Written by: Michael Darvell
Situated in Grace’s Alley off Wellclose Square and Cable Street in the East End London borough of Tower Hamlets, Wilton’s opened as a music hall in 1859. From 1828 the building was known as the Prince of Denmark public house, the first to have mahogany counters and other fittings installed in its bars. In the 1840s a concert room was added and the name was changed to the Albion Saloon. When John Wilton took over ownership in around 1850 he rebuilt the concert space (and acquired the adjoining buildings) which he then converted into the Music Hall. He also added supper rooms to complete his patrons’ entertainment.
Wilton’s Music Hall was a great success and all the famous variety artists of the day appeared there. The building suffered a fire in 1877 but was rebuilt the following year and re-opened as Frederick’s Royal Palace of Varieties. John Wilton died in 1880. Wilton’s Music Hall was later used for many other purposes. In 1888 it became a mission hall and later still was used as a rag sorting depot. It fell into disrepair and was abandoned for years. In 1964 Sir John Betjeman campaigned for it to be saved from demolition and two years later the Greater London Council bought it and it was transferred to the Music Hall Trust.
It came back to life in 1999 when Broomhill Opera took it over for performances of Britten and Weill. It is currently being used as a theatre venue for all sorts of amusements. The Union Theatre transferred its all-male productions of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe and The Pirates of Penzance to Wilton’s – and to great success. Racine’s Britannicus has just finished a season there, Michael Winner has been giving his one-man show, and the Kreutzer Quartet will be performing on 27 November and 7 December. Adam Ant is there on 29 November, Sian Phillips and John Standing present their cabaret evenings just before Christmas, and during February The King’s Consort gives a concert and a new opera, Dream Hunter. There is also Wilton’s Ping Pong Tournament, a Cinema Club and tours of the building every Monday.
A huge amount of renovation work and repairs have been undertaken to make Wilton’s – the oldest Music Hall building in the world – secure and safe. To completely return the edifice to its former glory, more refurbishing needs to be done. The Theatres Trust has given Grade II listed status and Wilton’s featured in the first series of BBC Television’s Restoration programmes. Sadly it was not an outright winner. Encouraged to apply for a Lottery grant (of over two-million Pounds) earlier this year, Wilton’s application was turned down, so it must now rely on seeking more finances to stay open.
On Sunday 4 December the Players’ Theatre Club will present a fundraising show at and for Wilton’s, which is a fitting given the Players’ particular brand of Music Hall, founded in 1936 by Leonard Sachs (Chairman for many years of BBC Television’s The Good Old Days) and Peter Ridgeway. During World War Two the company had to perform in Albemarle Street before Sachs moved the shows to a site underneath the arches in Villiers Street, Charing Cross where it remained until recently. It has re-opened a few doors away, although it is no longer called the Players’ Theatre. Many famous names graced the Players’ boards – Peter Ustinov, Hattie Jacques, Patricia Hayes, Megs Jenkins, Jean Anderson, Maggie Smith, Bernard Miles, Ian Carmichael, Bill Owen, Clive Dunn and Alec Clunes (father of Martin Clunes). In 1954, Sandy Wilson wrote The Boy Friend for the Players’ Theatre. It was an instant hit and made a star out of Julie Andrews in the New York production.
Nowadays the Players perform at Leicester Square Theatre. On Sunday 20 November there is a celebration of seventy-five years of the Players with songs, dance, magic and musical monologues made famous in the heyday of Music Hall, when performers such as Marie Lloyd, Florrie Ford and Dan Leno were on the bills. The Players always raise a toast to Her Great and Glorious Majesty (Queen Victoria, of course!). The 75th-Anniversary Extravaganza includes Jan Hunt, Julia Sutton, Sheila Matthews, Jane Webster, Judith Hibbert, Loraine Hart, Ellie Bamber, Peter John and Ben Stock, all familiar Players’ performers. Guests include June Whitfield and Barry Cryer (a past Players’ chairman).
- Players’ Theatre Club 75th-Anniversary Extravaganza is on Sunday 20 November at 6.30 p.m. at Leicester Square Theatre, London EC2
- Tickets 0844 873 3433
- Leicester Square Theatre
- Players’ Spectacular Music Hall fundraising show for Wilton’s is on Sunday 4 December at 6.30 p.m. at Wilton’s Music Hall, Grace’s Alley, London E1
- Tickets 020 7702 2789
- Wilton’s Music Hall
- To become a Wilton’s Friend or Patron please telephone 020 702 9555 or email email@example.com