Brighton Hippodrome

The UK’s most architecturally significant circus theatre – the finest surviving example of its type in the country.

Brighton Hippodrome
Address
Middle Street, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 1AL
Risk Rating
9 (Community Value: 3. Star Rating: 3. Risk Factor: 3)
Architect
Frank Matcham / Bertie Crewe
Date of Construction
1897; 1901/02
Listing
Grade II*
Capacity
Estimated at 1,250-1,500

Significance

The Grade II* listed Hippodrome originally opened as an ice-skating rink in 1897, designed by Lewis Karslake. In 1901 eminent theatre architect Frank Matcham converted it into a circus. Further adaptations in 1902 by another distinguished theatre architect of the time, Bertie Crewe, saw it modified into a variety theatre.

The most spectacular feature is the circular auditorium with its richly decorated ceiling in the form of a panelled tent. The relationship between the stage house, auditorium and circle, as well as the ancillary areas, is significant as a unique example of our past cultural and recreational pursuits.

The Hippodrome is also on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register and considered the UK’s most architecturally significant circus theatre – the finest surviving example of its type in the country.

Why is this theatre at risk?

Brighton Hippodrome has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2006 when we started the list.

Since it closed as a bingo hall in 2006 the Hippodrome has been vacant and the historic fabric at risk of severe deterioration. A succession of ownerships has exacerbated delays to urgent works and seen the building condition steadily worsen. The building has also been subject to various proposals for redevelopment that would have seen this historic venue irreversibly altered and historic features lost. A planning approval in 2014 sought to convert the Hippodrome into a multiplex cinema (since expired) and a 2019 scheme for a hotel and spa complex with serviced apartments would have seen the central auditorium space landlocked, rendering it unviable.

Local developer Matsim Properties took ownership of the Hippodrome in September 2020 just as Brighton and Hove City Council with support from Historic England approved the authorisation to issue an Urgent Works Notice on the Hippodrome. The new owner has been proactive in engaging with key stakeholders including Theatres Trust and in works to secure the Hippodrome from further deterioration. This has included erecting a new structure above the auditorium roof to help protect the fragile fibrous plaster and to aid access for future repair works to the historic ceiling. However, despite these works, the condition of the building remains extremely vulnerable.

In summer 2021 Matsim published proposals for the Hippodrome, The Hippodrome Consultation Boards, to redevelop the site for an apart-hotel, serviced offices and business / retail unit with the main auditorium retained for dining with terraced restaurant style seating and a new circular stage to allow an element of performance. Theatres Trust has grave concerns regarding the viability and future sustainability of the proposals, in particular to the level of irreversible physical and operational harm to the historic significance of the building. The proposed alternative uses of the stage and the fly tower and the proposal to build over the yard that provides vital rear access to the theatre would

Brighton Hippodrome exterior, with its coloured glass awning and external walls covered with grafitti including Bart SimpsonTheatre potential

In 2015, a stakeholder group, including campaign group Brighton Hippodrome Community Interest Company (CIC), Theatres Trust, Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC) and the Frank Matcham Society commissioned a viability study. This concluded that the building does have a viable and sustainable operational future as a large-scale commercial theatre if the challenge of raising funds for restoration can be met.

Since this time the CIC has carried out much work to prove the viability of the proposed return of the Hippodrome to a large-scale theatre. This has included:

  • In 2016, securing grant funding to complete a valuation, structural surveys, initial designs and costings for the building. The proposals include sensitive enabling development to part-fund the restoration works and supporting the phased restoration of the auditorium and stage house.
  • Securing funding for a character statement that has formed the basis of the council’s Old Town Conservation Area Management Plan. This lists both the heritage importance of the Hippodrome within the area and its significance for stimulating regeneration of the conservation area.
  • In 2018, commissioning an economic impact study to assess the effect of a restored and reopened Hippodrome for Brighton. The resulting report estimated that once established, a large-scale receiving theatre could benefit the local economy by about £10m annually.
  • Commissioning an external validation of the CIC’s business plan by both an independent arts consultancy and two large-scale regional theatre venues with operating models similar to that proposed for the Hippodrome.
  • Securing the backing of national theatre operators and producers for the use of the building as a large-scale receiving theatre.
  • Submission of pre-app proposals for its scheme to both Brighton and Hove Council and to Historic England
  • Work on a detailed fundraising proposal through works supported by the Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme; the first phase of this works supported by a grant awarded in 2020 and the second phase, which includes a community action plan in 2021. This latter stage of work is ongoing.

Current situation

The scale of the financial challenge to restore and rejuvenate the Hippodrome is such that only a mix of private and public funding will prove able to secure its future.

The CIC has shared its commissioned viability reports and business plan with Matsim Properties, demonstrating sustainable commercial profitability, and remains open to discussing the opportunity of partnership working to realise this ambition and to see the Hippodrome restored and reopened as a large-scale theatre venue for Brighton.

While partnership working between the CIC and Matsim Properties is currently not forthcoming it is hoped that through continuing dialogue a mutually agreeable way forward can be found.

Theatres Trust remains clear that any development of the theatre and its surrounding site must be sensitive to the possible future reinstatement of the theatre as a large-scale venue for performance and will continue engagement with the new owner, the council, Historic England and other relevant organisations to ensure that this is of key consideration in any future proposals for the building.

Update March 2022

We conditionally supported a planning application for listed building consent for removal of areas of dry rot at Brighton Hippodrome. This proposal focuses on dry rot to the stage structure, basement side rooms and later insertions associated with bingo use. Though loss of earlier or original fabric is regretful, in this case it does not compromise the significance of the Hippodrome. Read our full planning response.

We agree that this is necessary for the protection and conservation of the building.

 

Images, Brighton Hippodrome, Theatres Trust, 2017