Art & Culture
Sequins and fundraising: how Brick Lane Music Hall is building community with pizzazz and a great night out
One puts on exuberant traditional theatre, the other levels the playing field for disadvantaged children. Yet more connects these two local institutions than geography. Local journalist and historian Colin Grainger spoke to the founders of Brick Lane Music Hall and Ambition Aspire Achieve about an unlikely bond.
Brick Lane Music Hall is a gift from heaven — and not just because it is housed in a former Royal Docks church. This jewel in the crown of Newham gives back to the community in which it is located in a very special way.
Every year, the music hall’s founder Vincent Hayes and his team give up a day to stage an annual benefit night for Canning Town charity Ambition, Aspire, Achieve (AAA).
AAA provides activities and experiences for young people in the Newham and East London area that build confidence and expand minds, such as sailing and community heritage exploration. They offer a tremendous opportunity for children to explore possibilities they might not ordinarily have, giving them a firm foundation to bridge the gap between youth and adulthood.
That’s the power of theatre in schools, it gives children something academia can’t.
Vincent Hayes, Brick Lane Music Hall
Vincent’s link with AAA came after he saw the work the charity was doing first-hand with founder Kevin Jenkins in Canning Town. “I have seen the care the young people receive and how the charity is changing lives,” he said. “The link is a natural one and the work the charity is doing is clearly something special. The staff give up their time to stage the shows and serve everyone on the night. Put simply, it’s what we do.”
He went on, “If you don’t have a community, you don’t have anything... That’s the power of theatre in schools, it gives them something academia can’t.”
There is a powerful link in ambition, integrity and passion between the two men. Kevin Jenkins says the incredible support of Vincent and Brick Lane Music Hall has been vital in the charity’s early years. Four annual benefit nights have helped AAA raise over £50,000.
“It has helped us launch a series of vital projects to support and care for young people who need it the most,” said Kevin. “This is the very ethos of community support. The shows bring joy to people who attend them and as a result we have been able to support children and give them vital care and enable them to grow. Coming from a deprived part of London should never prevent young people reaching to realise their dreams. They are as good as anyone and with help from people like Vincent and his team we can help them along that road.”
Music halls started back in the 1830s in England, in the saloon bars of pubs. In Newham, many of us are just old enough to remember places like The Palace Theatre in East Ham, which closed in the 1950s. But here we are in 2019 and the tradition is alive and well, thanks to Brick Lane Music Hall. It’s like being transported back to the East End’s Victorian days.
Vincent started the theatre on Brick Lane in Spitalfields, in the old Truman’s Brewery building in 1992. “After six months, I realised it wasn’t working. Then my friend Danny La Rue offered to come and do a show to help me out. That brought in a big audience and soon I was turning people away.”
Soon after, it had outgrown the venue with its capacity of 150. Needing bigger premises, Vincent found a disused factory a mile away in Shoreditch, and relocated the music hall there. The conversion took five months and cost him £80,000. But, after five years, he said, “The landlords were only interested in the money I was making.” So he went back on the road.
Unexpectedly, Vincent received a phone call from Newham Council saying they would love him to relocate Brick Lane Music Hall to their borough, provided they could find him suitable premises. St Mark’s Church in Silvertown, derelict for 30 years, was the choice.
My friends thought it was a bad move. But it is said fortune favours the brave.
Vincent Hayes, Brick Lane Music Hall
“I was hesitant about taking it on,” he said. “My friends thought it was a bad move. But it is said fortune favours the brave. I had a vision of what it would look like, I signed the lease in 2003, and opened in January 2004. It cost more than £1 million to convert it into the place we have now. I did a lot of the work myself.”
Business was not great in the early years. Then in 2007, he had a break-through. “We would become a destination venue. We’d bus people in from all over the country, give them lunch, dinner, or tea, and a show. That completely turned it round. We went from two or three shows a week to six. Nowadays every show is sold out, and we’re booking well into 2020.”
Vincent is breathing fresh life into the music hall tradition, taking the genre forward while remaining loyal to its roots. It’s variety entertainment in what many see as an unlikely location. The audience lap it up, whether it is with afternoon tea or an evening meal.
“We remain loyal to tradition, but the shows are very much of today,” said Vincent. “I look forward all the time. We know the requirements of everybody who crosses our threshold. It’s our job to make sure they have a good time from the moment they enter the building.”
All the food is freshly prepared on the premises and is brought to your table by a team of smartly-dressed waiters. No small detail is missed. The outside of the former church looks pristine. Vincent hires a cherry picker every year to clean out the gutters and keep it looking exceptional.
Since taking over the Silvertown site, Vincent has also been able to work with the local British Legion to stage Remembrance Day parades and services at the former church. These grow more popular by the year. Vincent has been there, done that, and got the t-shirt, but the music hall drives him on. “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing as long as I can put one foot in front of the other, Colin!” he said as he prepared for another show in the quiet of the dressing room.
The Music Hall has just entered the Trip Advisor Hall of Fame, after winning excellence awards six years in a row. “It’s just brilliant and everyone here deserves the honour,” he said.
The music hall shines a light on Newham through its shows and the outreach work of Vincent and his team. Both the charity and the music hall have a rich heritage and a bright future. Vincent’s passion for spreading the gospel of fun and laughter is helping AAA make a difference and change the lives of young people. And next year’s fifth benefit night is already booked in for May 2!
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