The UK’s most architecturally significant circus theatre – the finest surviving example of its type in the country.
- Middle Street, Brighton, East Sussex, BN1 1AL
- Risk Rating
- 9 (Community Value: 3. Star Rating: 3. Risk Factor: 3)
- Local Authority
- Brighton and Hove City Council
- Matsim Properties
- Frank Matcham / Bertie Crewe
- Date of Construction
- 1897; 1901 / 02
- Grade II*
- Estimated at 1,250-1,500
- Database Link
- View in Theatres Database
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.
In 1916 the building was updated again, this time by J. Emblin Walker. The substantial alterations included the creation of a new stage, fly tower and dressing room block.
Further additions during the building’s life included the Palm Court Lounge within the adjoining Hippodrome House. Constructed to resemble an old Italian garden, it was designed to enable ticketholders to wait in luxurious surroundings before shows started and had two cocktail bars. The original idea included a false Italian bridge with concealed lighting set over a green tiled fishpond and fountain.
The most spectacular feature of the building remains its 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 is 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 has 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 with 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, as well as the removal of areas of dry rot principally to the stage structure, basement side rooms and later insertions associated with bingo use. 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 commented to say we had 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 prevent the building from ever being used as a theatre again.
In August 2022, Matsim submitted a planning application for the Hippodrome. The scheme is based on the 2021 public consultation and proposes repurposing the Hippodrome as a mixed-use development with a combination of retention and restoration of the auditorium, loss and alteration of other existing spaces and new build development. The scheme comprises an event / performance space, two apart-hotels, serviced office / flexible workspace, a bar / restaurant and supporting facilities.
While Theatres Trust is not unsupportive of the proposed reuse as an event / performance space, we opposed the plans in their current form as we believe them to be fundamentally unviable, will not provide a space suitable for the mixed-use performance programme that Matsim hopes for and will prevent the theatre ever returning as a large-scale venue. If permitted there is a real concern that these untested plans could potentially threaten the future viability and use of the Hippodrome as a performance space in any form.
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 approximately £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.
- Commencing work on a detailed fundraising proposal through works supported by Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme.
The CIC has shared its commissioned viability reports and business plan with Matsim Properties, demonstrating sustainable commercial profitability. It is clear that there is a gap in the Brighton market for a large-scale theatre. The Hippodrome is well located in the city and has the potential to meet this demand – the challenge is raising the funds to achieve this.
We believe that the scale of the financial challenge to restore and rejuvenate the Hippodrome is such that only a mix of private and public funding would be able to secure its future.
Despite hopes that there may be opportunity for a partnership between the CIC and Matsim Properties, this has not been forthcoming. The developer-owner has been keen to progress the project alone, funding the scheme via their own means.
Theatres Trust has met with Matsim on several occasions and while we disagree on whether there is a future for the Hippodrome as a large-scale theatre, we are pleased to see the developer’s investment in protecting the Hippodrome from further deterioration and their passion for the building. We have fed-commented on their scheme both during the consultation process and planning. We have also introduced them to the operator of a multi-purpose entertainment venue that hosts a similar programme suggested by Matsim. It is hoped that this will allow Matsim a greater understanding of the comments regarding the practicality and workability of design as pointed out in our planning response and alert them to the complexities of operating a live entertainment venue.
The current applications for planning permission and listed building consent remain undetermined. We had been advised that Matsim was to submit further information to support its applications, and with new documents having just been uploaded by the council to its planning portal, we anticipate imminent re-consultation.
Theatres Trust remains clear that any development of the Hippodrome and its surrounding site must be sensitive to the possible future reinstatement of the theatre as a large-scale venue for performance. We will continue engagement with the owner, the council, Historic England and other relevant organisations to ensure that this remains of key consideration.
Update April 2023
We have responded with further detailed comments on proposals for Brighton Hippodrome after amended plans and extra documents were submitted. Read our full response.
Images, Brighton Hippodrome, Theatres Trust, 2017