Frank Hauser

Theatre director who with the Meadow Players revived the fortunes of the Oxford Playhouse
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The Independent Online

Few theatre directors have been so loved by actors as Frank Hauser. His glory years covered nearly two decades (1956-73) at Oxford's beguiling Playhouse Theatre when his Meadow Players companies included Judi Dench, Constance Cummings, Elisabeth Bergner, Prunella Scales, Barbara Jefford, Leo McKern, Ian McKellen, Ronnie Barker, Alan Badel, Alan Howard and Edward Woodward.

He was softly spoken, with an intimate rehearsal manner – his trademark endearment, irrespective of gender, was "Pussy" – and his tastes were eclectic, with a bias towards European theatre, Shaw and Shakespeare. When, with more than its usual pusillanimity, the Arts Council effectively ended Hauser's regime, his star-studded farewell gala was, naturally, titled Pussies Galore. The Playhouse has never been stamped by such continued, consistent distinction since.

Hauser was Cardiff-born, the son of a Polish property-dealer, and was a precocious talent at Cardiff High School, gifted enough musically to contemplate a musical career. After Christ Church, Oxford, he went into the Royal Artillery (1942-45) before taking up a post as a BBC radio trainee director. In a then-lively drama department, he worked on a wide range of programmes, from Home Service soaps ( Mrs Dale's Diary) to Third Programme classics.

The Corporation resented Hauser taking time off to co-direct Alec Guinness's second Hamlet (New, 1951) – a misbegotten venture cursed by a malfunctioning lighting plot on its first night – and dismissed him, thereby setting Hauser on his theatrical career.

Regional theatre in the early 1950s, attempting to match television's competition, was in the midst of its post-war restructuring. Hauser enjoyed busy spells as resident director at Salisbury's Arts and then as artistic director of the Midland Theatre Company based in Coventry. His powerful and strongly cast (Irene Worth, Leo McKern) production of Ugo Betti's The Queen and the Rebels made a major impression on its transfer to London (Haymarket, 1955) and undoubtedly proved to be his calling-card at Oxford.

Meadow Players was an idealistic venture; the Oxford Playhouse had been severely neglected and there was at best only wan enthusiasm – Nevill Coghill notably excepted – among dons and the city's artistic community for Hauser's plans. Nevertheless, with only modest subsidy, and helped by a financial donation from Richard Burton (who played the title role of Dr Faustus under Coghill's direction at the Playhouse in 1966), slowly the organisation established a reputation as one of regional theatre's most adventurous houses, its repertoire ranging from Sartre, Camus, Giraudoux and Genet to Aristophanes and Shavian revivals.

Hauser was generous to other directors – Minos Volanakis was a regular and gave Oxford a particularly memorable revival of Giraudoux's Madwoman of Chaillot with a mesmerising Elisabeth Bergner – but Oxford's programme was dominated by his own productions.

An early success was Jean Anouilh's Dinner with the Family (1957) which launched a steady stream of London transfers. These included Marcel Achard's Rollo (1959) with Leo McKern ebullient in a favourite role; Julian Mitchell's subtle distillation of Ivy Compton-Burnett's black comedy of Edwardian manners in A Heritage and its History (1965), which was staged with pitch-perfect precision, and was one of Hauser's finest productions; the UK premiere of Alexei Arbuzon's The Promise (1966), with a heartbreaking young Judi Dench; the incomparable Alan Badel giving a demonstration of great romantic acting as the anti-hero of Sartre's Kean (1971) in Hauser's own translation; and a glittering version of Molnar's marital comedy The Wolf (1973) with Dench, McKern and Woodward. Such successes allowed Hauser to programme occasionally a personal quirky favourite. Alongside Sartre's Huis Clos (1962), with Jill Bennett and Constance Cummings, he put on Max Beerbohm's rarefied trifle A Social Success. The struggling cast dubbed it "Frankie's Folly", although Cummings was so fond of Hauser she returned to Oxford to play the emancipated wife at the centre of Aldous Huxley's equally mandarin The Genius and the Goddess (1963). Hauser also bravely, if unwisely (as box-office figures were poor), mounted a full-scale production of Robert Browning's Pippa Passes (1968), which was admired by John Betjeman, a Browning champion, but elsewhere was widely given the inevitable spoonerised retitling.

His post-Oxford work covered opera, foreign productions and a good deal of mostly middle-of-the-road West End fare. Hauser's single Glyndebourne excursion, Il Matrimonio Segreto (1965) was not his finest hour and although typically faithful to the music, his La Traviata (1960) at Sadler's Wells was pedestrian. Much happier was a larky Iolanthe (1962), also for Sadler's Wells.

Hauser liked pantomime, but the lavish Cinderella (Casino, 1974) with Twiggy, was a mirth-free zone despite its sumptuous wrapping. In the West End, he directed a crisp revival of Lonsdale's On Approval (Haymarket, 1975), with Woodward and Patricia Routledge, and a stately Captain Brassbound's Conversion (Haymarket, 1982) with Penelope Keith. Remaining faithful to his beloved Shaw, Hauser also steered an enjoyable Candida (Arts, 1988) and a strongly cast Getting Married (Chichester, 1993) with Googie Withers as Mrs George. Chichester also saw his production of Hobson's Choice, with Leo McKern's gloriously bibulous bootmaker, which transferred to London (Lyric, 1995).

Some of Hauser's later freelance productions were less than happy experiences. The most lively feature of his revival of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (Savoy, 1987), with Charlton Heston as Sir Thomas More, was the hypnotic rise and fall of Heston's toupée. Hauser did what he could to salvage a hapless production of Pinero's Trelawny of the "Wells" (Comedy, 1992), in which only Michael Hordern, as the gouty vice-chancellor emerged with much distinction from a company seemingly cast more for the poster than the play.

There are worse reasons for taking on a production than friendship; Hauser agreed to direct Always (Victoria Palace, 1997) through loyalty to its Australian authors. But his musical version of Windsor and Wally's affair (known backstage as "Wallis and Vomit") was a doomed enterprise driven by cliché (a carousel with onion-sellers and accordionist for a Paris sequence) on which Hauser was elbowed aside by management ruthlessness.

This disappointing close to a distinguished career was made sadder by Hauser's decline in health. His last years were spent fogged by Alzheimer's disease in a nursing home.

Alan Strachan

Frank Ivor Hauser, theatre director: born Cardiff 1 August 1922; Director, Midland Theatre Company 1945-55; Director, Salisbury Arts Theatre 1952-53; Director of Productions, Meadow Players, Oxford Playhouse 1956-73; CBE 1968; died 14 October 2007.