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140 years Entertaining Eastbourne

 by Harry Pope

Monthly ghost tours include the Upper Circle.

 

The Royal Hippodrome is one of the most haunted theatres in the South of England.

2nd August 2023 saw the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, on Eastbourne’s south coast, celebrate its 140th birthday. It’s not in a fashionable location, being in the artisan area of town, but still gathers very large audiences for the majority of its productions, especially those involving local community projects.

First, let me take you back to the early days, remember that poor people came to the theatre as well as refined ones, and that the poor people when out enjoying themselves usually partake great amounts of alcohol. The very top balcony of the theatre in Victorian times was known as the Upper Circle, with steeply tiered seats.

When finishing their food or booze, they would throw unwanted items over the balcony onto the patrons below.

The middle level is known as the Dress Circle. That is where the posh people sit. They don’t want detritus to rain down on them from the unwashed above. Therefore, the top balcony should not overlap the middle one.

The rubbish lands on those in the stalls. They are also poor people. They don’t matter.

The Victorians had some great theatre designers, and one of the best was Charles John Phipps.

Originally from Bath, where he re-built the Theatre Royal in 1862, he was a well established theatre designer by the time that he accepted the commission to build the Theatre Royal and Opera House, Eastbourne in 1883.

sight line from the stage

 

The theatre was designed to seat 1,500 patrons, more in the stalls than anywhere else. The first three rows closest to the stage were individual seats, the rest benches. Four boxes were designed on two levels alongside the stage, with room for a total of thirty seats.

The first opening week was a serious variety show, with performers varying from recitals to monologues. The second week had the d’Oyly Carte Opera Company from London.

Initially gas lit, the theatre must have been horrible on opening night 2nd August 1883. Everyone in their finery, sweltering hot, maybe body odours, certainly sweating in the enclosed sell-out theatre.

Fire was a worry, so the theatre was designed with prevention uppermost. Concrete stairs, fire-resistant materials in the foyer and construction, it was far ahead of its time.

The stage itself is a strange one, with a strong slope from back to front. The 2014 Summer show had a magician, and first night his trolley full of props slid forward perilously close to the front row when he failed to secure the wheels properly. Lots of shouting, and he learned very quickly.

At the top of the flies, 42 metres drop to the stage, is an area for the strong hearted. This is where the scenery is lowered from, and no computers here. Most theatres have been converted, but not the Royal Hippodrome. This still has the principal of rope/hemp, physically lowered. Originally manned by sailors without a ship, suspended from the high ceiling there are still rings, so the operators when bored can maintain fitness by swinging. There is a bar across the stage, lowered when the scenery is changed, and the rope has a fail/safe stop so it doesn’t come crashing down. Simple but effective.

Dress Circle layout hasn’t altered since 1883

Stand on the stage and the sight line is superb. You can see every single seat in the whole of the theatre, and it is possible to see a patron in the back row nodding off if the performance is not up to standard.

The acoustics match the sight line. Stand on the stage, talk in a normal conversational tone, and the top of the Upper Circle can hear every word. Old style performers love coming to the Hippodrome for these two main reasons.

Intimacy with the audience is great, interaction is easy, the theatre management are accommodating, and it is an old fashioned traditional theatre. The volunteer ushers show patrons to their seats, interval drinks and ice cream are reasonably priced, and you leave feeling really good having enjoyed a great night out at the theatre.

some visitors on stage during a guided walk around the theatre