A FIRE which devastated a 120-year-old theatre was started deliberately, a fire investigation has found.

The former New Empire Theatre on Alexandra Street, Southend, became a towering inferno after a blaze began in the roof and then spread to the rest of the building.

The fire started shortly before 8am on Sunday and raged for more than two hours with the roof collapsing at 10.30am.

It emerged yesterday the blaze had devastated the theatre’s much-admired first floor amphitheatre as the the fire service announced it was arson.

An Essex Fire spokesman said: “The cause of the fire has been recorded as deliberate and the police are now conducting an investigation.

“The building suffered extensive damage and the roof has collapsed, largely destroying the first floor auditorium.”

Mike Gray of Dedman Gray estate agents, which is handling the sale of the building on behalf of owner Richard Shea, said it was disappointing such a prominent feature of the Victorian building should have been lost.

He said: “It’s disappointing about the auditorium because the balcony was really quite a feature of the building, particularly the upper circle, which was a lovely part of the original theatre. “It’s a great shame to be losing that feature, as most of the people who have viewed the building have had a various range of ideas with what they want to do with the building, and some have wanted to include that.”

Mr Shea, who also owns Mayhem nightclub in Southend, was on holiday with his family at the time of the fire and was unavailable for comment yesterday, however he said on Sunday he was “in shock” and “gutted” he was not able to be on the scene at the time.

The building has suffered from a number of break-ins of late, with Mr Shea recording more than 20.

In May, six boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 14 had to be rescued from the roof of the building by firefighters.