Cate Blanchett, the new Duke of Cambridge and Robert Downey Jr. have all trodden the atmospheric boards at Wilton’s Music Hall in east London. They’ve also confronted its ripe 1720s drains and leaky roof.
Wilton’s was born in 1858 when John Wilton built an auditorium at the back of his pub. He presented a typically mid-Victorian mix of opera singers, comedians and acrobats on the stage. Now it’s one of the world’s oldest surviving grand music halls, and a wonderfully dilapidated shabby-chic venue.
In May, it was refused a 2.3 million pound ($3.7 million) Heritage Lottery Fund grant for urgent repairs. If it can’t raise the money elsewhere soon, then the final curtain will fall on a unique part of London’s theater history.
Curiously, that history is bound up with a now-faint thread of my own career. A little more than a decade ago I was, among other things, a jobbing double-bass player. I got a call to be in a chamber production of “The Beggar’s Opera” directed by Jonathan Miller at Wilton’s.
I found the theater tucked away in a dark alley a few minutes from the Tower of London. That was when I first discovered Wilton’s faded grandeur, its wooden auditorium with creaky board floor, crumbling gold plasterwork and barley-sugar balcony columns, and its seductive atmosphere of ghostly nostalgia.
It’s no surprise that Annie Leibovitz chose Wilton’s as a photo location for her pictures of Blanchett for American Vogue. Or that Princes Harry and William recently hired it for a charity fundraising dinner. Or that part of the forthcoming movie “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” starring Downey and Jude Law, was filmed there.
The surprise is that so few people know about it.
The team of “The Beggar’s Opera” was great, with a talented assistant called Frances Mayhew. I remember her “can-do” attitude and energy. She’s now artistic director.
“I was a complete slave on that show,” she recalls as we greet each other again. “It was a lot of fun.”
With the latest funding setback, and a venue to run that receives no public subsidy, the cheerful 33-year-old is going to need all the reserves of can-do she can muster.
Her track record at the helm is already impressive. When Mayhew took over in 2005, she discovered that Wilton’s had debts of 250,000 pounds. By the end of 2011, the venue will be debt-free. How did she do that without subsidy? “Photo rentals, film-location hire, and weddings,” she says.
A musician herself, it’s heartening to hear she has ensured that Wilton’s continues as a performance space. It presents one chamber opera a year and two spoken plays, as well as classical concerts, magic shows and cabaret evenings.
Mayhew, an English rose with a low voice, explains how she made the leap from dogsbody to doyenne.
“Wilton’s used to be run by a small company called Broomhill Opera,” she says. “I was a student volunteer for them at first, and then became a lowly assistant on 25 pounds a week. I loved it. Things didn’t work out, so I left to become a freelance producer.”
Three years after her departure, she found that Broomhill Opera was off the scene, and had left Wilton’s with a mountain of debt.
“I called up the trustees of the building, and offered to help,” says Mayhew. “During my previous time as an assistant here, I’d built up a good roster of location work and hire-outs. I told them I could get cash flow going, and put on some small shows. They were desperate, and said yes.”
Now Wilton’s annually generates about a million pounds from its rentals and productions. “Every year we’ve expanded, and paid off more debt. I’ve proved that the model works.”
The fly in the ointment is the state of the building. The fabric still needs work. “I can’t responsibly keep it open much longer,” Mayhew says. “I’ve drains from 1720, leaky roofs, derelict attics, and one part is slowly collapsing.”
It must have been a slap in the face to have the lottery grant refused? “In one way, I’m glad, because lottery money would have come with lots of red tape,” she says. “Now, we’ll raise it ourselves, and do the work our own way. We can be more independent.”
There was a silver lining. “When the refusal became public, our audiences were outraged. I received 20,000 pounds of donations in one week. It was heartwarming.”
It’s typical of the kind of affection generated by this oddity of a space. “Performers who emigrated to America took the concept of music hall with them, and it became vaudeville,” Mayhew says. “I wonder if any of your American readers have historical links with us. I’d love to find out.”
If anyone can build on that affection to secure its future, I’d bet that it’s Mayhew and her team.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)