East London's historic Hackney Empire will at last reopen in the new year, with an opening gala performance by Russian clown Slava Polunin and his Snowshow on 28 January 2004 (See News, 13 Jun 2003). 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 overhaul of its 1901 Frank Matcham-designed auditorium.

It was 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", which was to be followed by a visit of Peter Hall's staging of As You Like It and the return of the venue's annual Christmas pantomime, this time Aladdin, once again starring Clive Rowe. However, those plans were scrapped after the collapse of the firm completing the building work (See The Goss, 17 Sep 2003).

Following Snowshow, Slava 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 is now 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 £15 million in 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).

Major elements of the refurbishment include the creation of a new orchestra pit which will accommodate 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. The final phase of work - which includes the education space, corporate hospitality suite and Marie Lloyd bar - will now be completed in spring 2004.

- by Terri Paddock