The Cirus comes to town
London landmark the Hippodrome re launches as 'Cirque at the Hippodrome' on April 3rd with a new clubbing experience and tasty food too.
For twenty years the Hippodrome on the corner of Leicester Square has been a 'disco', a disco run by Peter Stringfellow no less. Inside all was tacky, even by 1980's standards an era when a tie in the pattern of a piano keyboard was considered chic and hairstyles bordered on offences against humanity. Then, finally it died. Unloved and unwanted it languished in the dark. How such a landmark site came to be on the verge of irreversible dilapidation is a mystery to all but the property developers that wrangled over the old lady's future. A long way from its beginnings.
On 15th January 1900 the London Hippodrome had begun life as a circus and water spectacle. Remarkably prescient it also had bachelor flats as part of its upper areas 'House-keeper's quarters are provided at the top, in telephonic communication with every room, and the whole of the rooms are artistically decorated and furnished. The carpeted corridors and staircase are warmed by hot-water pipes and coils, and the whole of the rooms are lighted by electricity. Hot and cold lavatory- accommodation is provided in the rooms, and W.C.'s and bath rooms in the corridors,' was the estate agent's copy.
Originally built for Edward Moss, it even had a vast tank for water spectacles. The dome at the top of the building would open and a diver would plunge down. This huge hydraulically powered water tank could be lowered into the basement and be replaced with seating for variety evenings. Down below was also the Elephant Run, an underground corridor that was designed to be wide enough for two elephants to pass each other on their way to and from their pens. Seems incredible, but completely true. And it's still there!
In 1909 works enlarged the stage and advanced the proscenium to suit the theatre for variety rather than circus and from 1912, revue too. The Hippodrome then saw a host of stars entertain their audiences, including Charlie Chaplin with the introduction of his film 'City Lights'in 1931.
In 1958 the venue became 'The Talk of the Town', one of London 's most celebrated cabaret nightspots where some of the world's biggest musical and comedy stars appeared. Many people today fondly remember The Talk of the Town, including it turned out, at great length, my mother. Sigh.
Anyway, in 1983 the man with the mullet, Peter Stringfellow, created 'the world's greatest discothèque'and gave the venue back its original name. Then it closed. And now it's reopening in a form that will delight many. One week before opening party night, I went to meet one of the main people behind the venture, Steve Bowen.
As well as managing Cirque for China White, Steve is President of the Leicester Square Association and as such was instrumental in opposing the use of Hippodrome as a casino as had been suggested. There was even talk of it being turned into a Sainsbury's which, even for a country seemingly hell bent on throwing away all its cultural treasures, seems unbelievable.
I get buzzed in through a side door and go up the timeworn backstage steps. Here you can feel, indeed smell, the history. Steve is in an office that boasts the corner window over the big sign, but that's about all it boasts. It's as bare as an empty wardrobe and people are running about everywhere, many talking an Eastern European language.
A BT engineer is wondering out loud how he is going to get all the sockets and wiring required into place and there is a constant flow of people demanding Steve's time and opinions. Just five days till the big opening party but Steve, dressed all in black, seems unfazed and takes me on a quick tour.
Rather than try and rip out all the 1980's horrors, they have decided to cover them up with plush new carpeting and swags of fabric. And it seems to be going well. Other bits require some imagination. 'That's going to be a bar', says Steve swinging an arm at a completely empty piece of space. 'And that's the VIP area,'he continues indicating another space filled only by some plywood scraps. A further void is optimistically labeled the restaurant area. But there is a 'can do'atmosphere abroad and money is not in short supply so you can't help but share Steve's optimism and confidence.
'Yes,'agrees Steve, 'it was pretty tatty inside. It was being run by a PLC who hadn't spent a penny in 12 years, 'he points out. 'In fact, it hasn't really had any money spent since Stringfellow started it up 20 years ago. But although we only have a fairly short lease, our re-clad and emphasis on the food and the quality of the entertainment will turn it around and bring some of the old glamour back to Leicester Square '
Steve is all too aware that there aren't many places in London that offer the old style dining and dancing.'No that's a big part of what we will be offering. A high quality night out, adult entertainment not clubbing for kids. The circus acts, burlesque cabaret, New York and Detroit dance music with electro glam disco funk and commercial house. Comedy acts, decadent dancing. Pure showmanship. Plus of course decent food, ' he enthuses, 'that's one of the reasons I've come on board.'
'We are rebuilding the kitchens from scratch, The restaurant area will have a fantastic view of the action with a state of the art sound system delivering all the music but suitably muted for conversation. No one wants to be yelling over their food.'And what kind of food? 'Well', he explains, 'this is not a pure restaurant as such, it's a late night venue and so we will be serving things like burgers. Not just any old burgers, though'he reassures me. 'Our head chef John Blenkire who worked under Garry Hollihead in Sugar Reef does things like burgers with chorizo sausage and guacamole. He's also a genius at canapés.'The reference to canapés is, it turns out, because Steve intends to use the venue for corporate functions, too.
'With a venue this size it would be a mistake to think we could recoup the costs on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,'he points out. 'It would be a very empty, very large club even if we closed part of it off. Instead we're going to keep the early part of the week free for launches with a fabulous space which can be changed to suit any requirement'
Opening night is Thursday so I leave clutching my party invite. 'It's going to be great,'Steve insists. ' Everything will be in place, the bars, the VIP area, the caviar, the circus. The fabulous lighting and sound system , everything.'His enthusiasm is infectious and his desire to get things done palpable. He bounds off up the stairs two at a time, keen to get this great big show on the road.
P.S. Steve made his deadline. The opening party on 1st April was a packed affair with paparazzi jamming the door, a busy bar and thousands and thousands of remarkable canapés. Everything somehow made it into place and it looks like Cirque will definitely bring back the magic that rightfully belongs to Leicester Square