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Matthew Pearson

Live at the Empire: Hackney Empire

Coming up...

  • A little history of Hackney Empire
  • What you can see at Hackney Empire these days
  • What to expect at the Live at the Empire nights

Hackney Empire

Built as a music hall in 1901, Hackney Empire has survived hand-changes, hand-wringing, attempted redevelopments and a few wilderness years as a bingo hall to stand as Hackney’s only surviving purpose-built theatre. Good. Not good that it’s the last, but good that it’s surviving doing what it was built to do. Its terracotta frontage is too classy to conceal a limited collection of one, two, three bed/million pound flats, with a 24-hour concierge service and private residents’ gym called ‘The Stage’. Its more recently built southern face of block lettering comes down screaming, Life of Brian-style, a commandment from up high: HACKNEY EMPIRE. Charlie Chaplin performed here. You don’t have to squint at the interior to imagine it, but obviously he was performing in black and white back then. Many of the main alternative comedy acts of the 80s—French and Saunders, Ben Elton, Jo Brand—performed here, headlining nights that helped the new style of comedy cross over and reinvigorate the mainstream. They’ve been putting on hugely successful and well-received pantomimes at the Hackney Empire since 1988. — Oh yes they have — Yes they have — No, seriously, they have. Book tickets to this year’s here. You can take a 360 degree tour of the main room here. It’s a beautiful one. It’s just as pretty, but not as stately when it’s got people in it. It feels informal. There aren’t brand sponsor logos everywhere, so it feels local. A local place with a big reach is what it feels like. [caption id="attachment_4702" align="alignnone" width="1000"]


Live at the Empire

And the storied music hall showed their reach with the Live at the Empire lineup we got last Friday, curated by comedy producers Show and Tell. Mixed bill nights usually have a dud moment or two. Either because the performers are actual duds, or their style is so incongruous with the rest of the lineup as to make them appear duds when duds they ain’t. But this Live at the Empire night was so well-paced, diverse and intelligently curated there was no mid-evening sag, no scene-stealing outliers, no duds.

The Acts

Compere Andrew Maxwell couldn’t alienate an extraterrestrial. He was a steady hand on the tiller, as we’d imagine he is at any gig he’s hosting. He brought the kind of deliberately old-timey crowd hyping an evening of such varied acts needs to hold it together. Then mixed that with detours into London Life as he’s experienced it in the quarter century he’s been here. A bit about a ‘geezer’ asking you to move so he can get to where he’s going (Chingford) will have been poorly mimicked in pub gardens by about half the people who saw it. He kept the crowd onside and lively. With a runtime of nearly three hours, that’s just what Live at the Empire needed. First act Simon Munnery showed why he’s the unwilling hero of every other act on the lineup. His incredible, Churchill-aping backs-to-the-wall speech as the leader of a nation of lice stranded in his eyebrow as his hairline recedes was—as evidenced in this sentence—the kind of routine that makes writing about standup comedy very hard indeed. Rose Matafeo, winner of the 2018 Edinburgh Comedy Award, was second on. She attacked the sensibilities of the millennials she has been crowned the unwilling queen of. The middle section started with Josie Long being more comfortable on stage than we were in our seats. And we were comfortable. She’s being doing this since she was 17 and it shows. Rosie Jones probably left with more new fans than anyone else. Even though she spent her whole set attacking her status as an unimpeachable, deserving award hoover. You’d be more than happy with that as a lineup. But last on was 41st Best Stand Up Ever and Man I Always Think I See When Walking Around Hackney But It’s Actually Just a Bloke, Stewart Lee. For a proper perspective on what Lee does well and who or what his standup most closely resembles, it’s best to read the entry regarding him in Alan Bennett’s 2018 diary, published here in the London Review of Books. Ctrl-f ‘LEE’. He talks about ‘LEEDS’ a lot so it will take a while. Lee’s new show, Snowflake/Tornado, starts at Leicester Square Theatre on October 29th. Are you looking for more historic London establishments? For a drink perhaps? Well, have a read of this.

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