Plea after work stops on Empire revamp

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The reopening of one of London's most famous theatres after a £15m refurbishment could be delayed and its programme of plays reduced because building work has been suspended.

Managers of the Hackney Empire, the 102-year-old East End theatre which hosted Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin, met Arts Council representatives yesterday to discuss emergency plans to ensure the renovation is completed on time. Specialist workers putting the finishing touches to the building after a two-year revamp were forced to down tools 10 days ago when the contractor in charge of the project, Sunley Turriff, went into administration.

The theatre is scheduled to reopen on 9 September with a season headed by Elmina's Kitchen, an acclaimed drama about black Londoners struggling against Yardie violence in Hackney, which has been a hit at the National Theatre. Staff said that unless work restarted soon it was unlikely the opening date would be met, threatening cancellation of Elmina's Kitchen and the postponement of a spectacular opening gala.

The theatre, which made its name as the centre of the East End's music hall tradition, has also lined up Sir Peter Hall's production of As You Like It as part of its opening season.

Roland Muldoon, the Empire's artistic director, said he hoped the Arts Council, which has contributed £5m to the project, would allow a new contractor to be appointed or for the work to be completed by the theatre. "If we get the go-ahead we should be able to finish as planned, but if they review the situation it seems very unlikely," he said.

The board of the theatre will meet on Tuesday to put together detailed proposals to restart building work. The Arts Council has said it was committed to the refurbishment.

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