Brighton Hippodrome

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

200708 mp brightonhippodrome 039 detail
Address
Middle Street, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 1AL
Risk Rating
9 (Community Value: 3. Star Rating: 3. Risk Factor: 3.)
Owner
Private Owner
Architect
Frank Matcham
Date of Construction
1901
Listing
Grade II*
Capacity
1,400 -1,500 (estimated)

Significance

Brighton Hippodrome is the UK’s most architecturally significant circus theatre – the finest surviving example of its type in the country. It is listed Grade II*. The 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.

Why is this theatre at risk?

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

In 2014 Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC) approved planning applications to convert the Hippodrome into a multiplex cinema. This would have seen the auditorium subdivided, the fly tower demolished and the rear access to the theatre built upon, preventing the building from ever being used as a theatre again. However, in 2015 the proposed cinema operator pulled out. The planning consent has subsequently expired. In the meantime the building remains vacant and in an ever-increasing state of disrepair.

In November 2017 the Hippodrome was sold by Academy Music Group to private investor Hippodrome Investments. In January 2019 the new owner released initial images showing its proposals for the building, to include a new hotel and spa complex and serviced apartments on the site and retaining only the auditorium from the theatre building. Full details have yet to be released, however there is grave concern that the scheme proposes a scale of redevelopment both inappropriate to the building’s heritage significance and one that will prevent it from being returned to large-scale theatre use in the future.

Brighton Hippodrome, 2017Theatre potential

In 2015 a stakeholder group, including campaign group Brighton Hippodrome Community Interest Company (CIC) and Theatres Trust, commissioned a viability study. This concluded that the building does have a viable future as a large-scale theatre, if the challenge of raising funds can be met.

Brighton Hippodrome CIC secured grants to complete a valuation, structural surveys, initial designs and costings for the building in 2016. Its proposals include residential and retail development on site to support the phased restoration of the auditorium and stage house. Importantly, the CIC’s proposals are sensitive to the historic significance of the theatre and the needs of a performance venue and will retain both the flytower and access to the get-in and back of house areas. This will allow the Hippodrome to be restored and reopened as a large-scale theatre.

In 2018 the group commissioned an economic impact study to assess the effect of a restored and reopened Hippodrome for Brighton. This estimated that, once established, a large-scale receiving theatre could benefit the local economy by about £10m annually. The group also commissioned external validation of its 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. The use of the building as a large-scale receiving theatre has also secured the backing of national theatre operators. Theatres Trust has been supporting the group in this work.

Current situation

In November 2018 Brighton and Hove City Council published its Old Town Conservation Area Management Plan, based on a Character Statement funded by Brighton Hippodrome CIC on behalf of the council through Coastal Revival Funding. The plan lists the heritage importance of the Hippodrome within the area and its significance for stimulating regeneration of the conservation area.

Over this last year the CIC has been working on a strategy for a phased approach to the restoration and reopening of the Hippodrome and associated fundraising plan. Theatres Trust has been supporting the CIC in this work. This alternative proposal is based on reviving the whole of the theatre, with enabling development to part-fund the restoration work. The group has also entered into pre-application discussions with Historic England and will be looking to submit for pre-app with BHCC soon.

Theatres Trust is 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 has continued to lobby BHCC, Historic England and other key organisations to this cause.

In May 2020 Brighton Hippodrome CIC was awarded a Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme grant of £7,000 to support legal advice to formalise the development partnership and to support fundraising advice.

Campaign video (from 2016)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K39YocGrlW8

Images, Brighton Hippodrome, Theatres Trust, 2017