After more than two-and-a-half years and £15 million worth of refurbishment, East London's historic Hackney Empire reopens tonight (28 January 2004) with a star-studded opening gala performance by Russian clown Slava Polunin of his Slava's Snowshow on 28 January 2004 (See News, 6 Nov 2003).

Amongst the celebrities confirmed to attend tonight’s performance – which will be introduced with a speech and toast by artistic director Roland Muldoon – are: Mel Smith, Ruby Wax, Michael Winner, Maureen Lipman, Alan Sugar, Prunella Scales, Timothy West, Jo Brand, Steven Berkoff, Gary Kemp, Greg Wise and Emma Thompson. Also in attendance will by Griff Rhys-Jones, who led the theatre’s fundraising efforts, and artist Tracy Emin, who’s newly created neon installation was unveiled on-site this week.

Situated in one of the capital's poorest boroughs, the Empire has been closed for the past two and a half years while it's undergone a massive, £15 million overhaul of its 1901 Frank Matcham-designed auditorium. It was previously due to reopen in September 2003 with the National Theatre's production of Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen, the drama set on Hackney's notorious "Murder Mile" (See News, 13 Jun 2003). However, those plans were postponed after the collapse of the firm completing the building work (See The Goss, 17 Sep 2003).

Following Slava's Snowshow, Polunin's first show in the UK since 1997, Hackney's revised and varied opening programme will continue with showcase performances of the 291 Club and a new variety season with a line-up of celebrity comedians including Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Harry Hill and Mark Thomas. In March, Michael Nyman celebrates his 60th birthday with a solo concert of his work and the English Touring Opera will present two new opera productions of Midsummer Night's Dream and The Marriage of Figaro.

Commenting on the programme, Hackney artistic director Roland 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!"

Built in 1901, the Hackney Empire has become best known as a comedy venue, where numerous, now highly successful comedians - including Alan Davies, Jo Brand and Jenny Eclair - launched their early careers. For many years, it operated as a bingo hall before being reopened as a theatre in 1986. It has played host to many notable characters during its history, including Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong, Liberace and King Edward VII's mistress Lillie Langtry. In 1995, the theatre was famously the scene for Ralph Fiennes' acclaimed Almeida Theatre production of Hamlet, later transferred to New York.

The Empire secured £5 million in National Lottery funding which, after a three-year fundraising campaign led by actor and comedian Griff Rhys-Jones, was supplemented with £15 million in private funds, including a £1.3 million donation from former Tottenham Hotspurs chairman and computer industry tycoon, Alan Sugar (See News, 7 Mar 2001).

Major elements of the refurbishment include the creation of a new orchestra pit which accommodates up to 60 musicians; the construction of a new backstage block incorporating dressing rooms, an increase in the height of the flytower; and greatly improved access for people with disabilities. Work began in spring 2001 and was originally due to be completed in August 2002.

- by Terri Paddock