More than 100 years ago 76 polar bears frolicked in its water tank. Eighty years ago there were musical comedies on stage, including such shows as No, No, Nanette. Forty years ago Shirley Bassey or Judy Garland might have been performing before a smoke-filled room of diners. Last night you could have seen a man contort his body through a stringless tennis racket.
The London Hippodrome in Leicester Square has had one of the most colourful histories of any British building associated with entertainment since it opened in 1900, with its ridiculously over-the-top centrepiece: a 100,000-gallon water tank. Since then it has been a music hall, a theatre, a cabaret club (Talk of the Town), and a nightclub owned by Peter Stringfellow.
Now the Frank Matcham-designed building is at a crossroads. For years it has been little more than a corporate space for hire because no one could think of what to put in there. That all changed when the alternative circus La Clique moved in last October, proving a huge success.
There are many who hope it will remain there, but looming large is the GBP 8m plan to convert the Hippodrome into a casino, complete with slot machines, gaming tables, poker room, cabaret bar and Gordon Ramsay restaurant. The company behind the plan has the advantage of having won planning permission for the scheme. It also won in the appeal court when rival casinos challenged the decision.
Nick Wright, the man who brought La Clique to the Hippodrome and who is there every night running the place, admitted it was like having a sword hovering over his head. He fears his „folly of being a London impresario“ is about to come to „a swift and unpleasant end“.
At one stage, Wright had hoped to revive the Hippodrome’s cabaret fortunes. „What I originally wanted was to take it back to Talk of the Town, to be doing dinner shows, because I think there’s a need for that in London. Everyone’s fed up with nightclubs. I want to sit and watch some entertainment and not be jostled.“
That did not happen and La Clique, a highlight of the Edinburgh festival, arrived with its eclectic mix of acts, including burlesque, strong men, magic and a sexy hunk in the bath.
„Everyone I spoke to in the West End told me it would only last a week, it’ll never work,“ said Wright. „But right from the off it was very obvious it was going to. It made the hair stand up on the back of your neck because it belongs in here.“
It has been enormously popular, with a diverse crowd of between 700 and 800 watching every night, some coming back more than once.
„When you go and see one of these big productions, it’s very much them and us. You’ve got the pros arch, you’ve got the fire curtain, you’ve got the orchestra pit, you’ve almost got 250-calibre machine guns guarding the audience from the cast. With this, you’re up close and personal – it makes the audience bond with the cast,“ said Wright.
The casino plan had been opposed by other casinos in central London but the legal team for United Leisure Gaming won their case, arguing that this proposal would be unique in the capital. And there is no doubting that the group is proposing to restore some of the building to its former glory, much of which is unseen by the audiences coming in to see La Clique. It is a building with hidden delights – the minstrel’s gallery at the top, for example – and wonderful plasterwork, friezes and balustrades.
Simon Thomas, chairman of Hippodrome Casinos, said plans were progressing rapidly and the company hoped to start work in earnest in the summer. „It is a big project, a substantial renovation, and has to be done properly,“ he said. „We are getting all of the detailed plans in place. Westminster council are fantastically thorough, which is a good thing because we want to make it stunning again. This building has been neglected for too long.“
Thomas said the recession may even make things easier because they would get better prices from construction companies and commodity prices might also come down.
And what about the gambling? „It is possible that people might be less inclined to gamble but we are trying to offer something a bit different,“ he said. „London has a lot of hard gambling casinos but we are not going for the big gamblers. We think our customers will only spend a little over GBP 30 a head. Our customers will get the opportunity to see some free cabaret, see a beautiful building, have a little flutter – we are not looking at the high end.“
Thomas said of La Clique: „It’s a great show I’m sure, I’m going next week and looking forward to it, but it is not commercially viable. The numbers don’t stack up in the long term. Lots of theatrical producers have tried to make the Hippodrome work for them but have not been able to.“