Slava's Snowshow, Hackney Empire, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It was a case of battling against the elements both outside and in. On the first night, intrepid theatre-goers struggled through an Arctic blizzard to see a performance of... Slava Polunin's Snowshow, an entertainment that famously engulfs the theatres where it plays in a whirling white confetti storm. This exertion was in a very good cause, and the sense of absurdity simply added to the party atmosphere of the occasion.

For this was the gala re-opening of the Hackney Empire after its spectacular and wonderfully sympathetic £40m refit. Major refurbishment can surgically remove the soul from a theatre, as all too many examples of buildings upgraded to bland nonentity attest. But like the Royal Court and the Almeida, this great East End palace of varieties has retained the spirit of the place (Frank Matcham's deliriously ornate auditorium glows with a fresh fantasticality) while installing technical improvements ranging from a greater abundance of state-of-the-art ladies' loos to a new 60-seat orchestra pit (that will attract opera companies), a higher fly tower and a backstage block that's light years away from the facilities that were on offer when the Empire opened as a music hall in 1901. The theatre's ghosts have not been shown the door.

The evening began with the 1,000-strong audience raising shots of vodka in a toast proposed by the maverick artistic director Roland Muldoon and the comedian Griff Rhys Jones, who is the chairman of the Hackney Empire Appeal and, for the last six years, has been an indefatigable raiser of funds. Muldoon pledged that the Marie Lloyd Building (containing a bar, a corporate hospitality suite and an education studio) will be completed this year. To help pay for it, he urged punters to sponsor a seat, following the admirable example of Ralph Steadman, who has coughed up to dedicate one of the new urinals to Marcel Duchamp.

As an opening treat, The Snowshow (first seen at this address in 1988) fitted the bill. There's certainly no better way of showing off a face-lifted auditorium, since that's where a fair portion of the proceedings anarchically happens, and it literally binds the audience together in the extraordinary sequence where Slava - a sort of red-nosed Beckett-meets-Billy-Smart figure - entangles the entire stalls in a vast spider's web of stretchy candy-floss material. At the end, two people near me were still trying to sever their accidental partnership.

Even folk who, on hearing the word "clown", reach for the Prozac, end up beguiled by the visual wonder and wit of Slava and his team of sidekicks. At one point, he receives the gift of a mysterious woman wrapped up like an Interflora bouquet and is so flummoxed as to what to do with her that he hoists her on his bed and sticks one of her feet in a vase. Bubbles, balls and balloons bounce through the evening in epidemic quantities, particularly in the punching downpour of the finale. You might think that on a night like this, the coup de théâtre in which a wind machine blasts out a blinding blizzard of paper scraps would be tantamount to sending coals to Newcastle. Instead, appropriately for this celebration, it resembled the last word in wild ticker-tape jamborees.