Hackney Empire Tour (Open House London)

As part of Open House London I also went on a tour of the Hackney Empire, another Frank Matcham theatre. Hackney as a borough dates from Anglo-Saxon times, and as the Regents Canal and the railways made it busier and more popular, a theatre seemed like a good choice for the location. In 1898, Sir Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss merged their theatre manager businesses to form Stoll Moss Empires; by 1905 nearly every large town in Great Britain had an Empire or Coliseum theatre. Stoll commissioned Frank Matcham to design and build the Hackney Empire in 1901. It was built in 38 weeks at a cost of £65,000. A Grade II listed building, it seats 1,300 for theatre and 1,700 for concerts.

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The Hackney Empire

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Window detail

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Foyer

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Original radiator and tiling

The theatre was used as a television studio in the 1950s and 1960s, and was subsequently turned into a bingo hall by Mecca. It was saved from demolition in 1986 and went on to be a notable alternative comedy venue, before closing for restoration in 2002. The restored theatre still has the original terracotta façades, the original canopy and the domes, but it also uses the space formerly occupied by the Britannia pub on the corner, offering greater disabled access and more space in general.

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Inside the auditorium

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Inside the auditorium

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Auditorium ceiling

I have been to the Hackney Empire on a number of occasions and it’s one of the most beautiful theatres I’ve ever been in. Like Richmond, this theatre was built with steel cantilevers ensuring that supporting pillars were not needed in the auditorium. The views are generally good, even at the top, and I’ve also found the ushers and the bar staff to be among the friendliest I’ve come across. I definitely recommend this theatre: for the architecture and for the shows.

Richmond Theatre Tour (Open House London)

Every September since I moved to London, Open House London has taken place, but this is the first year that I’ve actually visited any of the buildings. In fairness, last year I took part in Maggie’s Culture Crawl and was far too tired to go traipsing around London after being up all night. This year, I decided to go for a “theatre” theme, booking myself onto a tour of Richmond Theatre on Saturday morning.

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The front of the theatre

Richmond Theatre is one of my favourite theatres, and as it’s reasonably close to where I live I go there quite a lot. I was eager to hear more about its history. There has been a theatre in Richmond since Elizabethan times, but this particular building, designed by Frank Matcham, recently celebrated its 115th birthday. The building is beautiful in my opinion, but it bears many of the hallmarks of a traditional Victorian theatre, including the different entrances designed to facilitate social segregation.

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115th birthday balloons

Our guide began the tour in the simple and elegant foyer, which was refurbished within the last few years by none other than Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. We explored the stalls bar, which has a series of boards on the walls concerning the history of the theatre, and which also contains the only remaining mahogany corner unit from before the refurbishment. We then entered the auditorium via the backstage route, coming out onto the stage in the middle of the Hay Fever set.

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Restored foyer ceiling

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Stalls bar and original corner unit

The auditorium is small and beautiful, with a slight rake in the stalls and on the stage too, ensuring that everyone is able to see the actors. Matcham pioneered a cantilever system which meant that no supporting pillars were needed in the auditorium – enabling clear sightlines for everyone. Apparently, the engraving on the balconies and the walls helps to ensure that sound travels well around the theatre – something I had not thought of before. The design at the top of the stage is Elizabethan, reflecting the long theatrical heritage of Richmond, while the text above the proscenium arch is by Alexander Pope. I was interested to learn about the rules for safety curtains – apparently these rules are different for every London borough. In Richmond, the safety curtain must be seen at least once by the audience; in Camden it must be seen twice, while in other boroughs a certain number of people must see it before it is whisked away into the gods.

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Alexander Pope’s words above the proscenium arch

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The auditorium

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The auditorium

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The boxes

We made our own way upstairs, going into the boxes, where our guide pointed out that several movies, including the recent Muppets movie and Finding Neverland, have been filmed in Richmond Theatre. On stage, actors such as Alec Guinness have made their stage debuts here. Just outside the auditorium, we were shown the opening to the old staircase leading to the Upper Circle, which is now a slightly less glamorous cleaning cupboard, and had a look around the upstairs bar. We ended our tour by going down the “plebian” staircase to the side of the theatre, coming out at the gallery entrance. A thoroughly enjoyable and highly informative tour.

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Original Upper Circle staircase

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Upper Circle bar

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Original Gallery entrance

The Comedy of Errors

Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity can be difficult – part of me just wants to shout out, “They’re TWINS, goddammit” at the frequent misunderstandings on the stage. However, Blanche McIntyre’s Globe production of The Comedy of Errors is joyous and nuanced enough to largely suppress my tendency.

Opening with a wonderful comedic set-piece in which Jamie Wilkes as the resident Ephesian Dromio tries to take down some washing, the play goes from strength to strength with his Syracusan counterpart, Brodie Ross, causing roars of laughter as he describes the kitchen maid pursuing him. Matthew Needham as the Ephesian Antipholus and Simon Harrison as his visiting Syracusan counterpart are also superb.

As is usual at the Globe, strong attention is paid to the text: every word counts, and despite the unashamedly populist approach, which appeals strongly to groundlings in particular, this is serious Shakespeare which should be required viewing for anyone studying the play. There is a great deal of heart in this fabulous production.

Dreamboats and Miniskirts

Jukebox musicals are my guilty pleasure, so I popped up to Milton Keynes to see a production of Dreamboats and Miniskirts, the sequel to Dreamboats and Petticoats. While not living up to the appeal of the original, it is a likeable show packed with catchy tunes including “I Only Want to be With You”, “Venus in Blue Jeans”, “Twist and Shout”, “Be My Baby” and “Oh Pretty Woman”.

Written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, this 1963-set musical has a light plot – mainly focusing on the relationship between stars of Petticoats, Bobby (Alex Beaumont) and Laura (Elizabeth Carter) – but the singing is good and the dance routines entertaining.

The show will appeal most to those who can remember the hits from the first time around, but it’s appealing enough to be enjoyed by all ages.

Freedom Play

Freedom Play was a read-through of a new play held in the Level 5 Function Room at the Royal Festival Hall. Written by Craig Taylor, the play is about overheard conversations and the role of surveillance in countering terrorism.

Despite the unfinished nature of the project, it was a hugely enjoyable experience. All four actors performed well and several humorous and pertinent points were made. I would certainly go to see a full-length version of this play.

The Silence of Snow

Mark Farrelly plays playwright and novelist Patrick Hamilton in this one-man show about Hamilton’s life that I saw at the Old Red Lion Theatre. The Silence of Snow sees Hamilton awaiting ECT in a hospital room in the hope that it will cure his depression. With wry charm the writer takes us on a journey from his childhood to his presence in this room, covering his difficult father, his troublesome relationships with women and his writing career. Farrelly’s performance is compelling, and this production should be a must-see for any fan of Hamilton.

Crimplene Millionaire

After seeing How to Win Against History as part of the “Fun Palace” weekend at Ovalhouse, I was offered a free ticket to see Crimplene Millionaire in the Downstairs space. I wasn’t really keen on seeing this show, but I decided that as the ticket was free, I might as well accept. Good decision.

Originally commissioned by Counterculture 50 – a project including 5 pieces from 5 different decades - Crimplene Millionaire is a send-up of the 1970s gameshow format. Written by Boogaloo Stu, the piece places watchers as the television studio audience, witnessing the return to the limelight of light entertainer Derek Daniels (as well as his glamorous wife).

The audience were divided into three teams to play the game. Inevitably there was some level of audience participation, but I found this to be great fun and not at all cringeworthy as I might have feared. Each move brought up another aspect of 1970s politics, culture and lifestyle, a nostalgia-fest for the older members of the audience (my parents would have loved it) and a highly entertaining look into the past for younger members. These were as varied as dances, games, cultural artefacts and even food.

There was a great atmosphere in the room which contributed to the success of the evening. I suspect that most of those present had been offered free tickets on the night, yet as far as I could see everyone was having a great time. The two “presenters” were committed and very funny, revealing secrets about their “marriage” and history throughout the show, a common thread in amongst the anecdotes.

Despite having to be coerced to see this production, I am really glad I went – I had a great time, and I would definitely take along some friends if it was ever to come back.