A year after Brick Lane Music Hall was forced to move from its old home, Vincent Hayes is breathing fresh life into the music hall tradition in a converted East End church. Mike Martin discovers how the impresario is taking the genre forward while staying loyal to its anarchic roots
Could this be a full house for a traditional variety bill in an old converted church on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon? Well, yes, because that is the reality of Brick Lane Music Hall’s present incarnation, its third – and hopefully permanent – home in east London. I was delighted to find such an oasis of entertainment thriving in what is, on the face of it, an unlikely location. This unique venue combines an intelligently designed theatre, spacious yet intimate surroundings, church beauty, restaurant and bonhomie.
A small-scale show is supported by a single pianist, yet is crammed with the music and laughter which can only result from the talents of a cast of true pros. And how audiences love it, lapping up the entertainment along with their complimentary afternoon tea. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it takes group bookings from veteran’s associations and pensioners, Brick Lane succeeds in conveying a freshness which is very much of today. And this is all thanks to the resilience of an East End boy of Irish descent who refused to be beaten.
Vincent Hayes’ original two venues, although successful, were both forced out of business by the price hikes of private landlords. Having built up a reputation and following, Hayes was determined to find a permanent location to indulge his dream of bringing traditional live entertainment to his home patch. Following a tough period, he eventually found an ally in Newham council. Together they eventually discovered some potential in a disused church in Dockland’s Silvertown. Hayes spent two weeks visiting the site, assessing its potential. Eventually, he took a gamble. His first theatre in 1992 had cost him £25,000, the second in 1996 £180,000 and this one, in 2003, £1 million. And none of this has been with grants or public money.
It was a mammoth task installing underfloor heating, a kitchen and bar, new roofing, fixtures, fittings and artist friendly dressing rooms. Hayes undertook much of the donkey work himself but his biggest challenge would be finding an audience in such an out of the way spot. After two years audiences were flocking back and the feedback has been very positive. On a practical level, Hayes values the independence he now has with his own self-contained building and car park. The prices are reasonable too, for a show which includes a three-course dinner and free parking.
“We are very pleased to be part of the regeneration of this area,” he says Hayes. “This time we won’t be squeezed out by the inevitable development around us. We see our new location in a positive light. Many people avoid Central London because of congestion, so we are glad to be away from all that.”
Hayes thinks it will be easier to develop a regular audience now the site has become an important part of the community, forging strong links with schools, clubs and the council. He is particularly keen to attract younger audiences. “It is about education. Letting children know what real entertainment is and giving them a chance to get involved. Working with Tolgate Primary School was a good start for us in the borough. The children took to music hall very well and there were a couple of budding stars.” Working closely with dance schools Hayes has found roles for students in his last two pantomime productions. He is also open to new ideas, pointing out that music hall was never supposed to be a static art form. “It should continually evolve and it will survive if it remains topical, relevant and irreverent. I try to keep it loyal to its roots of dissenting anarchy.”
The Hiss and Boo Company’s Ian Liston agrees, believing that music hall does not have to remain strictly traditional. “Our shows have always combined the best elements of music hall and variety. Modern elements are acceptable, indeed demanded, by today’s audiences but we do it with a nod and a wink rather than a full on assault on the senses. The Good Old Days was a pastiche invented for TV that never actually existed. The comedy clubs of today bear a much closer affinity to the true music halls of yesterday.”
Like Hayes, Liston has an educational programme which invites children into their first theatre experience. He would love to expand it if more funds were available but, as he ruefully explains, being ‘entertainment’ it is of little interest to funding bodies like the Arts Council.
There is certainly no shortage of experienced artists – Richard Gauntlett, Peter John, Vivienne McMaster, Andrew Robley, Ian Adams and Steve Galler would all have been stars in music hall’s heyday. Says Hayes: “They’re not looking for TV stardom but just want to entertain an audience.”
Leeds City Varieties’ Johnny Dennis co-runs a company called The Magnificent Music Hall which plays around the country pulling in all age groups. He thinks of Hayes as a modern day Oswald Stoll, adding: “Vincent has created venues redolent with the atmosphere of the East End’s Victorian life.”
As Liston adds: “Brick Lane is the nearest thing we have today to the original music halls, encompassing their true spirit. A bite to eat, a few drinks and some rollicking good entertainment. Vincent is a courageous impresario who puts his money where his mouth is, putting on shows at risk to nobody other than himself. Long may he continue.”