The vision for the most important unused theatre in the UK
Hippodrome proscenium

The future: a major theatre


The CIC's proposal

¶ This is about having a vision for Brighton & Hove,
      —about restoring one of the most important theatres in the country for its true purpose and not just an easier option that will diminish its significance;
      —about offering something that will provide for the cultural benefit and wellbeing of residents, while also attracting visitors,
      —about extending beyond the more passive entertainment value of the theatre to engage with and stimulate creativity in the community.

¶ Footfall in Middle Street is very light. The area needs an anchor destination to attract not just local residents but visitors to the city. The best option is a large-scale theatre. Brighton has had eight such theatres, each seating over 1,000. Now there is only one—and it's been closed for a generation or two. (The Theatre Royal seats realistically around 750.) The Hippodrome is the last chance to revive one.

The Hippodrome was one of the most famous and successful variety theatres in the country from 1902 until the market started to change, leading towards its closure in 1964. Indeed, if the insertions for the bingo hall from 1967 to 2006 are removed, the building is still intact as just such a venue. It only needs to be tidied up and modernised to become one again.
¶ Since 2015 Brighton Hippodrome CIC has developed and revised a business plan to revive the Hippodrome as a large-scale (lyric) theatre. As well as designs prepared for us by leading specialist theatre architects Foster Wilson Size, we have commissioned independent viability surveys and costings for restoration and have prepared a detailed business plan which shows that the project would be sustainable for the first seven years.
¶ Developed in collaboration with the Theatres Trust—the Hippodrome is #1 on its Theatres at Risk register—and in consultation with Historic England, the plans have been shared with officers and elected members of Brighton & Hove City Council (BHCC) and received a largely positive welcome from BHCC's planning department when submitted for official pre-application assessment.

¶ For any type of re-use—including the current owner's proposed bars and food hall—the current building requires extensive and expensive restoration, especially of the elaborate fibrous plasterwork in the auditorium. Without that no one would be allowed into the most important space on the site.

¶ To help sustain the restoration, the CIC has worked with a development partner. While restoring the whole of the theatre building, the plan is to build 'enabling' development on the rest of the site: above the yard, retaining street-level access to the rear of the building, and in the upper part of Hippodrome House. This will provide some of the funding to pay for the restoration.

This is some of the documentation prepared by Brighton Hippodrome CIC to present a thorough business case for theatre restoration. It has been reviewed by successful theatre operators and thoroughly assessed by Brighton and Hove City Council planners and Historic England.

Business plan 2021
All aspects of the restoration, operational management and impact of the theatre on the local culture and economy have been collated to present the solid business case for a theatre.

Heritage statement
The history of the Hippodrome from the 1780s to the present is told in more detail than ever before.

Community engagement
The CIC is a cmmunity interest company and evolved from a community campaign that shows the overwhelming public support for a theatre.

Key questions

1 Is it viable?
2 Is it sustainable?
3 What will it do for the local economy?
4 Will it attract tourists to Brighton?
5 Will it add to the cultural infrastructure of the city?
6 Will it lead the regeneration of the Old Town?
7 Does this option have popular support?

1: Viability
Two independent reports in 2015 and 2019 confirm that a large-scale theatre would be viable on a purely commercial basis, operating wthout subsidy.
      Restoration, however, will require subsidy and unless anyone undertaking the work has very deep pockets, this will apply whatever use is planned for the building. For successive owners it has proved difficult to achieve an adequate return on investment, given the cost of repairing and restoring the building to an acceptable standard. The CIC continues to work on a strategy to fund the so-called conservation deficit.

2: Sustainability
The CIC's business plan is based on a seven-year period, for which a quarterly cashflow projection has been compiled, taking into detailed account the operational income and expenditure of a theatre with a seating capacity of between 1,250 and 1,500. This is reckoned in the theatre industry to be the audience size (assuming an average two-thirds seat occupancy) that generates sufficient revenue to ensure commercial sustainability.
      The cashflow projection shows a surplus for each of the seven years, cumulating towards a healthy balance that would cover unforeseen financial setbacks.
      A theatre is only as good as the productions it stages. The business plan is based on a programme as a number one receiving house for major touring shows from the West End and producing theatres around the country, and opera and dance productions from Britain and around the world, especially those during the Brighton Festival. Many of these are currently unable to visit Brighton for lack of a theatre of adequate size and audience capacity to justify the visit.
      Part of the vision is to become a producing house. This will includes a return to a summer season of revivals of pupular musicals (for the tourist trade), pantomime (for the Christmas and New Year period) and partnerships with other theatres around the country.

3: The local economy
The business plan shows that the theatre would initially create at least 60 new jobs, rising quickly to 100 or more. Additionally, the trade generated elsewhere in the city by the growth in the economy would add between 100 and 175 more jobs, generating around £4.25m for people's earnings.
      Performers and crews visiting the Hippodrome with a show every week in the year need somewhere to stay, places to eat and drink. For major opera, ballet and dance companies—on-stage performers, musicians, technical crew, support staff (costumes, wigs, physio, trainers, stage managers), etc—this can amount to as many as 150 people. The city has forgotten about activity on this scale.
      According to LiveAnalytics/Ticketmaster, for every £1 spent on theatre tickets, audiences spend an average of £3 on other goods and services.
      For the economically-minded, Gross Value Added (GVA) of £4.2m-£7.7m would be generated by the theatre, equivalent to 10 per cent of the entire GVA doe the city's cultural economy. Arts Council England reports that for every £1 of GVA generated by the arts and culture industry, an extra £1.30 of GVA is generated in the wider economy. The implication from comparing these ratios is that theatre outperforms the average for the cultural sector.

4: Tourist economy
Theatres, concert halls, museums and art galleries are destination venues, as are piers and the seafront in coastal resorts. The events programme for concerts and theatre productions are more widely promoted than within the locality and bring visitors to the city. Shows can be and are included in tourist packages internationally, as well as within the country.
      For Brighton and Hove as a tourist destination, 43 per cent of theatregoers spend an average of £42 a head on accommodation, benefiting the hospitality sector.
      11% of visitors to Brighton included a show, gig or theatre in their visit (2014). Their average spending on entertainment was £59.40 (domestic), £70.00 (overseas).

5: Cultural infrastructure
Brighton and Hove does not have a major (1,000+ seat) theatre and, unless the Hippodrome is restored as one, it is unlikely ever to do so again. The venues listed in the box are important elements of the city's arts scene but none matches the potential impact of the Hippodrome.
      City council policy, expressed in several key documents, explicitly encourages the preservation of the Hippodrome and implicitly its restoration as a theatre.

6: Old Town regeneration
Any restoration and re-opening of the Hippodrome will have a beneficial effect on the streetscape of Middle Street. The 80m-long frontage has been a serious eyesore for far too long.
      For optimum impact, however, the Hippodrome needs to have a magnetic attraction to bring people—especially visitors to the city—into the area, something to stimulate other economic activity, extending the appeal of The Lanes southward and westward. A unique theatre is the obvious solution.

7: Popular support
When conversion of the Hippodrome into an eight-screen cinema multiplex was threatened, petitions to the council urging its retention as a theatre attracted over 20,500 signatures. (This is almost four times the number that signed to save the West Pier.) That number included not only enthusiastic local residents but many well-known names from the arts, culture and entertainment sector.

So what's the problem?

Ownership and money.
      The Hippodrome now has its fourth owner since we started to work on the project for theatre restoration. With our development partner, the CIC twice negotiated to buy the freehold of the Hippodrome. On both occasions it was sold to another contender, each unknown to us at the time. Incidentally, each time the price has gone down: the asking price facing us in 2015 was £2.4m, Matsim bought it five years later for £1.82m—a fall of 25 per cent in five years.
      It is likely that the difficulties and cost of restoring a protected Grade II* building, whether as a theatre or not, were not appreciated by new owners. The current owner, Matsim Properties, has carried out some important repairs but still has to face the issues of cost, delays and complexity of the work needed to bring the building back into use.
      The CIC has shared its business plan with Matsim and, as a not-for-profit body, has offered to help raise the funds from public and charitable soruces that are not available to commercial developers. The offer has been rejected in favour of a second- or third-best option but remains open.
      All the country's major theatre operators would love to run the restored theatre and appreciate the potential for success. As others keep discovering, for them a return on investment on a purely commercial basis is vanishingly difficult.

Venues that stage theatrical productions
Seating capacity is shown in brackets

Theatre Royal, New Road (960 but 750 with unrestricted sightlines)
Brighton Open Air Theatre, Dyke Road Park (425)
Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex (300-350)
Studio Theatre, New Road (232)
The Rialto, Dyke Road (70-90)
New Venture Theatre, Bedford Place (80)
Brighton Little Theatre, Clarence Gardens (71)

These are small and may be used only occasionally for theatre, notably during the Fringe, usually available for hire. The Old Courtroom (152)
The Basement, Kensington Street (150)
Marlborough Pub & Theatre, Prince's Street (60)
Purple Playhouse, Montefiore Road (60)
Sweet Werks, Middle Street (50)
. . . plus various churches, church halls and community centres

‘An investment in culture is an investment in our high streets. Theatres, music venues, museums and libraries are the beating hearts of their communities. They’re central to the social fabric and civic pride of towns across England. As well as events and performances for audiences of all ages, they provide a raft of local amenities from bars to bookshops, helping to bring our high streets alive, providing jobs and boosting the economy.’
—Darren Henley, Arts Council England chief executive, September 2020

Comments on the CIC's business plan

Naturally I’m excited by your vision, and hope that it comes to fruition. The theatre’s the right size, in the right place, large enough to transform the surrounding economy and local enough to support many other arts organisations. And I love Brighton.
Peter Wilson, former CEO, Theatre Royal, Norwich

With a population of just over 250,000 in Southampton the [Mayflower] theatre relies on audiences within an hour of the City and has established a reputation for presenting a bold and varied programme which includes large scale musicals, opera and drama alongside dance, comedy, light entertainment and productions suitable for young people.
      It appears that Brighton Hippodrome could develop a similar programme which could become self-funding and offer the people in the area a wider option of touring productions. At Mayflower Theatre community engagement is a key part of the audience development strategy.
      Culture and creativity are a key driver in a local economy and Brighton Hippodrome could have the same impact as Mayflower Theatre has which sees over £70m being contributed to the local economy.
Michael Ockwell, Chief executive, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

Regeneration of the Old Town

Middle Street now
Middle Street in 1960 with theatregoers thronging to book for the summer season show and nearby shops benefitting from the footfall.

Middle Street now
Middle Street today is a rather desolate sight, with few pedestrians and no passing trade.

Image: The glow of the Hippodrome's proscenium arch, as designed by Frank Matcham in 1901, surrounds a major stage production (artist's impression so far!)

Page updated 24 August 2021