History in the making as curtain goes up on magic of East End music hall

Celebrities are spearheading a campaign to refurbish a London auditorium that was once 'the handsomest room in town'. Photographs: David Rose. Report: Louise Jury
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The Independent Online
SUPPORTERS of the world's oldest surviving music hall are asking for pounds 6m of National Lottery money to restore the building to its former glory.

The London Music Hall Trust, whose backers include Jane Asher, Roy Hudd and Spike Milligan, hopes to raise the funds for the Wilton's Music Hall in the East End of London.

The theatre was largely unknown except among film and television location managers until earlier this year when the actress Fiona Shaw took to its stage. The theatre director Deborah Warner saw the stage and decided it would be ideal for Shaw in a presentation of TS Eliot's The Waste Land.

The performances, the first open to the public for more than a century, drew 15,000 people to the theatre.

The trust now hopes to capitalise on that success, applying for money to pay for renovation work which has been planned for more than 30 years.

Brian Daubney, the co- ordinator, said trust members were still working out exactly how much money was needed. Estimates vary between pounds 5m and pounds 6m.

Once the building was returned to the grandeur of its opening in 1858, the aim would be to run it as an educational foundation to teach people about music hall and Victorian life. "You can learn more about Victorian society from music hall than from almost any other source," Mr Daubney said.

A string of entertainers have been involved in previous efforts to get a restoration project off the ground. Sir John Betjeman, the poet laureate, was recruited to lead a campaign to save the building when it was on the point of demolition in 1964.

Since then, Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan have all discussed rescue plans, but to no avail. Emergency works costing around pounds 1m have kept the hall intact.

However, a string of film and television crews have used it as a set, including Lord Attenborough for Chaplin and Ken Russell, who filmed Vanessa Redgrave as Isadora Duncan on its stage.

The building is 40ft high and 60ft long with a high stage designed to be clearly visible over the heads of the crowds crammed into the downstairs auditorium.

But few of its East End neighbours knew it was there when the London Music Hall Trust leafleted them about its work.

The hall lies just a few hundred yards from the Tower of London, near Cable Street, scene of the notorious battles between Jews and Mosley's Fascists in the Thirties.

It was built by a publican, John Wilton, alongside his pub, known as the Mahogany Bar, and was renowned in its heyday as the "handsomest room in town". But it closed at the beginning of the 1880s when it was unable to comply with new fire regulations.

"People walk into this place and faint with sheer amazement at the impact of it," Mr Daubney said.