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. The building has been subject to various proposals for redevelopment that would have seen this historic venue irreversibly altered and historic features lost.

In 2014 Brighton and Hove City Council approved planning applications to convert the Hippodrome into a multiplex cinema, which would have seen the auditorium subdivided, the flytower demolished and the rear access to the theatre built upon, preventing the building from ever being used as a theatre again. At the end of 2014 the site was put on the market, and the cinema operator withdrew. The planning consent has subsequently also expired. The then leaseholder, Academy Music Group, acquired the freehold in April 2015 and gave the Theatres Trust and campaigners a six-month moratorium to prepare plans.

In November 2017 the Hippodrome was bought by private Investor, Hippodrome Investments, who, despite discussions with the local authority and Historic England, failed to carry out a level of repair works to prevent further serious deterioration of the building. In January 2019 the new owner released initial images of the intended development and reuse of the building which included a new hotel and spa complex and serviced apartments. The proposals caused grave concern because of the scale of redevelopment, believed to be both inappropriate to the building’s heritage significance and a scheme that would prevent it from being returned to large-scale theatre use in the future.

The building has since been acquired by local developer Matsim Properties whose plans for the theatre are currently unknown. Repair works have started that will make the building watertight and weatherproof and, it is hoped, halt any further deterioration of the historic fabric. However, the building remains in a critical condition and plans for its future remain uncertain.

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.

The 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 fill a gap in the Brighton market for a large-scale theatre.

In 2018, the CIC 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 and producers. Theatres Trust has been supporting them in this work.

The council’s Old Town Conservation Area Management Plan, which was based on a Character Statement funded by the CIC on behalf of the council, not only lists the heritage importance of the Hippodrome within the area but also its significance for stimulating regeneration of the conservation area.

Current situation

Since commissioning the economic impact assessment, the CIC has been working on a strategy for a phased approach to the restoration and reopening of the Hippodrome as a large-scale theatre and associated fundraising plan. The plans include some sensitive enabling development to part-fund the restoration works, working with a development partner. Theatres Trust has been supporting the CIC in this work. The group has also submitted pre-app proposals to both Historic England and Brighton and the council.

In May 2020 the CIC was awarded a Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme grant of £7,000 to support legal advice to formalise a development partnership and to support fundraising advice. The work was put on hold with news of the change in ownership. The CIC is currently liaising with the new owner in the hopes of finding a collaborative approach to seeing the building restored and reopened.

With support from Historic England, it was announced in September 2020 that the council was to recommend to the Tourism, Equalities, Communities and Culture (TECC) Committee approval of authorisation to issue an Urgent Works Notice on the Hippodrome. Just prior to the committee meeting, the Hippodrome was bought by local developer Matsim Properties. Despite the change in ownership, the committee recommended approval of authorisation as a failsafe should the new owner not wish to engage with the council over necessary repair works.

The new owner has since started a programme of repair works to the building and has also hosted a meeting with key stakeholders including Theatres Trust and the CIC to allow discussion on the opportunities offered by the building. The CIC is arranging further meetings to share the details of its business plan and to discuss any opportunity for a future partnership with the owner to realise the ambition of a restored and reopened Hippodrome as a large-scale theatre venue for Brighton.

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 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 May 2021

In May 2021, Matsim submitted planning and listed building applications to erect a new structure above the auditorium roof to help protect the fragile fibrous plaster from further deterioration and to aid access for repair works to the historic ceiling. Theatres Trust supported the application.

Brighton Hippodrome CIC was one of the recipients of support from our Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme, receiving £8,000 for fundraising scoping and testing. This forms part of a wider fundraising strategy to enable the group to make a strong case for the Hippodrome's future as a theatre. Read the news story about the Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme.

Campaign video (from 2016)

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

Images, Brighton Hippodrome, Theatres Trust, 2017