Hippo Panto Provides Learning Insight

Space Architects’ Creative Reuse Team took time out from their current design work to admire a former project during the pre-Christmas season, with a revisit to Darlington Hippodrome. Taking a look around the building five years on from its milestone restoration project, the team recalled some of their concepts, discoveries and design decisions, and shared their experiences with the newer team members who were visiting the theatre for the first time.

Director, David Coundon and Darlington Borough Council Head of Heritage and Culture, Mike Crawshaw, planned the visit to coincide with a showing of the Pantomime Adventures of Peter Pan, providing the team with an opportunity to see the spaces in use. And the theatre was indeed in full swing, as it welcomed throngs of families, eager to see the show.

After enjoying a pre-show drink in one of the theatre’s many function spaces available for private hire – the Living Water Room - a room created by sensitively repurposing the former water tower, and featuring a wonderful arched window, vaulted ceiling and stunning wooden-beamed roof structure, the team headed into the grand auditorium. Completing a full house, the team settled into their seats to watch the heroes and villains in their festive finery, entertain the masses. In true panto style, the show delivered a visual spectacular of high-energy dancing, vibrant stage sets and dazzling costumes and a cacophony of laughter and sing-alongs. One of the benefits of the redeveloped theatre and its extended backstage, dressing and rehearsal facilities, has been its renewed ability to draw headline acts and productions. This was evident in the show’s most colourful character, arguably one of the most well-known modern-day pantomime performers, Christopher Biggins, who starred as the pantomime dame, in his first return to the Hippodrome since his panto debut there in 1974.

Post show, with strains of songs including ‘In The Navy’ still ringing in their ears, the team was treated to a unique viewing of the now empty auditorium by Natalie Collins, the Hippodrome’s hospitable and knowledgeable House Manager. David, along with colleagues, Grant Bramwell, Carinna Gebhard and Phil Lloyd, who were all involved in the theatre’s redevelopment, used the visit as a knowledge-sharing session. They took the opportunity to explain some of the carefully designed features, such as the splendid, ornate ceiling design which was painstakingly restored with gold leaf, and the wonderfully recreated sunburner, to some of their newer team colleagues.

The mini tour continued into some of the public circulation spaces, which prompted recollections of drawing up architectural details during the design stage and further discussion about the design choices, from the wall and floor finishes, including new carpets and restored heritage tiles in the former entrance lobby - both featuring the original Hippodrome logo, to more modern features like the atrium’s structural steel frame and access hatches cleverly integrated into the ceiling in the John Wade lounge.

During the quiet, closing moments of the visit, when all the theatregoers had departed, the team was able to appreciate just how well-cared for the spaces are, even with the huge volume of people that use the spaces daily, with colleagues commenting how the theatre looks as new as it did the day it reopened as the Hippodrome, back in 2017.

Space Associate Grant commented,“It’s not often we get to experience the buildings we design as ‘customers’, but when we do, it’s rewarding to see them working as intended and even more so when they’re clearly loved by those who use them!”

It’s safe to say that they’ll most certainly be returning for further visits to the Hippodrome and, who knows, perhaps a trip to the panto may become an annual outing, after all they so thoroughly enjoyed it… oh, yes they did!