“ Broomhill Opera runs Wilton¿s Music Hall in London¿s East End, with two main seasons per year and, as from April 2000, also directs the five-month long Spier Festival in Stellenbosch, South Africa (November to March annually). „
Wilton's Music Hall in London's East End is a truly magnificent building. It's the oldest and last surviving Grand Music Hall in the world - yes, the world! It's still being used to hold concerts, plays, talks and the occasional music hall variety show, but it's falling into disrepair and for some time a campaign has been under way to save Wilton's. I first went there to see singer Marc Almond perform, a venue which incidentally is perfect for his style of chanson and torch song, and just fell in love with the place.
In 1858 John Wilton built the music hall behind his pub 'The Prince Of Denmark' (with it's locally famous Mahogany Bar) by buying up a row of terrace houses in Graces Alley, knocking them through and creating the hall where the back yards had been. Wilton's was described as the "Handsomest Room in Town" and played host to the likes of Gerorge Leybourne (Champagne Charlie) and top artistes of the time from Covent Garden. When John Wilton died in 1880 the music hall continued for a few years but was then taken over as a Methodist mission until 1956 during which time it also served as a shelter in the blitz if WW2. After a successful campaign led by Sir John Betjamin in 1964 Wilton's was given a Grade II * listing to save it from demolition. In the years since the building has been neglected and is now semi derelict, only 60% is safe to open to the public - hence the campaign to save it before it becomes too far gone.
The Music Hall
Step inside Wilton's from the tucked away little side alley and it's like stepping back in time. In the auditorium you get a real sense of the history of the place as much of the interior is original including the cast iron 'barley sugar' pillars holding up an ornate papier-mâché balcony. Paint is peeling off the walls, plaster is missing but the faded glamour all adds to the atmosphere. To get an idea of the place visit
www.wiltons.org.uk/virtual-tour for a fantastic virtual guided tour.
Looks familiar? It should, Wilton's has appeared in all sorts of films and TV such as The Krays, Richard Attenborough's Chaplin, DeLovely, Tipping the Velvet, Tom Cruise was filmed there in Interview with a Vampire, The Importance of Being Earnest, Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream and Annie Lennox's video No More I Love Yous,
In it's heyday Wilton's music hall crammed 1500 people in to see shows, today they have a licence to seat 300 which makes it a wonderfully intimate space to see a show or concert. The original Mahogany bar area is still being used to serve drinks and refreshments to guests, and probably hasn't changed much since John Wilton's day. Prices are reasonable and not over-inflated for both performances and refreshments, which is a nice change for a London venue.
As well as a constant line-up of concerts and shows, which can be booked directly from Wilton's web site, they also run guided tours of the building at a cost of just £5 - helps boost the coffers. The space can also be hired our for weddings and functions, they hold many local community events and they have recently started a free cinema club.
Several million pounds is still needed to help save Wilton's (donations can be made via the web site) and so I like to get to as many events there as I can, and I know other people who feel the same. It's the sort of wonderful place that once you've been there you become a part of Wilton's history and feel the need to get involved.
Wiltons Music Hall
Off Ensign Street
London, E1 8JB
Tel: 020 7702 9555
Box Office: 020 7702 2789
More information can be found at: www.wiltons.org.uk/
Wilton's was the first purpose-built music hall, and survives today in something remarkably close to its original state, though currently in very faded splendour. Derelict for many years, it has lately become the home of Broomhill Opera, a company of absolutely top class singers in the early stages of their professional career, dedicated to bringing opera to a wider audience. The wider audience doesn't so far include our taxi driver, who had never heard of the place and needed the location map I had printed off from the website. Imagine the sort of London East End alleyway that's part newly rebuilt flats, part building site and part seedy run-down area that might be the haunt of winos and disreputables. Wilton's is the seedy run-down bit! Go inside and, once through the vestibule (of old bricks bereft of paint or plaster) you enter an auditorium rather like a nineteenth-century nonconformist chapel - gallery round three sides, supported on barley-twist pillars, and instead of communion table and pulpit just a stage with modern stage lighting installed. The seating is basic, the walls of stripped brickwork, the ornate plaster on the front of the gallery much in need of patching up and painting. It is dim and dingy, but you can see how magnificent it could be once funds are found for its full restoration. For now, it has a repainted ceiling (when Broomhill took it over, the roof leaked, so that had to be fixed, along with modern toilet facilities and wiring) in barrel-vault shape, which gives good acoustics. I went for "Orion", an opera by Cavalli (17th-century); the quality of the singing was outstanding, the music easy on the ear, the stage business fun, the costumes splendid (a showcase for London fashion students), the set pretty well non-existent. Sung in English, the story came over clearly without recourse to the programme notes (which you'd have needed a torch to read anyway). At one po
int, some of the stage lights fused. Someone apologised, and we waited about ten minutes while they sorted the problem out. In the very next scene, Orion (once blind, but now with his sight restored by the gods) is being encouraged by his travelling partner who points out that their situation is not so bad: I think the official words were something like "You've got your sight back", but of course on this occasion it had to be "You've made the lights work!" Much merriment in the house. Mr Wilton built this music hall as a back room to his pub, which is now the bar to which audiences retire during the interval (and from which the sea monster and Charon's barge trundled into view for this performance). It's too basic at the moment - it would be wonderful if it could be restored as a glittering Victorian pub, but Broomhill's raison d'etre is opera, and that is beyond criticism. Don't go for the beer, go to hear the wonderful voices, to marvel at the music, and to let your imagination run riot over the decayed splendour of the hall. I understand the company put on some performances on a "pay what you can afford" basis; if you paid what they deserve, it would be a lot.