Alexandra Palace Theatre reopens after a lifetime shut away

The auditorium in its current state of “arrested decay”. Photo, with thanks, from Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, architects.

The regeneration of the East Wing of Alexandra Palace was recently crowned with the reopening of the 900-seat, nineteenth century theatre space.

The Palace sits in Alexandra Park, opened in 1865, to the North of London, part of the wave of fashionable outdoor spaces where Victorian society desired to be seen.

Opened in 1875 (after a fire which destroyed the original built in 1873), the Alexandra Palace was a place to see and be seen. Designed as North London’s counterpart to the Crystal Palace (which lies to the South of London), its aim was to be a public centre of recreation, education and entertainment for everyone. The theatre was home to all manner of stage entertainments, with technologically cutting-edge stage equipment (for its time) creating breathtaking effects which dazzled audiences for many years.

Falling upon hard times as the West End competed ever-stronger, the venue later saw service as a cinema, and was eventually used as the first TV studio complex for the BBC in 1935, and later still a props store.

A Victorian jewel, misused, mishandled and then simply forgotten for decades, the return of Headlong’s RICHARD III to the hall in March this year represented the first theatrical use in eighty years.

Saved, stabilised but not restored, the definition of “arrested decay”. Photo, with thanks, from Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, architects.

Architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios have done a remarkable job on a project costing almost £27 million. There have been a number of chapters in this building’s history (not least two savage fires). Keeping what is left of the original, and then providing modern interventions where necessary is a bold move but it reminds us that all buildings have stages of life, rather like our human lifespan.

The decision not to restore but simply to stabilise what remains and preserve its faded glory are conscious decisions which make this rebirth special. It might be said that the “unrestored” auditorium starkly reminds us of how precious our national heritage buildings are, and furthermore almost a campaigning call, a warning not to take them for granted.

Let’s all wish Ally Pally a long and successful life ahead!

FINAL THOUGHT The fly in the ointment then, as now, to “Ally Pally”‘s survival, is how venue bosses and local authorities will resolve the crippling lack of public transport options to get audiences to and from the 900-seater auditorium to rail and tube services quickly and efficiently. Considering all the investment that has gone into this revival, I do hope that both sides will work together to throw Ally Pally the transport lifeline it needs to survive, and thrive!

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