Revisiting the Hippodrome: A Cultural Hub in the Heart of Darlington

Five years on from the milestone restoration and relaunch of Darlington Hippodrome, it seemed timely and fitting to revisit the theatre to understand how the changes to the building have impacted on the theatre operations, audiences, and the local community.

We were delighted that Mike Crawshaw, Darlington Borough Council’s Head of Culture and Heritage, was on hand to welcome and show us around, and update us on how the last five years have panned out for the theatre.

As we walked around the complex, there was an unmistakeable buzz about the place. It was alive with activity, from the theatre technicians setting up the stage for an incoming show, to the school children’s animated voices emanating from a performance workshop being held within one of the dedicated education spaces.

Mike’s pride and passion for the theatre was immediately apparent as he praised our surroundings: “We’re proud that the theatre still looks as fresh and smart as it was on the day we reopened in early November 2017”. We meet Bev and Mags on our walkabout. Two local women who are part of the cleaning team which Mike credits with keeping the Hippodrome pristine. They too applaud the theatre, telling us what a lovely place it is to be and how everyone is friendly and happy in their work there.

Mike explained, that whilst the theatre was still functioning and operating as Darlington Civic Theatre prior to its refurbishment, limited investment had left it looking tired and falling into disrepair. It had limited social spaces - café and bar provisions were inadequate and toilets weren’t in line with modern standards, meaning the overall comfort levels were below par and, as a result, audience attendance levels were low.

Since its relaunch under the theatre’s historical name – The Hippodrome, following the multi-million-pound investment, its revival has been a resounding success.

Moving away from limited opening hours which aligned with show times, the theatre complex is now open daily. It boasts welcoming and inspiring spaces for visitors to enjoy, including the bright and comfortable Hippo Lounge, and a range of fixed and visiting exhibitions and artwork throughout the building, reflecting its heritage, and standing within the regional arts and culture scene.

As well as creating a plethora of new employment opportunities for local people (the theatre’s staff roll has significantly increased, with new team members in the technical, marketing, front of house, cleaning, and catering departments), the regeneration project has also enabled the local community to contribute to the theatre’s ongoing success in other ways too. Its bars and cafés stock locally-sourced produce, including scones and pastries from nearby Banktop Bakery, Railtown coffee, Durham Gin and Quaker Gin, and the Hippodrome team regularly collaborate with regional contributors to bring inspiring art exhibitions into its gallery spaces. Students from the Northern School of Art have created 'From Page to Stage', an exhibition currently installed in the Catherine Cookson Heritage Gallery, and in partnership with The Morrison Trust, a charity which supports local people to develop their skills and find paid work, local Ukrainian refugee families have created an artwork display entitled Identity, currently being exhibited in the Gillian Dickinson Gallery.

The adjoining Hullaballoo, with its own dedicated auditorium and rehearsal space, is the only theatre north of Birmingham devoted specifically to children. It too was buzzing during our tour. Even on days when there are no performances scheduled, it’s a place where local parents like to meet, to socialise over a cuppa and allow their babies and toddlers, full of curiosity and creativity, to experience the regularly changing, themed interactive play zones and sensory spaces.

Many and varied spaces throughout the Hippodrome complex are available for private hire which also helps the theatre to attract different local groups to discover and enjoy the facilities it has to offer.

The redevelopment programme saw major investment into the renewal and expansion of the auditorium and backstage areas. This has enabled the theatre to attract more shows, and bigger productions can now be accommodated. The new Hippodrome is a fully inclusive venue. Step-free access to all floors means all front of house and backstage areas are accessible to everyone. It's now commonplace for shows to sell-out - something which Mike tells us would rarely have happened before the redevelopment. 

We asked Mike what his favourite thing is about the Hippodrome. In a heartbeat he tells us it's "the anticipation before a show" - the excitement and atmosphere it creates and seeing everyone busily working together as a team to do each other proud.  

With a full and exciting programme of shows planned, it's great to know that there'll be plenty more of this anticipation, and that the Hippodrome's future as the beating heart of Darlington, continues to look bright.

SPACE Architects are proud to be sponsoring the Darlington Hippodrome 2023 Spring Season.

***Our thanks go out to Mike and all of the Hippodrome team for letting us explore the wonderful theatre spaces and for sharing their insights with us. To find out more about the Hippodrome's heritage, its exhibitions and programme of events, you can visit their website or follow their socials on:


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