Brick Lane Music Hall: The east London venue that’s kept variety alive
As Brick Lane Music Hall founder Vincent Hayes celebrates its 25th anniversary, Nick Smurthwaite looks back at how it has championed revue-style variety while playing to packed houses bussed in from all across the country.
You might be forgiven for supposing that Brick Lane Music Hall is on Brick Lane. One of the many surprises in store for visitors to this most unique of London venues is that it is nowhere near Brick Lane.
It is in fact in Silvertown in West Ham, a largely industrial area currently undergoing a £3.5 billion redevelopment. Passing trade is not one of Brick Lane Music Hall’s strong selling points.
That said, when I drop into the deconsecrated church that is now its home on a weekday lunchtime, the place is packed. As Fats Waller might have put it, the joint is jumping.
The story of Brick Lane Music Hall is a little bit eccentric, not unlike its founder-director Vincent Hayes, who is celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary this year.
A former actor and Pontins’ Bluecoat, Hayes tired of being an itinerant performer in the late 1980s after becoming a father for the first time. He says: “I came home after playing Fagin in Oliver! for six months in Aberystwyth and my daughter didn’t know who I was, so I had to think of a way to be there for her.”
His solution was to start his own theatre on Brick Lane, east London, in the old Truman’s Brewery building in 1992.
“It was quite a rough area at the time,” he explains. “After six months, I realised it wasn’t working. Then I got a call out of the blue from my friend Danny La Rue who offered to come and do a show to help me out. That brought in a big audience and in no time I was turning people away.”
Soon after, it had outgrown its existing venue, with its capacity of 150, and needed bigger premises, so the intrepid Hayes found a disused button factory a mile away in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, and relocated Brick Lane Music Hall there. The conversion took five months and cost him £80,000.
But after five years Hayes decided Curtain Road wasn’t right either – “the landlords were only interested in the money I was making” – so he put all his fixtures and fittings, costumes and props in storage, and went back on the road.
He says: “Because I never settled as a child, I suppose I’m a bit of a traveller. My home is a trailer next to the theatre.”
Out of the blue – the way many things seem to happen in his life – Hayes received a phone call from Newham Council saying they would love him to relocate Brick Lane Music Hall to their borough, provided they could find him suitable premises. Nobody would have described St Mark’s Church in Silvertown, derelict for 30 years, as suitable, least of all Hayes himself.
“I was extremely hesitant about taking it on,” he says. “Who on earth would come to this industrial wasteland? None of my friends thought it was a good idea. But fortune favours the brave. Instinct told me there was a market for it. I had a vision of what it would look like: where the stage would go and where the bar would go. I signed the lease in 2003 and opened in January 2004. It cost more than £1 million to convert it into the place we have now. I did a lot of the work myself.”
Hayes admits business was terrible for the first four years. In 2007, he says he had a wake-up call: “It was my eureka moment. We would become a destination venue. We’d bus people in from all over the country, give them lunch, dinner or tea and a show. That completely turned it round. We went from two or three shows a week to six. Every show is sold out, and we’re booking till 2019.”
The venue is unique – a disused church converted into a warm, welcoming, pulsating palace of fun. Glitterballs and chandeliers are suspended from the ceiling and the place is festooned with bunting, Union Jacks, show bills and posters. It is all presided over by Hayes, the most likeable impresario I’ve ever met, who is also the onstage master of ceremonies and jester-in-chief. His material, like the show, is corny but slick. Coach parties from Deal, Rayleigh and Lincoln are lapping it up.
“I’m only as good as my next show,” Hayes tells me before disappearing to change into his costermonger outfit. “I look forward all the time. We know the requirements of everybody who crosses our threshold. It’s our job to make sure they have a good time from the moment they enter the building.”
All the food is freshly prepared on the premises in the on-site kitchens and is brought to your table by a super-efficient team of smartly dressed waiters. The beady-eyed maitre d’ ensures that everyone is served on time and has what they need.
Even the outside of the church looks spick and span. At 72, Hayes hires a 25-metre cherry picker every year to clean out the gutters and keep it looking spruce. Why doesn’t he hire someone to do it? “Because they won’t do it as well as I can,” he says.
Newham Council clearly loves having Brick Lane Music Hall in the borough, not just because of the venue itself but also because of Hayes’ outreach work in local schools and care homes. It is the one thing he boasts about. “I have mothers in burkas thanking me for involving their child in musical theatre. That’s the power of theatre in schools, it gives them something academia can’t.”