Story by Jack Foley
A HISTORIC landmark arts venue re-opened in Londons East
End on Wednesday night (January 28, 2004) after more than two
and a half years and £15 million worth of refurbishment.
The Hackney Empire burst back to life with a star-studded opening
gala performance by Russian clown, Slava Polunin, of Slavas
Snowshow, and drew a massive celebrity turnout, including Emma
Thompson, Ruby Wax, Michael Winner, Timothy West, Prunella Scales,
Maureen Lipman and Mel Smith.
Other notable attendees were due to be Griff Rhys-Jones, who
was instrumental in the campaign to secure the theatres
fundraising for the required work, and artist, Tracy Emin, who
unveiled her neon installation at the historic venue, earlier
in the week.
Artistic director, Roland Muldoon, was also expected to give
a welcoming speech, and to introduce the new season of performances,
which have been lined up to ensure the success of the venue, which
is located in one of the capitals poorest boroughs.
The distinctive building was designed in 1901, by Frank Matcham,
and had been due to re-open last September, but the plans were
postponed, following the collapse of the firm carrying out the
Slavas Snowshow will be the first time Polunin has appeared
in the UK since 1997, and will launch a rich and varied season
at the venue, including showcase performances of the 291 Club
and a new variety season, with celebrity comedians such as Bill
Bailey, Jo Brand and Harry Hill already confirmed to appear.
In March, Michael Nyman will celebrate his 60th birthday with
a solo concert of his work, while the English Touring Opera will
present two new opera productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream
(pictured left) and The Marriage of Figaro.
Commenting ahead of the re-opening, Mr Muldoon said: "It's
always been our intention to create a truly popular theatre, one
that challenges conventions and expectations, where grand opera
and world drama can happily play alongside pantomime, Jamaican
farce and stand-up comedy. It is wonderful that now we're finally
In its heyday, The Hackney Empire became best-known as a comedy
venue, responsible for launching the careers of the likes of Jo
Brand and Jenny Eclair.
It has also played host to many notable characters, including
Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, and Liberace, as well as functioning
as a bingo hall.
The refurbishment of the venue was made possible thanks to a
£5 million National Lottery grant, and a three-year fundraising
campaign, by actor, Rhys-Jones. It was also considerably boosted
by £15 million in private funds, including a £1.3
million donation from former Tottenham Hotspurs chairman, Alan
Sugar, who was also due to be among the guests at the re-opening
As part of the refurbishment, a new orchestra pit, accommodating
up to 60 musicians, has been created, along with the construction
of a new backstage block, incorporating dressing rooms, and an
increase in the height of the flytower.
Access for the disabled has also been improved.