Thursday 12 June 2014

Review: Wilton's Music Hall, London

The Secret Victorianist at Wilton's
Wilton’s Music Hall is a relic of London’s Victorian East End – a nineteenth-century music hall attached to an eighteenth-century terrace, which has functioned over the years as a venue for entertainment, drinking, prostitution, religious congregation and, er, rag storage.

Its heyday was in the 1860s when music hall – comedy, dance, song and dramatic tableau (all uncensored unlike full-length plays) – was all the rage in London but this is a relic which is also very much alive. While I joined one of Wilton’s regular historical tours, and enjoyed a cocktail in the Mahogany Bar, the great thing about the Hall is that its role as a performance venue continues, with a busy programme of dramatic and cultural events.

Wilton’s isn’t a museum. Throughout it feels definitively ‘lived in’. Adaptations to the Hall prior to its opening in 1859 and subsequent to a fire suffered in 1877, have given the building a somewhat haphazard air, with doors and windows leading nowhere and keeping the venue watertight a real challenge. Meanwhile the auditorium itself is decidedly shabby chic. You can still see the gilt of the barley twist pillars (which feature in many period dramas filmed here) and remnants of the older decorations, but the mirrored walls, bright paints and incredible gas-lit chandelier are all gone, while the original stage is covered for conservation reasons.

Wilton's Music Hall (Credit: James Perry)
This is not to say it’s not impressive. The auditorium is a tardis-like surprise, sandwiched as it is between narrow terraces, and the fairy lights strung up around it give a magical feel. The rowdiness of Champagne Charlie’s songs has been replaced by something which is much more serene but is absolutely still worth sampling.

As with most of Britain’s most fascinating buildings, Wilton’s survival has at times been perilous. It took the rallying of recent generations of actors, performers and poets to save it from demolition and work on the building has been slow. With recently secured National Lottery funding and ongoing renovation work to the terrace, Wilton’s attractiveness as a modern venue and historic attraction should only increase. The digitisation of its archive would also be invaluable for academics studying performance, local history or ephemera of the period.

The Mahogany Bar (Credit: James Perry)

But for now, for only £6, you can take a trip back in time on the tour, or alternatively head to Wilton’s for a drink or some great entertainment – two things this London stalwart has been providing for the best part of two centuries.

Do you know of any London sites you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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