LEICESTER Square, 1900. Inside the newly opened Hippodrome, polar bears and elephants parade about and a troop of acrobatic dwarves dive from the Gods into a tank – across the room, Harry Houdini is performing some of his most spectacular acts. At its peak, the Hippodrome, built by Victorian theatre architect extraordinaire Frank Matcham, was London’s number one spot for glamour, glitz and variety shows. In the 1950s, as the legendary Talk of the Town, it saw the likes of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Julie Andrews debut or perform. A long period of night-clubbery followed; including a stint under Peter Stringfellow. Finally, as the burlesque venue Le Clique, it closed in June 2009.
But today Simon Thomas, a bingo magnate and passionate advocate and devotee of the vast Victorian venue, unveils the new Hippodrome, on Europe’s busiest corner. Having poured £40m into the refurb, which took 30 months, Thomas knows the building better than most people know their own homes. On our hard-hat tour last month, amid the densely complex wires and sandy half-built structures, he looked as familiar as someone walking round their front garden. More than that, he seemed serene; confident that this building, so broken up over the years, was about to be reborn in awesome form.
So what’s it like? A long, multi-layered entrance that looks infinite greets you at the front (there are several other entrances, including one straight from Chinatown). The Matcham Room is the main event: a 180-seat cabaret theatre with that high ceiling from which the dwarves used to leap. It’s got enormous globular chandeliers, gambling tables, a raised stage, and balconies where people can eat, drink and spectate. Elsewhere, cosy gaming rooms look out on Charing Cross Road, ladies’ loos are so well stocked they sport GHD hair straighteners (Thomas emphatically wants the female clientele to feel welcome), and 150-cover restaurant serves the likes of lobster fish fingers. In addition to the cabaret theatre and restaurant, the Hippodrome includes two extra floors of gaming, four private dining rooms, five bars, a double-level smoking terrace and numerous event spaces throughout.
The challenge for Thomas is to keep the venue busy, or at least, feeling busy, 24/7. He will do that by being clever about space: closing down extra rooms at slow times to ease the action into the cabaret room, or even into smaller rooms. But being perched on Europe’s busiest corner is not an opportunity he is going to miss. “We embody the ambitions of the changes to the Gaming Act which allows venues the offer visitors the opportunity to eat, drink, gamble and watch some of the world’s top entertainers,” says Thomas. “All under the same roof.” If that’s not a crowd pleaser, nothing is.
Tony Christie, Julia Dimbleby and Julian Ovenden are the first three performers. Tickets from £20. For more info and booking, go to hippodromecasino.com.