Where else can you see bodybuilders sandwiched between black cabaret and high opera? James Christopher on the quirky glories of the Hackney Empire. Photographs by Gideon Mendel
After decades of looking as though it was suffering a terminal hangover, the Hackney Empire, the grand old lady of Mare Street, is gradually being restored. Frank Matcham's Edwardian bricks have been scrubbed clean, the terracotta figure of Euterpe, the muse of instrumental music, has been restored to the pediment, and the theatre itself is about to celebrate its 95 birthday with the announcement of a major structural overhaul.

South African photographer Gideon Mendel has spent a year documenting the life of the theatre. The full results of his labour of love, previewed here, will be on view at the Hackney Museum early next year. Based in London, about half a mile from the theatre, Mendel, a former news photographer, was given complete access to a bewildering mix of events. For him, the Empire is a chaotic universe that reflects all that is appealing and contrary about Hackney itself. His images have that voyeuristic feel of the outsider with an insider's perspective; he calls it "the hidden theatre of theatre". "It gets into your blood," he says. "Where else can you see a body-building competition sandwiched between black cabaret and high opera?"

Having also lived near the Empire, I find it inseparable from its environs, an inner-city bazaar of stalls, mini-cabs, dodgy bank notes, mobile phones and noisy overland trains. The grubby ethos of Hackney's markets drifts pungently down Mare Street. The local pubs are the kind of places where you can sell the lead off someone else's roof. This is a borough with one of the highest densities of tower blocks in Europe, one of the highest rates of council tax, and where crime is so rife the local insurance premiums are among the most expensive in Britain. But, almost inevitably, there's a sense of community and laissez-faire that is as warm as it is remarkable.

I've seen as many extraordinary things in the Empire itself as I have on the streets, extraordinarily bad as well as good, like the dismal company which misguidedly presented the life story of the Sex Pistols to a handful of bored delinquents for two excruciating hours. Conversely, the Russian clown, Slava Polunin, produced one of the most sensational pieces of theatre I've ever seen when he filled the entire auditorium with a blizzard of paper during the climax of Snowshow.

Yet the Empire also evokes an age when East End variety was a hothouse of personalities and performances, the pop stars of the working classes. Marie Lloyd immortalised the top tier with her torch song, "The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery", Charlie Chaplin learned his trade here, and jazz virtuoso Louis Armstrong commuted from Harlem to blow his horn. Here, too, Bruce Forsyth started losing his hair, Ken Dodd hurdled the tax man, and Liberace cried on stage the night after the Mirror accused him of being gay.

Inevitably, however, cinema stole the stars and television stole the audiences. Variety nights died on their feet, and the Empire fell into decline. By the Sixties, the building became a television studio for ATV, and then, to add insult to injury, Mecca Leisure stepped in and turned it into a bingo hall. Ironically, bingo probably saved the Empire from being turned into a car-park.

In 1986, when the arts were desperately on the retreat, the improbable happened. The Empire was taken over by a ramshackle touring company, Cast: Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre, and reopened as a theatre. Over the next 10 years, the company, and its maverick artistic director, Roland Muldoon, pulled off a series of minor miracles. During the miners' strike, they turned it into a major midwife for alternative comedy. The list is as familiar as it is endless: Ben Elton, Harry Enfield, Rory Bremner, Jo Brand, Lenny Henry, French and Saunders, Julian Clary, Lily Savage and Ardol O'Hanlon.

A new style of variety was minted that now works hand in glove with some serious theatrical beefcake. Ralph Fiennes brought half of Hollywood here last year when he played Hamlet. And the pint-sized Warren Mitchell took on King Lear and raged at Matcham's lavish auditorium, modelled on the great Italian opera houses with its cantilevered balconies and wild baroque flourishes.

But it's the East End's ability to absorb immigrants that is ultimately shaping the current cultural mix the Empire currently offers. This is where Muldoon and his new company, Hackney New Variety, have scored their most palpable hits. There are Vietnam vets and there are agitprop vets. In his trademark trilby, the tall, balding director with the white beard looks like he's still fighting the war, still traumatised by post-Thatcher stress disorder. Liberal and outspoken, yes, but, ironically, Muldoon's most effective tactic is that he's never been hampered by ideology. A successful tactic in running this theatre. As a result, a character such as Oliver Samuels, the legendary Caribbean farceur, packs the 1,500 seats when his company Blue Mountain play here. In his wake follow Nigerian bands, Irish dancers and East European clowns.

"An amazing 51 per cent of our turnover is black theatre," says Muldoon. "How significant is that? If you claim to be open to popular theatre, you've got to be wide open to your community. We've got an enormous black audience and the biggest Turkish entertainments this side of Germany. I've never believed in the cross-over theory, that you can integrate audiences. People come to see what they like the look of on the posters. We are past masters at flyposting."

Muldoon doesn't care for endless runs or a streamlined programme of carefully groomed acts. "Our objective is to keep juggling balls for your eyes, for black eyes, for Turkish eyes, for Indian eyes. Who cares two hoots about the show happening two days later?"

The theatre is now on the edge of another major change. They managed to secure pounds 1.5 million of Lottery money for a feasibility study an hour after they bought the next-door pub, the Samuel Pepys. If their Lottery application for "the big one" is successful - figures being bandied about range from pounds 12.5 million to an eye-bulging pounds 21 million - Muldoon will knock the Samuel Pepys pub down, run lifts up the side of the theatre, add a roof garden, install new bars and a decent reception, build a scenery workshop and rehearsal space, and run shows back to back.

He must also make some money. Despite the success of the televised black talent show, the 291 Club, the truth is that they barely scrape by. At the moment Hackney New Variety gets a meagre pounds 350,000 public subsidy and the odd, lucrative rental. The English Touring Opera rehearses at the Empire twice a year, at a cost of pounds 10,000 a week, but no one can afford to see the product at Hackney except the cleaners and bar staff because Muldoon would have to guarantee a pounds 50,000 weekly return.

"We're probably the lowest funded theatre of this size in the Western hemisphere," Muldoon claims. "We can't take gambles like that." What really irks him is that the additional subsidy enjoyed by regional theatres is not extended to theatres like his which have almost wholly London audiences. "We ought to be getting as much as the South Bank," he says, warming to his theme. "If we had the money we could turn Hackney into a thriving Left Bank of creativity."

One of his perennial regrets is seeing actors and comics take off to television, film and the West End. "Whenever you release the genie, it goes elsewhere," he says philosophically. Apart from the re-opening of the theatre in 1986, Muldoon's sweetest moment was introducing his balloon-juggling dog, Benjy, to massed ranks at a charity performance. Instead of prodding balloons, Benjy promptly jumped into the first row of the stalls and proceeded to have sex with a blind man's dog. His most hairy moment was having to throw the South American mega-star Oscar De Lean into the wings to stop an audience of knife-wielding Colombian waiters storming the stage. If variety is the spice of life, long live the Empire