Wilton’s Music Hall has been thrown into crisis after its £2.25 million application to the Heritage Lottery Fund was rejected, according to patron David Suchet, who has warned the historic east London theatre will close unless money can be found to refurbish it.
HLF rejected Wilton’s application for a grant to help fund the works needed to stabilise the mid-Victorian building last week. The venue needs £3.5 million to make it structurally sound, and believed it could raise £1.25 million itself, with the Lottery money making up the rest.
Suchet, who is campaign patron of the theatre, told The Stage: “The time of crisis has now come. Unless money is found, Wilton’s will die, Wilton’s will close. It will be knocked down and a block of flats will be put up or a Wimpy or something else. It will go. There is no way it can survive, it is falling down.”
The venue claims to be the oldest surviving grand music hall in the world, having been opened by John Wilton in 1858. Music hall stars who performed there included Arthur Lloyd and the site featured the first appearance of the can-can in Britain.
Wilton’s director Frances Mayhew has warned that the venue faces closure later this year if nothing is done. The funding would have supported a restoration programme that included rebuilding the theatre’s foundations, installing proper drainage and stabilising the balcony in the auditorium.
Suchet said he was “devastated” by HLF’s decision, although his initial reaction was “disbelief”.
The actor added: “I really, sincerely believed that Wilton’s was not only most deserving, but somehow I had no doubt that they would get it, and therefore my disbelief was made stronger by the sheer shock of the choices that were made by the Lottery. I think, and I will say this quite honestly, it is genuinely a wrong decision, and I think it is a decision that is ill-informed.”
HLF has announced initial support for a number of projects in this funding round, including Hoxton Hall in Hackney, a saloon-style hall built in 1863, as well as a pottery and a stables complex. Hoxton Hall has been awarded £207,400 to develop plans to apply for a full £2 million grant at a later date.
In a statement, Carole Souter, chief executive of HLF, said: “Wilton’s Music Hall is a unique and precious part of our theatrical heritage. The plans were well articulated and ranked highly for our support.
“However, this was a competitive round of funding – almost three times over-subscribed – and, in spite of huge enthusiasm for the project, we simply did not have enough money to fund it in this round as other projects were even stronger. We will be meeting with Wilton’s representatives shortly in order to provide feedback and discuss the best way forward.”
Responding to the news, Mhora Samuel, director of the Theatres Trust, said: “It is a unique building and, with this disappointing news, it is important that people support the venue in its efforts to raise money so it can remain open and secure its future.”
Suchet said that he was planning to host an evening at the venue as part of the fundraising campaign. He added: “It is not a question of people passing it and saying it is going to be saved – it’s not. It won’t be saved without money, and money is going to be very hard to get in this climate – I have got no illusions about that. But it is worth trying because it is worth the effort.”