Victoria Palace Theatre

London, UK

In 1910, Alfred Butt – theatre owner, manager, and impresario – bought and demolished the Royal Standard Music Hall to build Victoria Palace Theatre on the site.

Designed by renowned theatre architect, Frank Matcham, Victoria Palace cost £12,000 to build. The best-known variety stars of the day including Harry Lauder, Little Tich, and Vesta Tilley, performed there in the early years. And among the theatre’s century-long list of successful productions, Elton John and Lee Hall’s ‘Billy Elliot’ opened in March 2005 to great acclaim. It played for 11 years, prompting critic, Charles Spencer, to describe it as “The greatest British musical I have seen”.

Delfont Mackintosh bought the 1550-seat theatre in 2014, initiating a magnificent refurbishment project aimed at restoring the timeworn theatre to its former glory. The theatre group appointed Buro Happold to take care of the building services for this constrained site (it’s surrounded by a large residential development). Our multidisciplinary team worked closely with client and architects, Aedas, exploring contemporary and empathetic solutions to complement the Grade II listed building.

Challenge

Our three main challenges were, first: to maximise the fly tower (enables stage crew to ‘fly’, or hoist, lighting, scenery, stage effects, and people) and expand the shallow stage design which was too limited for many of the current, high-profile shows. Second: to upgrade facilities and building services to accommodate more up-to-date theatre technology, and improve environmental conditions throughout the building. Third: to renovate the heating, ventilation, and cooling systems to ensure a consistent and comfortable temperature throughout the building. The upper circle crowd could be sweltering in 28oC heat while, at the same time, audience members in the stalls were cooling their heels in temperatures as low as 19oC. The team showed the theatre group several technical design options and Sketch-Up models, to simplify their search for the best-matched solution.

A common challenge for practices tackling the refurbishment of a listed building are issues that, typically, only surface once work has started. The worry then is how to get the necessary changes reviewed and agreed quickly enough to avoid any negative effect on the refurb programme.

Another day-to-day problem was that Victoria Street is a Red Route and Victoria train station is close-by. So deliveries had to be coordinated with several main contractors working on the VSU (Victoria Station Upgrade) and the new LandSec Nova Scheme development.

Interior lighting Victoria Palace Theatre
The ornate ceiling of the magnificently refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre viewed from the front stalls. Image: Buro Happold

Solution

Staging regular site-based workshops and mock-ups helped the team reduce the number of defects and abortive works. Also, MEP-specific design and co-ordination meetings (which included the client’s technical team) allowed us to contribute design details and get a feel for the way the building was originally designed to be serviced.

Programme constraints meant that a new, larger fly tower was constructed around the existing one, so the existing tower could be demolished and the new one used without the need for expensive and time-consuming construction work.

The construction deadline was tight. So, to meet the opening date for the theatre’s new production, ‘Hamilton’, the building had to be handed over in seven phases. Buro Happold, the client, contractor, and Building Control Officer, had to make sure everyone understood the systems, the building, and life-safety functionality for each phase.

Noise break-in and break-out were critical issues for the client, production team, and Building Control. Together with the architect and the acoustics team, we were able to position the air-handing plant at roof level for ease of installation and replacement. Acoustic mountings and attenuators, as well as duct routes and building penetrations, were all extensively planned and reviewed to ensure code standards were met. Fire compartmentation was complicated given the listed nature of the building.

Buro Happold worked alongside UK Power Networks (UKPN) to ensure all requirements were completed on time to enable ‘power on’. M&E services (including the UKPN interface) needed to be closely monitored to ensure the power and theatre systems were not interrupted when shows went live. The theatre is located within a large Landsec development and was not watertight at the point power was required. This presented a number of issues that had to be worked through and resolved with both UKPN and the contractor.

Interior view of stage Victoria Palace Theatre
Before the heating system was refurbished, auditorium temperatures could vary between 19°C – 28°C, depending on where you were sitting. Image: Buro Happold

Value

This major refurbishment will improve audience comfort, and working conditions for staff and performers, guaranteeing everyone a first-rate experience of SRO performances at this historic venue. The building and its systems are flexible and adaptable enough to handle anything a future production could possibly need.

Following the successful reopening of the theatre and the enthusiastic launch of Hamilton, Buro Happold has been appointed to work with Delfont Mackintosh Theatres again, this time carrying out post-completion alterations and adaptions. The project includes a number of items omitted from the original construction programme due to time and budget restrictions.

Ornate ceilings of Victoria Palace Theatre

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