Alexandra Palace Theatre transformed

Alexandra Palace theatre during the restoration. Picture: Keith Armstrong

Alexandra Palace theatre during the restoration. Picture: Keith Armstrong - Credit: Archant

Alexandra Palace’s historic Victorian theatre has re-opened following a £27 million refurbishment

Restoration of the Victorian Theatre at Alexandra Palace

Restoration of the Victorian Theatre at Alexandra Palace - Credit: Archant

Alexandra Palace’s historic Victorian theatre has awoken from an 80 year sleep following a multi-million pound renovation.

When it was built in 1875, the 3,000 seat playhouse boasted cutting edge machinery that was able to fire performers into the air or stage spectacular scene changes.

Used as the hospital wing of an internment camp during World War I, when the BBC moved into the Muswell Hill landmark in 1935, it fell into disuse as a prop store for Dad’s Army sets and Dr Who Daleks.

Now thanks to an £18.8 million heritage lottery grant, plus £6.9 million from Haringey Council and £1 million donations from supporters the Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust (APPCT) has reopened the refurbished theatre and East Court.

Louise Stewart in the renovated East Court

Louise Stewart in the renovated East Court - Credit: Archant

Chief Executive Louise Stewart said the three-year restoration project had been “a challenging journey.”

“The building fought us every step of the way,” she said.

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“Every time we peeled back a layer of the onion we came across the unforseen technical problems that you often find in an historic building that has had limited investment over the years.

“The project has been six or seven years in the making and construction has taken three years. Now people from London and beyond will be able to explore this incredible space that has been hidden for years.”

To mark the occasion, the palace hosted a weekend of free events and celebrations with performances by the BBC Concert Orcestra, BBC Singers and the Haringey Music Service choirs. The Christmas Carnival continues into December with fairground rides, performances, a Christmas market, Santa’s Grotto, a Pantomime on the ice rink and a run of Horrible Christmas in the theatre.

“It’s a great opportunity to celebrate the hard work that has gone into completing this immense project,” added Ms Stewart.

The semi-derelict East Court - which once housed a Victorian Cabinet of Curiosity - has also been brought back to life with a temporary cafe and exhibition celebrating the Palace’s illustrious history of staging popular entertainment - from Wild West Shows, to a 60s ‘Technicolour dream’ festival.

“It covers 150 years of leisure and recreation telling fantastic stories from people leaping out of hot air balloons to sledges on rollercoasters,” says Ms Stewart.

“The East Court was in poor condition and we’ve treid to make it welcoming for a modern audience. When Phase II completes in 2019, it will be a place to meet friends in the cafe, to stage a series of exhibitions about our story and heritage, and house a creative learning pavilion welcoming people of all ages and backgrounds.”

Although the theatre boasts a large bar, modern toilets and a trimmed down auditorium able to seat 900 or 1,300 standing, the style of restoration by Feilden Clegg Bradley architects is known as “arrested decay”.

“It’s intentional, it’s not because we didn’t have enough money to finish it off!” says Ms Stewart.

“It’s a beautiful heritage space with a very special atmopshere. The design aims to preserve as much of the feel of the theatre while putting in heating, lighting and sound fit for a modern event space. Some may wonder where all the money has gone, but a lot has gone on things you can’t see.”

Works have included pinning up the ceiling with a steel frame and flattenning the raked floor.

For 50 years the theatre staged elaborate operas, ballets, pantomimes, amateur dramatics, and was leased by the husband of Gracie Fields as a testing ground for her popular stage shows. But its size, location and unwieldy sight lines made it commercially unviable and by the 1930s it was operating as a cinema. When the BBC moved in to start the World’s first regular public television service, it was used as a prop and set store, with a later proposal to tear it down and build a TV studio.

The cutting edge stage machinery which once flew Aladdin’s carpet or staged the legendary “Harlequinade” which saw the set and performers make a spectacular two minute quick change, is still in situ, although sadly no longer working.

Ms Stewart pledged to keep the programme “as broad as possible” from Jazz and comedy to a co-production of Shakespeare’s Richard III and corporate events.

“The theatre have always been about unashamedly popular entertainment. That’s why the Palace was built, so we will continue the tradition with a very diverse offer for a broad audience.”