times.
Cannily, Dalton preferred to go dark rather than offer sub-standard fillers. Her commitment to new writing made itself felt in the staging of David Edgar’s Death Story in 1972 and, in 1978, Michael Abbensetts’ Alterations and the Jack Gold-directed A Tribute to Lily Lamont with Hollywood star Gloria Grahame.
Her greatest success came the following year with Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus’ A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine, which subsequently transferred to the Mayfair Theatre and was seen on Broadway in 1980. It was, she later recalled, “the only thing we did that didn’t make a loss”.
Typical of her eclecticism and ability to attract star names, the 1981 season featured the London premiere of Anthony Minghella’s Whale Music, husband-and-wife team Judi Dench and Michael Williams in George Bernard Shaw’s two-hander Village Wooing and Steven Berkoff in his own Decadence.
The following late-night offering was that year’s inaugural Perrier award-winning Cambridge Footlights Revue, written by and starring a young Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. In his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles, Fry remembered the New End as being “as exciting as the West End… under the auspices of the excellent and pioneering Buddy Dalton, and she was as glamorous in our eyes as the London Palladium or the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.”
Dalton championed new directors, too, striking up a fruitful relationship with Simone Benmussa, whose play, The Singular Life of Alfred Nobbs, featured Julia Foster and Susannah York in 1978. Her revival of the 19th-century French classic The Revolt starred Susan Hampshire in 1980.
After selling the New End in 1981, Dalton opened the Offstage Theatre Bookshop with Judi Barker and Brian Schwartz. She transformed its basement into a stage space in 1985.
Its first presentation was Rona Munro’s radio play Watching Waiters and in its subterranean bowels she continued her commitment to encouraging new talent, notable among them actor Simon Callow, designer Bruno Sabatini and director Tim Luscombe. Her choice of plays remained characteristically wide-ranging, with Broadway favourite Neil Simon presented alongside the French pedagogue and playwright Michel Azama and the Russian Samuil Alyoshin.
When the Offstage closed in 2007, Dalton, who had been recognised with a special citation by the London Fringe Awards in 1993, retired.
Buddy Dalton was born Desiree Priscilla Rosenthal on January 18, 1926 and died on February 3, aged 94.