Alexandra Palace: A Closer Look at London's 'Ally Pally'

18 March 2022

Built in 1873, Alexandra Palace is one of the jewels in North London’s creative crown. 

Perched on high next to Muswell Hill in North London, the nearest tube station is a brisk walk away in Wood Green and there’s a designated Alexandra Palace overground train station to the side of the Palace’s grounds that cuts that walk in half. The building was originally to be called The People’s Palace and, throughout its history, it’s been a honeypot for tourists and locals alike. 

The Palace’s Great Hall is an important touring destination for some of the biggest bands in the world (the list of those that have played there reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary music history) and the sprawling grounds and parkland are perfect for running, cycling, strolling and dog walking. There’s also an ice skating rink, boating pond, a couple of cafes and more, but we’re here to talk about Alexandra Palace’s theatre.     

A Revolutionary Theatre

When it was built, the Palace’s theatre was something of a technological wonder, decked out as it was with machinery and gadgets to enable the latest in Victorian special effects. Actors could be seen to fly across the auditorium or appear and disappear through a series of trapdoors. However, after the East Wing of the Palace was leased to the BBC in the 1930s the theatre was used for storage space and fell into disrepair. 

Following a large-scale plan to regenerate Alexandra Palace in 2012, work began to restore the theatre and it finally reopened its doors to the general public in 2018 with a programme that included a BBC Proms operatic event, and performances from stand-up comedian Dylan Moran, a night with artists Gilbert & George and live sessions organised by Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. After eighty years of darkness the Alexandra Palace Theatre was back in business.

London is, of course, packed with theatres both big and small.  However, there are few that match the faded noble grandeur of the Alexandra Palace Theatre. What’s more, this a performance space with that rare thing that other theatres lack: parking.  There are huge parks that serve the whole Palace and, although drivers must pay to use them, the charges are modest, and the income goes towards the upkeep of the Palace’s building. 

Enter the Palace through the massive East Wing doors into the East Court and check out the permanent Alexandra Palace display that sits inside. There are copies of some of the Palace’s most iconic concert posters and fliers, and screens showing the changes that the building has gone through over the years.  The ex-BBC rooms are adjacent to the East Court, incidentally, and it was from the Palace that the first live BBC radio and television programmes were broadcast. 

There’s a licensed bar, a coffee stall and a couple of food concessions in the East Court, as well as a bar in the theatre’s foyer.

Once inside the auditorium, the theatre itself is something to behold. Rather than gut the original space and paint over its history, the renovation team took a thoroughly sympathetic approach.  Thus, original walls remain exposed and there are signs and brickwork that were part of the first construction in plain sight.  

There’s stucco plasterwork along with neo-Classical statues and ornate friezes, reliefs, and arches. Stylised plaster roaring lion heads, looping ribbons and stars adorn the walls, and everything has been covered with a translucent sealant that protects the surfaces while allowing the details to remain.

The ceiling has been reinforced to take the weight of modern-day theatrical lighting bars and equipment, and it can now support the equivalent of fifteen family cars. The theatre’s original wooden floor has been preserved, as each of the floorboards was lifted up, numbered, and replaced in its exact original location on top of a new, level concrete surface during the renovation process. A flexible seating scheme means that the theatre can produce events in the round, as well as on its magnificent proscenium arch stage, comfortably seating a capacity audience of 1300 theatre-goers.

As befits a theatre of this size and magnificence, the programme is broad in scope. In late 2021, for example, writer and raconteur Mark Gatiss brought his spine-chilling theatre adaptation of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ into the space. The sheer drama of the building lends itself well to Shakespearian plays, opera and classical music recitals, and its keen, clear acoustics mean that it can host intimate evenings with celebrated musicians and creative adventurers, from veteran punk poet John Cooper Clarke to FKA Twigs.     

While the public-facing regeneration of the theatre is complete there is still more to be done. The Palace team are now busy behind the scenes, and one of the tasks is to renovate the original Victorian stage’s mechanical wizardry. So, there’s yet more amazing stuff to come from what is one of London’s most stunning Victorian theatre spaces.