Plans to redevelop the Brighton Hippodrome – including a key piece of its infrastructure – have been amended following criticism from the Theatres Trust.
Local building company Matsim bought the Grade II* listed theatre in 2020, after it had stood empty for 14 years while successive plans to develop or restore it failed to take off.
Last year, Matsim revealed its plans to redevelop the Middle Street venue, retaining the theatre, building an aparthotel next door and converting the back of the theatre building – the fly tower – into offices.
But the Theatres Trust slammed the plans, saying that the conversion of the fly tower and the loss of a big car park next door meant it could not be used as a lyric theatre, suitable for big shows such as West End tours.
In the last few weeks, amended drawings have been submitted, proposing the fly tower is instead converted into rehearsal space and/or second, smaller venue.
And it argues that the venue, which was last used as a performance space in the 1960s, never needed a large car park, with the articulated lorries now used by touring productions only coming into use in the 1970s.
Simon Lambor, one of the firm’s directors, said in a letter submitted to the council’s planning team: “Throughout the Hippodrome’s hey-day as an entertainment venue it was always serviced via the Elephant Yard access that we are to reinstate.
“We accept that the serviced offices proposed came with a risk of complicating service over this yard and we have now removed this element from the proposals.
“We have now amended the design for the volume above the proscenium height of main stage to become a rehearsal area capable of becoming a secondary smaller venue.
“Fly infrastructure will be reinstated for the main stage and the rehearsal space above. This leaves us in a position that we are proposing no amendment to the buildings historical servicing arrangement.
You will be aware that our desire is that the building is made available to as many people as possible as it is quite special.
“We find it most disconcerting that the Theatres Trust have written a ten-page objection here to the building effectively returning as a music hall serviced in the same manner as it always was.
“This is all the more frustrating when we can’t find any objection from the Theatres Trust to the previously consented cinema scheme. Perhaps because of their desires of it becoming a Lyric Theatre. An aim that could only be achieved if £35m+ of public grant money funded and subsidised a scheme that would create a building and programme appealing only to a socio-economic group that can afford the high price of tickets for performance of the type that a Lyric Theatre produces.
“We want to ensure that this building is accessible to as large a socio-economic group as possible, that respects the building’s heritage as the music hall and performance space at the heart of the city.”
In its objection to the plans, submitted in October last year, the Theatres Trust said: “The rear and lower level of the fly tower will become
back of house space with a set of very small dressing rooms, WCs and staff area.
“We consider these facilities to be inadequate and the area will have poor function which further reflects our comments about the usability of the venue for the purposes the applicant has promoted.
“We again strongly recommend revision of plans based on specialist advice. The stage right areas and the flytower above ground level will be converted into co-working and serviced offices.
“This will result in the performance function of the auditorium becoming substantially limited and the possibility of future reversion to large-scale performance and theatre use lost.
“As set out above we consider full-scale theatre use to be the optimum viable use and we do not consider the applicant has provided the evidence required to contradict this and justify permanent loss.
“We consider there is scope for some compromise whereby a flexible employment scheme is still brought forward but it consists of more lightweight and reversible intervention to facilitate future reversibility.
“This is an approach being taken forward at the former Palace Theatre in Swansea, another building which has been on our Theatres at Risk register for some time.”
Meanwhile, Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas said that given the increasing urgency of restoring the derelict theatre, she was supporting the plans.
She said: “For more than a decade I’ve walked past it and witnessed it falling further and further into disrepair. Over the last year, to see work taking place to fix leaks, fill holes in the roof, and to address years and years of neglect has been wonderful.
“The positive, engaged attitude from Matsim is something very new, compared to that of previous owners. They are a local company who know Brighton and, importantly, understand that there is a huge amount of affection for this building, and therefore want to make it a resource for everyone in the city.”
She added: “I very much respect the view of the Theatres Trust, and others. My preference too would be for the Hippodrome to be retained in such a form that it has the flexibility to revert to a fully operational theatre which could accommodate large-scale productions.
“However, after more than a decade of seeing this building sat empty, and with local authority budgets likely to be squeezed still further, particularly given the state of the national economy, I fear that the Hippodrome is at risk of sitting empty for years to come if a way forward with Matsim is not found at speed.
“Although not perfect, I think the Matsim proposal, on balance, does protect the building for now, and provides the opportunity to save it for the future. On that basis I am minded to support Matsim’s application.”
The Hippodrome first opened as an ice rink in 1897, before being converted into a theatre in 1901.
In the mid-60s, it closed and was reopened as a bingo hall, but this closed in 2006, and it has been empty ever since.
It was then owned by London Merchant Securities, which leased it to the Academy Music Group, but plans to open it as a live music venue failed when it was estimated it would cost about £9 million for repairs and soundproofing.
In 2010, it was place on the Theatres Trust’s at-risk register, which it topped from 2013 to 2016.
In 2013, Alaska Development Consultants announced plans to convert it into a cinema, and its planning application was approved in 2014.
The site was immediately put on the market, and the scheme never progressed. AMG bought the freehold, and sold it to Hipp Investments, a Guernsey registered company run by Aizen Sheikh and his brothers in 2017.
Hipp said it planned to redevelop the site with a hotel and flats, but other than an artist’s impression, detailed proposals never emerged.
Meanwhile, Brighton and Hove City Council implemented extra protections for the theatre, including the fly tower, when rewriting the Old Town Conservation plan.
In September 2020, the site was bought by Matsim, which started work on repairing the building immediately.
It submitted a planning application in July last year. A licensing application was approved in October.