Built in 1901, the Hackney Empire is 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 which 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 private funds, including a £1.3 million donation from former Tottenham Hotspurs chairman and computer industry tycoon, Sir Alan Sugar (See News, 7 Mar 2001). The money has been used to restore and improve the Empire's Frank Matcham-designed main house auditorium, creating a full-sized orchestra pit and adding modern technical facilities backstage. Work began in spring 2001 and was originally due to be completed in August 2002.
The Empire is now set to reopen on 8 September 2003 with the National Theatre's production of Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen, the new drama set on Hackney's notorious "Murder Mile", which embarks on a short tour after its current run at the NT Cottesloe. In the autumn, it will also host Peter Hall's production of As You Like It, while Christmas will see the return of the Empire's annual pantomime, which will this year be Aladdin, once again starring Clive Rowe.
Meanwhile, in Wimbledon, while ongoing financial difficulties have forced redundancies for the theatre's 19 full-time staff, the Wimbledon Civic Theatre Trust (WCTT), which has been running the venue independently for the past 12 years, is now finalising a deal with ATG to secure its long-term future. Wimbledon has been dark since last month's visit of The Rocky Horror Show. It will remain closed until ATG take over its management in November 2003.
A spokesman for ATG said the company planned to continue Wimbledon's programming as a major receiving house for large-scale musicals and popular drama - many pre or post-West End - as well as for variety, dance, comedy, amateur productions and annual pantomimes. In a statement, ATG executive director Rosemary Squire, said: "Taking over the management of this historic theatre should be an exciting addition to our group. We look forward to taking this wonderful venue into a bright and prosperous future."
- by Terri Paddock