Bringing theatre back to life at Alexandra Palace
For the first time in 80 years, theatre is back at north London venue. Nick Smurthwaite takes a looks at how the iconic venue has brought Victorian grandeur into the 21st century
When it first opened in 1873, Alexandra Palace Theatre had seating for 3,000 and boasted cutting-edge stage technology. It was the jewel in the crown of the people’s palace of entertainments on a north London hill overlooking the city.
But it all went horribly wrong. Just 16 days after it opened the whole place was destroyed by fire. Rebuilt two years later, the self-styled Fun Palace flourished for several years as an all-purpose venue for family outings, while the spacious theatre contained within it did well with opera, ballet and lavish pantomimes.
Although it pulled in huge crowds on public holidays and the festive season, Ally Pally, as it became known, never found a business model that worked all year round to meet its running costs.
Now, after decades of obscurity and neglect, the theatre has finally reopened, along with the mighty glass-domed East Court. The £26.7 million restoration of the East Court, primarily funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Haringey Council, is the most extensive in Ally Pally’s history, promising a bright new future for the capital’s infamous folly.
Louise Stewart, chief executive of the Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust, says: “The reopening of the theatre and the East Court is a major step forward in our mission to bring areas of the park and palace back to life and strengthen our audience’s connection to our unrivalled history.”
For the first time in more than 80 years, the theatre is back in action, now seating about 1,000, with an eclectic line-up that includes an evening with Gareth Malone, musicians from Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, veteran artists Gilbert and George in conversation, and a three-week run of Horrible Histories’ Christmas show.
It has already hosted a BBC Prom, back in September, which The Stage’s opera critic George Hall described as “a joyous occasion and a wonderful relaunch for a venue with enormous potential”.
Alexandra Palace today is awe-inspiring in its scale and magnificence. It was designed by the people who created the Royal Albert Hall, symbolising Victorian aspiration and grandeur. If it seems a bit over the top in 2018, it is also heartening to see new life breathed into such an iconic edifice.
Alexandra Palace Theatre has suffered more false dawns and setbacks in its 145-year history than almost any other playhouse in the country.
Financial mismanagement of the Fun Palace scuppered it within a few years of opening, and the theatre was frequently put to other uses, including as a storage space for scenery and equipment by the BBC, which occupied the building for 20 years. It was also used as an internment centre during the First World War, a hospital for wounded servicemen during both world wars, a horse-racing circuit, a place of worship and a cinema.
The BBC drew up plans to use the theatre for radio production in the 1930s but these were never implemented.
In the early days of its existence, in the late 1870s, there were six lavish pantomimes – The Yellow Dwarf (1875), St George and the Dragon (1877), Dick Whittington and His Cat (1878), Little Jack Horner (1879), and Hop O’ My Thumb (1881) – as well as three summer pantomimes, as the form, at that time, wasn’t confined to Christmas.
In his book, Drama at the Palace, Nigel Willmott estimates there were 60 non-panto productions of which half were straight plays, the rest farces. Many would have been programmed to be part of a more general day’s entertainment, involving other Fun Palace attractions.
What the architects Feilden Clegg Bradley, along with theatre consultants Charcoalblue, have achieved with the restoration of the 18.8 metre by 25.2 metre auditorium is a remarkable feat of aesthetic fusion, keeping the structural integrity and charm of the original building in tact while vastly improving facilities, sight lines and flexibility.
They have raised and levelled the floor by five metres – it was previously raked – retaining all the original floorboards. Each board was carefully numbered and put back in precisely the same pattern. Retractable seating along with moveable rostrums now allows for any performance configuration. The shape of the retractable tiered unit for the stalls seating has been developed to work alongside the ramped entrances from the central rear lobby off the main foyer. There is also wheelchair access to the balcony courtesy of a newly installed lift from the ground floor.
Beneath the stage is a wealth of intricate wooden machinery that was once used to facilitate stage effects in the absence of a flytower. Though this is no longer suited to present-day productions, the machinery offers a glimpse into theatre’s rich history and will doubtless be included in future public tours.
The spectacular and ornate plaster ceiling has been reinforced and tied back with wire mesh for safety reasons, and is now able to withstand huge stress from suspended lighting equipment. The restoration team had to create a matrix of 50 strong points in the space above the suspended ceiling. The points and hoists are accessible via a new technical walkway system in the roof void above the ceiling.
One of the biggest challenges was the ‘shoebox’ shape of the auditorium, not altogether conducive with the modern idea of a shared experience. “The sight lines never really worked that well,” explains Rich Garfield, head of the Charcoalblue team assigned to the job. “We settled on drawing the performance space in front of the proscenium to enable the audience to better engage and to give producers and designers more flexibility.”
Garfield says the need to give visiting artists the opportunity to respond to the space was always uppermost in their thoughts.
“People talk about not removing the ghosts when you do a refurbishment of an historic building and that was key with this job. For me it was always a jaw-dropping space. It wasn’t until my fourth time of walking into the auditorium that I could keep my mouth closed. There are very few spaces to rival it – Wilton’s Music Hall, the Roundhouse, Theatre Bouffes du Nord in Paris, Brooklyn Academy of Music – where you can see all that history threaded through the building.”
They have dubbed the style of the restoration “arrested decay”, similar to that achieved at Wilton’s, so you get a taste of the original Victorian grandeur but with added state-of-the-art technology, comfortable seating and a cosier feel.
Emma Dagnes, deputy chief executive of the Alexandra Palace Trust, calls it “a gentle nudge into the modern era”. She says: “It would have been wrong of us to attempt a pastiche of what it was. We did a lot of work on reinforcing the plaster ceiling but we took the decision not to fill in all the holes and make it look perfect. We were happy for it to show its age and its history.”
In the areas adjacent to the stage house, formerly used for storage, five dressing rooms have been created, along with spacious communal areas where artists can socialise and relax. There is also a newly installed function room on the second floor, known as the Gracie Fields Room, accessible by a lift, which is available for hire. Fields, a huge star between the First and Second World Wars, used the theatre to try out her West End and touring shows in the 1930s.
For the future, the revitalisation of Alexandra Palace Theatre means it will hope to attract world-class performers and productions, although the prospects for 2019 seem a little more modest at present.
“Our ambition with the theatre is to create a programme that stays true to its eclectic roots and rich history of variety,” says Dagnes. “Whether it is world-class theatre companies such as Headlong, leading orchestras such as the BBC Concert Orchestra or award-winning comedians, we want all performers and audiences to feel welcome here.”