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Historic Hackney Empire finally re-opens



Story by Jack Foley

A HISTORIC landmark arts venue re-opened in London’s 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 Slava’s 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 theatre’s 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 capital’s 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 work.

Slava’s 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 there!"

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 ceremony.

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.

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