Richard Attenborough's son is the surprise choice as head of Almeida

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Richard Attenborough's son has landed one of the plum jobs in British theatre, becoming head of the Almeida in London.

Michael Attenborough, principal associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) yet forever in the shadow of his actor and director father, will take over in July.

The Almeida, which has become famous for performances by stars such as Kevin Spacey, Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, has been in exile at King's Cross for the past 12 months while its home in Islington undergoes a £5.5m refurbishment. Attenborough becomes artistic director in time to programme the revamped venue for re-opening next year.

The appointment will surprise many in the theatre world. Attenborough has spent the last 12 years working with the RSC, while the Almeida ventures only occasionally into Shakespeare and is best-known for its eclectic programme of international classics and contemporary works.

But Adrian Noble, the RSC's artistic director, highlighted Attenborough's early experience directing new plays in theatres including the Leeds Playhouse, Young Vic and the Hampstead Theatre, and his work on the classics.

"I am delighted for Mike. He arrived at the RSC as a highly respected director of new plays and leaves as one of the country's most important interpreters of Shakespeare and the classics. I have no doubt that he will put his unique talent and boundless energy to good use at the Almeida," said Noble.

Attenborough said: "I truly can't imagine a more exciting challenge."

The Almeida post became vacant after Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid decided to step down as joint artistic directors after 12 years. Their award-winning productions at the Almeida had regularly transferred to the West End and Broadway. In a joint statement, Kent and McDiarmid said the board had made a "strong appointment".

Before joining the RSC in 1990, Attenborough had spells in charge of the Palace Theatre in Watford and the Hampstead Theatre in London. He was made principal associate director of the RSC in 1996. His successes have included the award-winning premiere of Pentecost by David Edgar and Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed.

He is currently rehearsing The Prisoner's Dilemma by David Edgar, which will open at the Barbican in London.