This place is just amazing and steeped in history as you might expect. The music hall was built in the back yard of five terrace houses that date from 1720. A pub from 1828 (Prince of Denmark), The Music Hall itself dates from 1859 when top acts from Covent Garden would run across town to perform on John Wilton’s stage in a hall that would hold up to 1,500 people. It wasn’t a music hall for long and variously became a Mission, a safe house for East Enders protesting against Mosley and Fascism at the 1936 Battle of Cable Street and a shelter during World War II for those made homeless by the Blitz bombing. Saved from demolition in the 1960s by Sir John Betjemen, the hall once again sees live entertainment performed in a truly original setting.
The Music Hall itself feels alive with the history and totally original only missing perhaps the original ‘sun burner’ chandelier of 300 gas gets and 27,000 cut crystals that has now gone but which must have been a sight in its day. On stage meanwhile, George Leybourne known as Champagne Charlie performed, dressed in top hat and tails, gloves, cane and scarf waving a bottle of vintage Moet & Chandon, swigging from the bottle as he sang. Here too it is reputed that the first ever can-can was performed in London. Roll forward and Hollywood’s in town as the Music Hall plays host to Robert Downey Jr’s Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream.
Don’t expect though to find the place pristine – it reminded me of Cuba’s Havana: beautiful decay. Sadly this has been a much neglected building but in part, here lies the charm. The layers of history are seen in the peeling paint work and the original but historically neglected ornamentation. If most theatres invite you to ‘think when we talk of horses that you see them’, Wilton’s, through its being, turns this on its head and invites you to think of the performers and the crowds; here the story is the Hall, everything else is secondary.
While in 2007 the building was placed on the World Monuments Fund ‘100 most endangered sites’, things are improving and the Hall is slowly on the way to recovery as the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust move towards their fund raising target and the necessary repairs to restore this gem to a more enduring condition. Two things then that each of us needs to do: first, go there, it’s good for the soul and really has a wow factor for this is truly a hidden gem. Second, spend some money, have a drink and know that the ‘margin’ is keeping the place alive; perhaps even take in one of their shows, concerts or other events (they have live music in the bar every Monday).
In the world of the generic, this is truly a one off and a complete find. We’re delighted to call ourselves Wilton’s Music Hall’s newest friends. We hope to see you there.
The bar is open Mon-Fri, 5-11pm. A lunchtime service will also be available during August on Thurs/Fri, 12-3pm.
Find out more at www.wiltons.org.uk/