Wilton's Music Hall

Restoration Drama

13th March 2015

All across the country, theatres and other performance spaces are at risk. Deborah Mulhearn looks at the work that is being done to keep venues alive

The beautiful Victorian Theatre at Alexandra Palace has probably seen as much drama around its walls than on its stage. Just two weeks after it opened in 1873, the ‘People’s Palace’ in north London was destroyed by fire when red hot coals fell from a workman’s brazier. It was quickly rebuilt, of course, but its chequered history has included bankruptcy, requisitioning in the two world wars, ownership changes and a second catastrophic fire in 1980.

In recent years the ‘Ally Pally’ has become a successful music and leisure venue again, and a multi-million pound Heritage Lottery funded project will now restore the theatre and the first BBC Television Centre, which opened there in 1936. Yet despite this upturn in its fortunes, the building is on the Heritage at Risk Register compiled by English Heritage, and its theatre remains on the recently updated Theatre Buildings at Risk Register.

It’s not alone. The Alexandra Palace is just one of 33 historic theatrical buildings in the UK deemed at risk from factors such as demolition, decay or inappropriate development. They range from the tiny Royal Victoria Hall in Southborough, Kent, which closed in January after showing its final pantomime and is now earmarked for demolition, to the opulent Morecambe Winter Gardens, one of the largest on the list, where the likes of George Formby and Gracie Fields regularly sang.

Others include the Theatre Royal in Manchester, Salford’s Victoria Theatre and the Brighton Hippodrome, considered the UK’s most at risk theatre. Many date from the heyday of music hall and Edwardian variety theatre and have unique interiors. The register is run by the Theatres Trust, which works to highlight all types of UK theatres under threat, both in use and derelict.
“Many theatres became bingo halls and nightclubs in the latter part of the 20th century when the impact of television meant that more people stayed at home for their entertainment,” explains Mhona Samuel, director of The Theatres Trust. “Variety shows, for example, virtually disappeared overnight from our theatres.”

Subsequent frequent changes of use meant that many architecturally and historically important theatre buildings were saved from demolition, but with little protection against time, the weather or economic downturns. “In some cases speculative housing and commercial developers purchased the theatres, not realising that if they were listed they’d be difficult to demolish and redevelop – and many of these theatres were then abandoned,” adds Mhona.

More recently, a number of surviving theatres have closed again as bingo has moved online. Others are now also closing because their local authority owners can’t afford to keep them open. Many are prominent buildings in prime locations in our towns and cities, and have become eyesores and constant reminders of past glories.

But there are positive outcomes too, where theatres have been kept going by committed campaigners. And by creating partnerships and reaching out beyond their own spaces, theatres are showing that they can revitalise more than their individual fortunes.

“With the surge in interest in live entertainment, theatre and music, and an increasing awareness in the importance of local heritage, we are seeing community groups coming forward who want to rescue and reopen these theatres,” says Mhona. The Theatres Trust is helping these groups to find ways forward and develop their plans.

“Our older theatres are part of our national heritage and an essential part of our cultural life. It is even more important today that we ensure there are places where people can come together, share experiences, find common ground, and connect to what it means to be human,” Mona adds.

The Heritage Lottery fund and other charities have granted millions of pounds for theatre restoration projects – from the highly prestigious, such as the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to the unassuming Wilton’s Music Hall in London’s East End.

Barely noticeable from the street, Wilton’s is an exquisite theatrical venue created from a mid-18th century alehouse and adjoining houses in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Now in the process of a capital restoration project, it took three attempts at HLF funding before it was successful. Phase 1 saw the auditorium repaired and further works will safeguard the rest of the building and create new spaces such as the Learning and Participation Studio, made possible by funding from a local educational charity, Aldgate and Allhallows Foundation.

The South London Theatre is an ambitious amateur company that puts on twenty-two shows a year in a converted Victorian fire station in West Norwood. The Old Fire Station is on English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk register – though not the Theatres Trust’s register – because the building, which dates from 1881, is in such a poor state of repair.

“Yes, we could have moved to a more accessible building,” admits Bob Callender of the South London Theatre Building Preservation Trust. “But we have great memories here. It’s a numinous space, infused with a magical spirit. We just wouldn’t have the same joy putting on a show in a modern box of a theatre. The restoration will retain the building’s integrity and its quirkiness while making it accessible to all.”

The new look theatre will offer tours of the historic fire station and provide space for meetings and workshops, strengthening its already good bond with the local community.

“The key to unlocking the funding was literally to unlock the doors and let the local community use it during the day, where previously it hadn’t been able to,” says Bob. “We’ve had generous donations and the owners Lambeth Council have agreed to loan us any shortfall.”

Theatre renovation projects are taking place all around the country, too. Winning the 2014 RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture, for instance, has given the renovated Everyman Theatre in Liverpool not only a new lease of life but also a new standing in the city. And the Library Theatre in Manchester has emerged from the basement of the city’s Central Reference Library it inhabited for decades, and joined up with the Cornerhouse Cinema to create HOME, a new entertainment complex on the site of Manchester’s famed Hacienda nightclub.

In the west Yorkshire town of Halifax, Square Chapel Centre for the Arts enjoys an enviable location at one corner of the stunning Grade 1 listed Piece Hall. The theatre and performing arts space occupies the only remaining square chapel in England, which dates from 1772, and a new contemporary extension will connect the Grade 11* listed chapel to the Piece Hall’s vast courtyard.
“The vision is that The Piece Hall will act as a town square or vast foyer space,” says Sally Martin, director of Square Chapel and one of a group of six theatre lovers who saved the derelict congregational chapel from demolition in 1988.

The project shows how theatre renovations can act as a catalyst to revitalise their surroundings as well as their own buildings, and work productively in tandem with local authorities and businesses. The Piece Hall, built in 1779 for the town's cloth merchants and now owned by Calderdale Council, is itself being redeveloped, inspired, at least partially, by the Square Chapel project. New shops, a heritage interpretation centre, library and restaurants will draw locals, tourists and visitors.

“People will be able to wander into the courtyard of the Piece Hall through the façade, into the shops and, then further into the heart of all kinds of wonderful cultural activity, including theatres, restaurants, a library and even a young people’s centre,” says Sally. “The local authority has been fabulous in supporting us and recognises the benefits of working with third sector and small charities like ours.”

It’s not easy to undertake a restoration project – the average duration of a capital project is ten years. They can’t all be saved, and many have fallen along the way. But if the long-term commitment can be secured and sustained from the funders and owners, it is local communities, as well as the regular theatre audiences, that will reap the rewards.
“We are all signposting each other," says Sally. "It's about breaking down barriers and making theatre and art part of the everyday experience."

Find Your Local