Stuart Griffiths, chief executive of Birmingham Hippodrome, spreads the Gospel outside the theatre in Hurst Street along with rising dance star Katie O'Neill, a Walsall College Graduate

 BIRMINGHAM Hippodrome has launched its £1.13 million appeal for a new stage which will close the theatre for a month next year while the old stage is ripped out and a new one installed.

The stage was last refurbished in the early 1980s. Since then it has seen around 650 productions with the stage being used six days a week for some 50 weeks a year.

Even when the theatre is closed, and the stage is not being used for performance, productions are taking their sets and staging out on Sundays with new sets and staging being installed on Mondays.

It is not unusual for loads of up to four tonnes to sit on the stage during a show. Big shows need big stages  – Phantom of the Opera arrived in 26 artics!

According to The Hippodrome more than 10,000 performers and musicians along with 4,000 technicians and stage crew - they are the ones in shorts and boots festooned in gaffer tape - pass through the theatre each year. Front of stage, last year, there were 523,000 customers – a 10-year high which made it the most popular theatre in the country.

But now, after 30 years of wear and tear, the stage is coming to the end of its useful life. It is bowing, splitting, has become uneven and although no one is in real danger of going through it – yet – its deteriorating state has become a growing issue. Some areas are hard and solid, others soft and spongy, hardly ideal for the premier theatre outside London. 

The estimated cost is £1,137,000, including the cost of closing the theatre for a month, estimated because until the stage is ripped out no-one is quite sure what will be found (could we have a real phantom under there perhaps!!!!) and whether other work will need to be done.  

If possible the theatre would also like to deal with a stream running under – and sometimes through – the below stage area.

People often forget, or more likely don't realise, that The Hippodrome is not a commercial theatre, run by a company with shareholders, or partners with someone counting all the cash in a tax haven in the sun.

 It is a charitable trust, with no subsidies or fall back funding relying on ticket sales and donations - much in the same way, although on a vastly bigger scale, than most amateur dramatic companies.

So when it comes to the necessary replacement of the stage and other improvements on the other side of the footlights it has to raise the funding itself and £1.13 million is just beyond a few raffles and a 200 club.

The Hippodrome stage is approximately 68ft deep by 85ft wide, and with a height of 72ft to the grid – the bit that supports the flying bars – and a proscenium that is 42ft by 26ft, making it one of the largest outside London which allows it to attract major productions - bringing top shows to the city.

This includes shows such as Phantom, Les Miserables, Oliver and next summer's blockbuster Dirty Dancing – the last show before the stage is replaced. The shows need big theatres to produce the size of audience to make them viable and big stages to have the room to put the show on in the first place.

Apart from size the Hippodrome can also manage 81 flying bars – Birmingham Royal Ballet's Nutcracker uses all of them by the way, which makes it a very difficult show to tour – each capable of lifting half a small car, another factor which makes the theatre attractive for big productions.

The theatre is also of profound importance to Birmingham Royal Ballet, which is based at the Hippodrome, and also Welsh National Opera which has made the theatre its second home.

Both stage big productions at the theatre needing big stages and are rewarded with around £3 million a year income while the importance of the theatre to the region can be seen in that it generates about £45 million a year in the West Midlands.

Corporate sponsors and grant awarding bodies are being approached for financial help but a substantial sum will still need to be raised from the general public.

Every theatre is important to its own city and its own community but the Hippodrome goes beyond just Birmingham, it is important for the arts in the region providing a venue for major productions and for West End shows.

It also, along with DanceXchange, produces an International Dance Festival which after just two years has built up an international reputation as well as running the free six summer Saturdays events in Birmingham City Centre. 


The Hippodrome is asking for donations and anyone  wishing to make a contribution can telephone 0844 338 5000 or  text ‘BHIP12 £10' to 70070 (the amount in £s amount can be changed to any amount you wish). You can also donate online by clicking here.

For more details



Speaking of phantoms . . .  

Roger Clarke had a wander around under and over the stage just to see what all the fuss was about. 

NOW I must be honest and say the nearest I have ever been to ballet, apart from a rather lewd sketch in my student days last century (God, that makes me feel old) is about the third row.

I may be known for many things but ballet, or indeed dance of any description, apart from that ungainly shuffle which reluctant  husbands at  parties seem to be quite good at, will not be high up the list. Indeed my only real contribution to dance is to make John Sergeant and Anne Widdecombe look good. I suspect it all comes down to shape and talent, sadly I have too much of the former and too little of the latter.

But despite only just being able to tell my arabesque from my elbow I can see that when a ballet dancer leaps into the great unknown, or at least as high and gracefully as they can manage above the stage of The Hippodrome, it probably helps if they know that they will be landing on a floor which is vaguely at the same level, and feels about the same, as the bit they had taken off from.

Years of training and skills and talents should not have to worry about whether the landing will be on a hill or in a valley and upon ground that could be hard and solid, soft and saggy, or even springy - it is an added touch of excitement and spice to a performance that dancers can well do without.

Not that ballet or dance is the only art form to suffer from this particular stage fright.

Most productions arrive with their own stage, sometimes in rolls of vinyl to resemble plush carpets for example, or often in 8 x 4 sheets, which are all screwed on to the Hippo stage with four fixings at the corners and one at the centre.

Years and years of production after production with 8 x 4 sheets going into the same places week after week means that over time the various screw holes in the stage become progressively wider, worn and more slack so larger screws are used, then larger still and so on.

Productions might look spectacular but behind the scenes palaces, hotels, indeed whole cities are often held up by 2 x 4s bolted to the floor and for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the magic of a flying car was achieved by the rather less magical device of a one metre square hole cut in the stage to accommodate the lift.

It was repaired beautifully, smooth and level as a baby's bum, but rather like road repairs, time has taken its toll and it is now a pot hole, a sagging square to be avoided. If a diminutive ballerina was to land in there it might well need a cave rescue team to get her out.

So the stage is covered in screw holes, bolt holes and plain old filling in holes, as well as access panels for extra wiring which have covers which rock and move alarmingly when you walk on them.

The stage itself is a hotch-potch of planks, sheets and repairs and fill ins showing signs of endless patching and mending.

Theatre is all about illusion and the stage is no exception. From a distance it looks level, solid and flat. Close up, it is another story, a sorry tale which has almost reached its final page.

The stage, as with most theatres, is an expanse of black but that does not hide the visible sagging  between the joists and a general appearance of tiredness and resignation that its time has come, been and is now gone.

The new stage will not be all singing, all dancing, full of hydraulic lifts and turntables; it won't be able to be turned in to a lake or fountains – although the stream trickling beneath could obviously change that – nor will it have trap doors to shoot actors up from the depths below.

Nothing that special - we are talking basic here – big but still basic and providing what any actor, dancer or performer wants from a stage; something that is level, flat, even hardness and feel, the foundation of any quality production  and, hopefully, good for another generation or two of theatre goers.

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