UK Travel Guide


Hackney Empire Theatre

In March 1901 the great theatre architect Frank Matcham commenced building The Hackney Empire and the venue opened on December 9th that same year, seating 2,158. It was and remains a state of the art theatre, one of Britain's finest examples of proscenium arch theatre. Matcham modelled his design on the great Italian opera houses, with the same accent on acoustics. The lavish decoration of the auditorium and exterior was inspired by Moorish, Gothic and Rococo influences. Because of concerns about the many theatre fires in the first half of the Nineteenth Century the Empire was built as the first all electric theatre. Not content with such innovation, Matcham also installed a vacuum pump cleaning system, enabling two shows a night, and provided for air conditioning with a sliding roof which opened to the sky. He also installed a projector box, making The Hackney Empire one of the world's oldest cinemas. Most of the great stars of Music Hall and variety played the Empire, including; Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Lily Langtree, Marie Lloyd, Little Titch, and numerous others. Before the First World War the most important artist of all was Marie Lloyd. She consciously shocked the virtuous, consistently challenged the establishment and became popularly known as The Queen of The Halls. She supported the artists' strike in 1907, where an alliance of theatre managements tried to stop the artists from 'doubling up'. Out of the struggle developed the Variety Artists Federation, which is now a part of the actors union Equity. The newly refurbished Empire gallery is now dedicated to Marie Lloyd. Variety continued to run until after the Second World War and all the great names played the Hackney Empire. Between the wars, traditional variety was joined by burlesque, reviews, plays, concerts and all types of music. A single bill might combine Verdi arias with jugglers, tap dancers with Flamenco, fire-eaters with scenes from Shakespeare. After the war names such as Charlie Chester, Issy Bonn, Liberace and Tony Hancock played The Empire. The development of radio and the recording industry made many of these artists household names. In the late 1950s, The Hackney Empire became the home of the new commercial television channel. Programmes such as the rock show, "Oh Boy!" and "Take Your Pick" were filmed there. Stalls seats were removed and scenes from soap operas like Emergency Ward 10 were shot. Ironically, the Empire was saved from ruin by Mecca, who converted it into a bingo hall. During their tenure, the theatre was decorated in the Mecca house style colour scheme. Many original oil paintings were overpainted as well as the original gold leaf on the decorative features. In 1968 they removed the statue of Euterpe, the Goddess of Music from the front elevation pediments and in 1979 the twin terracotta domes were removed. In 1986, six weeks after bingo ceased, a small touring theatre group, CAST took over the Empire using their subsidy to help develop a new generation of artists. After a hectic and dedicated struggle, supported by artists, friends and promises of help from Hackney Council, the Hackney Empire reopened on 9th December 1986, its 85th birthday. The licence for 'Light Entertainment' was obtained two hours before opening. East London has a great multi-cultural tradition and black artists have featured prominently at the Empire since its rebirth. The Hackney Empire Artist of the Year 1994 was Jamaica's number one star of farce, Oliver Samuels. Names like Curtis Walker, Leo Chester, Felix Dexter, Angi Le Mar, Felicity Ethnic, Richard Blackwood, Gina Yashere and Junior Simpson have all helped to create a new tradition of popular black theatre in London. The 291 Club was a television success, its mantle now taken up by Sunday Selection, a variety show, was televised by Channel Four Television in 1997 and 1998 as "Nights Out at the Empire". Artists premiered on the Hackney Empire stage since reopening are too numerous to mention: Julian Clary, Paul Merton, Harry Enfield, Jo Brand, Lilly Savage and Oliver Samuels are classic examples. By the year 2002 the Hackney Empire will have entered a new era. Refurbished, restored and expanded by the acquisition of adjacent sites. An International Festival of Popular Theatre will bring in the year 2001 when the Empire will be 100 years old - and as innovative as it was when Matcham installed electric lighting in 1901. The easiest way to get to the Hackney Empire is by mainline train to Hackney Central.

Located at: 291 Mare Street, London, E8

Telephone: 020 8985 2424

Opens: Please telephone to check for the dates you require

Cost: Varies according to production

Closest Subway Station: N/A (Click to see more atrraction at this station)