When I last spoke to Frances Mayhew, Director of Wilton’s, the world’s oldest remaining Grand Music Hall, things were looking bleak indeed. A lack of funding for vital renovations left the venue’s future in grave doubt, and London seemed at risk of losing this irreplaceable theatrical treasure. Happily, things are now looking brighter – a substantial grant has been secured, and essential rebuilding starts this summer. Exeunt once again spoke to Mayhew, to find out about the theatre’s ambitious plans – but why the battle to save Wilton’s is far from over.
Tucked down a side street a few minutes’ walk from the Tower of London, Wilton’s Music Hall is a priceless piece of London’s theatrical heritage. Dating from 1858, the building has lived through many incarnations – and survived a fire – to remain the oldest surviving Grand Music Hall in the world. But age, alas, comes at a price: the building is literally crumbling and in desperate need of repair. Fortunately, after months of uncertainty, at least some of the desperately needed renovations will start this summer thanks to a combination of fundraising efforts and a grant from SITA.
“SITA are a landfill charitable trust,” explains Mayhew, as we sit upstairs in the warren of buildings that makes up the Wilton’s structure, having negotiated several flights of rickety stairs and low-ceilinged doorways. “They are usually environmentally focused, so this is their first heritage grant. They’ve given us £700,000 towards Phase 1 of the project, which costs £1.1m – we had already secured the rest of the money, thanks to a large personal donation, a grant from the Foundation for Sport and Arts and our own fundraising.”
Phase 1 will cover the most urgent of renovations: that of the great hall itself, which is in dire need of structural repair. “It’s a massive job – we have to take the roof off, take up the floor, take up half the alleyway outside to drain the ground beneath it… we’ll be fixing the heating, wiring, the roof and the drainage, as well as underpinning the whole thing and improving structural support.” Ironically, given the scale of the task at hand, the end result won’t be that noticeable to the audience. “The money doesn’t buy us anything glamorous!” laughs Mayhew, though she agrees with me that too much cosmetic change would spoil the character of the venue (at the moment it garners a significant portion of its income hiring out as a set for period films and TV shows, including Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows).
This work will see the hall close for six months, though the bar will remain open, as will one of the smaller rooms. Mayhew hopes that the venue will be able to host smaller, pop up events but admits to uncertainty as to how much disruption the building works cause, and the unpredictability as to how the Olympics will affect the audience figures. Wilton’s are optimistic that they can attract some tourists interested in the heritage aspects of the venue, but they are realistic as to the downsides of such a major event: “We’re hoping we can promote ourselves as a ‘ye olde building’,” Mayhew chuckles. “But we can’t compete against all the Olympics publicity – with so much going on, I’m not sure how many people will want to come to sit in a dark room!” she admits, pragmatically.