Alexandra Palace’s ‘hidden’ theatre to reopen after £18.8m restoration

Performers to grace the Victorian stage in London after a gap of 80 years, once lottery-funded revamp finishes this summer

For the first time in more than 80 years, regular performances are to be staged at a huge, abandoned, Victorian theatre hidden inside Alexandra Palace, north London.

The theatre is being restored with the help of an £18.8m lottery grant – which was one of the biggest ever for a UK heritage project – and the work will near completion over the summer.

On Thursday, Alexandra Palace’s charitable trust announced details of the theatre’s opening programme in December, an eclectic line-up that will include a performance by Gareth Malone, Gilbert and George in conversation, an evening of jazz from Ronnie Scott’s, and a run of the Horrible Histories Christmas show.

Ahead of that, on 1 September, the Proms will visit with the BBC Concert Orchestra for a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury.

The building will not be a gleaming interior, the trust said. “I describe it as a gentle nudge into the modern era,” said Emma Dagnes, the trust’s deputy chief executive. “We do not want to impact on the space too much because that is not its story. It opened with wonder and spectacle and excitement for the Victorians and, like all theatres, it had an interesting and eclectic history. And then it closed its doors. It would have been wrong to crack open the gold leaf and take it back to a pastiche of its former self.”

The theatre opened in 1875 with a performance of Offenbach’s operetta Breaking the Spell. Spectacular pantomimes with huge casts followed, as well as opera, ballet, music hall variety and stage drama, in a space capable of holding an audience of 3,000.

During the first world war Alexandra Palace was used as an internment camp for German and Austrian “enemy aliens” and the theatre became the camp’s hospital. After the BBC arrived in the 1930s it was employed as a useful prop store. It was mostly hidden away for 80 years until the restoration project started.

The theatre revival is part of a £27m scheme to restore Alexandra Palace’s whole east wing.
The theatre revival is part of a £27m scheme to restore Alexandra Palace’s whole east wing. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Dagnes said it had been important to maintain the scars of the theatre’s dereliction. “We have done a lot of work on the ceiling but we have deliberately taken the decision to not fill in all the holes and make it look perfect. That would have been jarring to the space.”

One big change is the raising of the floor by about 3.5 metres in an attempt to make the space more intimate. All the original floorboards were taken up and carefully numbered, and will be put back in precisely the same pattern.

The theatre will officially re-open on 1 December with an as yet unnamed performance by a headline act. On 2 December there will be a gala night of music, comedy and circus, compered by Adam Hills.

The project, part of a wider £27m restoration of Ally Pally’s east wing, is promoted as being all about channelling the original philosophy of a people’s palace. “The Victorians really understood the importance of culture and entertainment, and recreation and leisure, for the wellbeing of the soul,” said Dagnes. “For me, that’s probably even more important now than it was then. It is such an exciting opportunity to give this back.”

Contributor

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

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