Big Read: Can-can girls have gone but show goes on

14:56 17 June 2011

Artistic director Frances Mayhew ponders the future of Wilton

Artistic director Frances Mayhew ponders the future of Wilton's Music Hall by the theatre stage


»Losing out on lottery funding “may not be the end of the world” for Wilton’s Music Hall.

That’s the view the artistic director at the world’s oldest music hall is taking after the dust has settled on her frustration earlier this month upon learning that the venue had lost out on £2.3million worth of funding.

The grade II listed building is literally falling down around her as she talks to the Advertiser about her vision for its future, but Frances Mayhew is still optimistic.

She envisages the venue establishing itself as a small arts venue for everything from rehearsals, auditions, and exhibitions to serving as a backdrop for photographic and TV shoots.

She also hopes to put in a kitchen and open a cafe to bring in more revenue to the theatre, which is tucked away in Graces Alley, Whitechapel.

DIY sealant

Since the music hall’s lottery rejection it has raised £25,000 in just one week, compared to the normal weekly average of just £50, as hundreds of messages have flooded in from sympathetic fans.

The derelict building is a far cry from its cabaret heyday, when can-can girls strutted their stuff, after its opening in 1858. The crumbling building is in need of some urgent TLC if it is going to survive. But the air of decadence gives the venue a unique atmosphere, which Ms Mayhew is keen to preserve and capitalise on.

“Everything else was put on hold as we concentrated on the lottery bid so we are really behind with repair works. We were expecting to go to smaller trusts for match funding but we now have to go to them for all our basic fundraising. None of them have much money in the current economic climate or anywhere near the kind of money the lottery has or that we need.

“But maybe not having lottery money may not be the end of the world. Everyone has their own requirements and with lottery funding we would have had to do all the repair work in one go. This means we would have had to close for a year while paying the cost of staying shut for a year. I still have to keep my staff and we would have had to pay their wages.

“Doing each room or section of the building at a time as smaller projects would allow us to stay open and continue to run the theatre as a business in other parts of the building. If, say, roof repairs come to £200,000 maybe what we need is a ‘crowd fund’ of lots of £50,000 grants, which is the sort of money smaller funds might have.”

The complete work was estimated to cost £3.8 million, But Ms Mayhew explains that the cost of surveyors and insurers also had to be allowed for in the lottery bid. “We may be able to do it cheaper and our next move is to have a look again at the costs of the most urgent work.”

But Ms Mayhew is keen to point out that they are running out of time and have to make all necessary repair work by the autumn to survive the winter. As she speaks the wind is blowing through cracks in the crumbling brick wall behind her and she explains how staff check daily for holes in the walls and go out on the building’s roof to patch up holes with DIY sealant.

After heavy rains staff have to call in a drainage company to suck water out of the basement and from under the auditorium floor, costing thousands of pounds each time.

Glory days

The music hall was built on the site of a former pub and at the back of five existing terraced houses, and water pipes still run under the middle of the theatre.

But Ms Mayhew points out that the pipes between the front reception and stage don’t run anywhere, as they did not have any drainage in the 18th century when people lived in the houses. The floorboards, which are held up by scaffolding poles and move every time someone treads on them, also have to be monitored daily and nailed down regularly.

As she shows me around the upstairs she explains that one of the old houses collapsed and is being held up with structural support. Five rooms are currently standing derelict and unused. But Ms Mayhew can see them coming alive again and being used for everything from art exhibitions and theatre auditions to community meetings. If only the theatre can get the funding to make them structurally sound.

“It’s not very glamorous, it’s very boring but very important work that needs doing, and maybe that’s why it’s hard to explain the urgency to people. We have now put a video together to try and get our message across.”

It’s not going to be a 60-minute makeover bringing the theatre back to it glory days, she admits. “But the derelict state of the building gives it a different charm. It’s decadent and a bit crumbly, and people like it like that, so we have to be quite careful with what we do to it,” Ms Mayhew points out.

She is looking to cover five areas of urgent work, which would include putting on a waterproof asphalt roof. The current structure would not be able to hold the original butterfly-type roof, she says. The building has no electricity, making parts of it too dark to use in the evenings, so putting in electric wiring would be another step, along with heating. The structural support, ceilings and flooring also need replacing and the drainage needs sorting out.

“We have urgent repairs but apart from that we tend to look at every brick in a five-year cycle. But the lottery put all that on hold as we tried to make do with ‘sickly repairs’. We need to get back on track.”

Throughout the week the music hall puts on a variety of performances from comedy, musicals and opera to pop concerts with the likes of KT Tunstall and Paolo Nutini having played there.

Sherlock Holmes

There is no longer a large audience for can-can girls, Ms Mayhew explains, but burlesque dancing and singing by the piano, along with comedy nights, now comes closest to traditional cabaret.

It has also served as a film location for the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes sequel and a BBC period drama.

It tries to pack in about 20 weddings in the summer with some opting to get married on stage. But even after all this the music hall, with a £1 million annual turnover, only just manages to break even after running costs.

The bar area, which is already popular with history and mother-and-toddler groups, brings in a large part of the revenue, and Ms Mayhew hopes to raise money for a kitchen so it can open a cafe.

She said: “There are not many places for people to go around here, it’s not like Brick Lane. 
It’s a desolate and dislocated community.

“The area was so wrecked after the Second World War. We don’t have a high street, not even a post office.

“It would also be a shame if next year we were closed during the Olympics. But theatres from Athens to Georgia and Atlanta to Beijing have warned us that we might as well close as everyone spends their money at the Games.”

But even though she says funding from the Cultural Olympiad, running alongside the Games, went to the Barbican she is hopeful that some funding can be found on the back of the 

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This feature was published in the Advertiser on June 9. Archive version available on this website.

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