28 November 2018

Victoria Palace and the
legacy of Frank Matcham,
a prolific theatre architect

Victoria Palace … designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Victoria Palace is close to Victoria Station, Westminster Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, but it is neither Victorian nor a palace. This is a West End theatre known for its many long-running stage productions, but also with an interesting architectural history that links it with theatres throughout these islands, including theatres in Dublin and Belfast.

The Victoria Palace Theatre began life as a small concert room above the stables of the Royal Standard Hotel, a small hotel and tavern built in 1832 on the site. By 1850 it was known as Moy’s Music Hall, and in 1863 it became the Royal Standard Music Hall.

Victoria Station and the new Grosvenor Hotel transformed the area into a major transport hub, and the theatre was rebuilt along more ambitious lines in 1886, keeping the name of the Royal Standard Music Hall.

The Royal Standard was demolished in 1910, and in its place the Victoria Palace was built as a new theatre at a cost of £12,000. The Victoria Palace was designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) for the variety magnate Alfred Butt, and opened on 6 November 1911.

Sir Alfred Butt (1878-1962) was one of the great variety magnates of the early 20th century. He made the Cambridge Circus, Shoreditch, one of the most successful theatres of its time, introducing novel and lavish entertainments and foreign performers, including Anna Pavlova. He was also involved in several West End theatres, including the Globe and the Adelphi, and built two theatres, the Glasgow Alhambra (1907) and the Victoria Palace, London.

There was a massive boom in theatre building in these islands between 1880 and 1914 with the rise in popularity of variety theatres. They continued the music hall tradition after many of the older music halls had been closed down or demolished. They provided family entertainment in comfortable, fully-seated accommodation, they were opulently decorated, and there was no drinking in the auditorium.

But the boom came to an end in the 1920s in the face of competition from movies and cinemas, and in the interwar period, many of the theatres designed in Matcham’s practice became cinemas.

The Victoria Palace belongs to the very end of this boom period, and was London’s last great variety house. The theatre opened on 6 November 1911 with a variety bill, and all the famous music-hall names of the period appeared here.

Because of its past links with music halls, the early plays staged at the Victoria Palace were not taken seriously. For example, in 1934, the theatre presented Young England, a patriotic play by the Revd Walter Reynolds, who was then 83. It received such amusingly bad reviews that it became a cult hit and played to full houses. It was regarded as an uproarious comedy, and audiences learned the key lines and joined the choicest moments. The scout-mistress rarely said the line ‘I must go and attend to my girls’ water’ without at least 50 voices in good-humoured support.

The first big success was Me and My Girl. Songs from this show formed the first live broadcast of a performance by the BBC in 1939, and listeners could sing along to The Lambeth Walk. From 1947 to 1962, Jack Hylton produced The Crazy Gang series of comedy revues, and the long-running Black and White Minstrel Show played through the 1960s until 1972.

Other long-running shows at the Victoria Palace included Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story from 1989, and Billy Elliot the Musical from 2005 to 2016. The Broadway musical Hamilton has been playing since December 2017.

The Victoria Palace, designed in the baroque style, has a deep frontage block three bays wide and three bays deep, four storeys high, with a basement and concealed attic. The bay at the very centre of the block was originally three storeys, with a lantern and lightwell above, but these are now floored over.

Interesting features include an open loggia with Ionic columns on the third floor and flanking pilasters with cartouches. The parapet has two over-life-size female figures and urns on each corner.

A crowning octagonal Ionic cupola in the style of Christopher Wren had a gilded figure of the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (1899-1931). This was taken down in 1940 for safe keeping but was lost during World War II, and has since been replaced with a replica.

The deep frontage gave Matcham scope for larger foyer spaces than were usual, and the Victoria Palace resembles at least two other contemporary theatres, Matcham’s London Palladium (1910) and Massey and Young’s Wimbledon Theatre, (1910), with a planned suite of public rooms rather than a single first-floor bar. At no other theatre was there such an array of public spaces, each designed in a different style, encompassing the Baroque, Adamesque neo-classicism, neo-Tudor, with touches of Art Nouveau.

The boom in theatres produced a number of specialist theatre architects, among whom Frank Matcham was outstanding and the most prolific. During his 40-year career, he designed or remodelled at least 120 theatres, and undertook alterations and improvements to many others.

The Victoria Palace was his last major commission and one of his finest later works. He is best known for his work in London, under Moss Empires, including the Hippodrome (1900), Hackney Empire (1901), London Coliseum (1903), London Palladium (1910) and the Victoria Palace (1911). Indeed, the English playwright Alan Bennett says there was a Matcham theatre in every corner of the UK.

Matcham was born in Newton Abbot, Devon, in 1854 and was apprenticed at the age of 14 to the architect George Sondon Bridgeman. He moved to London when he was 21, and joined the architectural practice of JT Robinson, who was later to become his father-in-law. Under Robinson, Matcham completed his first solo design, the Elephant and Castle theatre, which opened in June 1879. He took over Robinson’s business when he died and continued the designs of provincial theatres.

Matcham formed his own practice, Matcham & Co in the 1880s and used skilled craftsman in all of his projects. His first major association came in the 1880s when he was employed to design and refurbish theatres belonging to the Revill family who owned many of the Victorian theatres throughout these islands.

The date Matcham & Co was established is unclear, but it probably dates from the time when Matcham established an office in Belfast in 1884 after the success of the Paragon Theatre in Mile End.

He is associated with three theatres in Ireland too. In 1883, he designed the parterre and grand circle bars in an extension to the Gaiety Theatre in South King Street, Dublin. In 1894, the designed the Grand Opera House in Great Victoria Street, Belfast, for JF Warden, and in 1896-1897, he designed the conversion of the Leinster Hall in Hawkins Street, Dublin, into the Theatre Royal for Fred Mouillot and H Morrel. The Theatre Royal opened in Dublin on 13 December 1897.

Matcham worked extensively for Moss Empires from 1892 to 1912, and his designs in this period included the Tower Ballroom at Blackpool Tower, the Grand Theatre in Blackpool (both 1894), and the County Arcade, Leeds (1900).

When Matcham retired after building the Victoria Palace, he moved from the family home, Rathgar, in Dollis Avenue, Finchley, to Southend-on-Sea in Essex. He died there on 18 May 1920. His funeral took place in Saint Paul’s Church, Finchley, and he was buried in the family vault in Highgate Cemetery. Sir Alfred Butt, writing in The Era, said: ‘Frank Matcham lived for his work, and unquestionably was preeminent as a theatrical and music hall architect.’

Matcham’s Theatre Royal in Dublin was rebuilt in 1934-1935, and finally closed its doors in 1962. The building was later demolished and replaced by a 12-storey office block, Hawkins House, that became the headquarters of the Department of Health but is now vacant.

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