THIS is what arsonists did to the New Empire Theatre in Southend.

The Echo was given an exclusive tour of the inside of fire-ravaged theatre in Alexandra Street yesterday.

The charred remains of the building’s ceiling can be seen littered across the upper auditorium of the building, which was all but destroyed by the disaster, putting the future of the longstanding building into question.

Fire ripped through the building, which was initially constructed in 1896, shortly before 8am on Sunday – with firefighters’ investigations concluding it had been started deliberately in the roof area.

Theatre owner Richard Shea, who toured the wreckage with insurance surveyors after arriving back from a holiday, said: “It’s not good at all – the downstairs is soaked with water and the auditorium is really bad. I’m just waiting to see what the police say because there are cameras on both Alexandra Street and Clarence Street and they must have picked up something or someone because the cameras point both ways.

“We had someone interested in buying it, and the lawyers were dealing with it, so it was basically sold. We’ve had so many viewings over the last two months, we really had a big uplift, including three offers.

“But there’s a decision to be made now – if someone still wants to come along and do it as a theatre and renovate it, that’s great – but if they don’t then it’s their choice.”

The building has suffered numerous break-ins since it became empty in 2008, and six “petrified” children, between the ages of 11 and 14, had to be rescued from the roof by firefighters in May after clambering inside the building.

Mr Shea would not commit to what the future of the building might be.

He said: “It’s up to the insurance people now and their assessors to come and tell me what they think.”