Artistes unite to save the Hackney Empire music hall with £15m refurbishment

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It suffered the ignominy of life as a bingo hall in the 1960s and later was threatened with demolition to make way for a council car park.

But thanks to the passion of a troupe of performers once dismissed as left-wing hippies incapable of sensible administration, one of the most celebrated music halls in Britain will re-open next month.

The Hackney Empire in east London was built in 1901 by the celebrated theatre architect Frank Matcham, who was also responsible for the Coliseum off Trafalgar Square, home of the English National Opera. The Empire is now a grade II listed building.

It will throw open its doors once again on 28 January after a £15m, two-year restoration led by its most avid fan, Griff Rhys-Jones, and its artistic director, Roland Muldoon, one of the so-called hippies who breathed new life into the Empire in the 1980s.

Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields and Stan Laurel trod the boards when the Empire was a thriving music hall. This history will be acknowledged in the naming of a new extension and bar after Marie Lloyd, the risqué performer born in nearby Hoxton who was known as the Queen of the Music Hall.

But its more recent past as a venue in the 1980s for up-and-coming comedy talent will be recognised in the opening season of varietywhich will feature a number of one-off performances from people who are now showbiz veterans.

Among them are Jo Brand, Harry Hill and Bill Bailey, who will appear at the Hackney Empire in a series of comedy gigs. Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel and Arthur Smith also appear in the programme.

The improvements to the music hall, which include the introduction of a 60-seat orchestra pit and more flexible backstage facilities, have made it suitable for even the finest opera companies.

English Touring Opera has long put up with the difficulties of staging its work in Hackney, but the improved stage means that the internationally renowned Sir Peter Jonas, director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, is now interested in bringing productions.

Mr Muldoon said the attraction for all performers was the closeness of the stage to the audience, which sits in tiered ranks of 1,300 seats.

"People just love performing on this stage. The acoustics are incredible. And just see how in-your-hand the whole thing is," Mr Muldoon said, as he strode the stage with an expansive wave of a hand.

"Matcham was exceptional. It's a beautiful theatre."

Ironically, in the 1970s the Empire was regarded as very ugly and the antithesis of everything acceptable in modernism. Yet Mr Muldoon said the theatre was remarkably modern for its day. It had electric lights, a form of air conditioning and vacuum pump carpet cleaners. "It was modern architecture wrapped up in Edwardian opulence, which means it hasn't really been recognised."

The two-year restoration has had its setbacks, notably when the builders suffered financial difficulties in the autumn. The resulting delays added £1mto the final bill, which means that a new wing, including a studio theatre, educational and hospitality facilities, will not be finished until the spring.

Mr Muldoon admits he occasionally laments becoming involved in saving the Empire to the detriment of his own career as an actor. But he confessed: "It becomes addictive, this place. I'm going to haunt it when I die."

It was as a base for his work that he first became involved with the Empire in the 1980s. He and his wife, Claire, had their own small satirical theatre company, Cast, which toured small venues around the capital but eventually decided it needed a home. Mecca offered their old bingo hall, which was several times bigger than anything Cast had worked in before.

But the Muldoons turned themselves into managers and attracted up-and-coming comedy talent such as Ben Elton, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

They also promoted black theatre at a time when few other venues were interested.

The consequence of that programme today is that 56 per cent of the audience is between 18 and 35, much younger than many West End rivals, 38 per cent of the audience claim not to attend other venues, and 60 per cent of its opera-goers are first-time opera attendees.