Fascinating and diverse – this is a night to remember
Bristol's Old Market district is one of the city's most historic, with over 60 listed buildings from the 16th century onwards – a tally beaten only by Georgian Clifton.
The area has, in recent decades, had a reputation as a slightly shabby, unloved part of town – but of late Old Market has been enjoying something of a cultural renaissance, fuelled by the arrival of venues like the nearby Creative Common and the returning Trinity Arts Centre.
Another new arrival – in fact in some ways, like Trinity, another returning favourite – is the Empire Theatre, a music and cabaret venue that has been opened up by Bristol cabaret impresario Keda Breeze in the stunning surroundings of a former bank building on West Street, complete with ornate banking hall and original money vaults downstairs.
Thus far, Keda has made very few changes to the building's interior, which features original cornices and later dungeon bars (its most recent incarnation was gay bar The Vault).
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"Our plan is to offer something a little different to Bristol's other venues, with a mix of cabaret club nights, scratch circus performance, arthouse installation, film and live music," Keda enthuses. "The venue has been through many incarnations, and we aim to offer a mix of entertainment as eclectic as its past."
The name, if not the venue itself, harks back to an older chapter in Old Market's entertainment history. The original Empire Theatre stood on the corner of Old Market itself and was – until its demolition in the 1960s to make way for the inner ring road – an important performance venue. Indeed, it was where Horfield lad Archibald Leach, later movie megastar Cary Grant, had his first job as a lighting assistant. And, Keda reveals, it's this former heyday that she and her team are attempting to evoke. in the new Empire.
Keda, best known for her work programming and performing in Bristol's hugely popular cabaret/burlesque nights Hoochie Coochie, is renting the building from owners Thorne Security.
"Leighton de Burca, Old Market's place-making director who is driving the area's regeneration, approached me and invited me to take on the business. He has followed my work on the Bristol cabaret and burlesque scene, and he saw what I do as a good fit for his vision for Old Market as the new bohemian quarter.
"Old Market is undergoing a complete revolution at the moment, spurred by Creative Common at one end and a number of cafés, venues and pubs popping up in the area.
"Our plan is to create a venue for everyone and a place for alternative nights to find themselves a home. We're working both with existing Bristol nights like English Disco Lovers and Arbor Nights, which suit the Empire Theatre vibe – but we also have nights such as Cabaret Abattoir [Saturday, October 26], London-based promoters who are attracted to Bristol because they have found a home at the Empire.
"Each week from Wednesday through to Sunday you'll be able to see quality entertainment, from circus and theatre to 'gorelesque' acts [a gorier take on burlesque] and freakshows."
An early highlight is the aforesaid Arbor Nights, in which guests are invited to don their thrift-shop glam for an evening of quality cabaret compèred by Doug Francisco of Bristol's circus-theatre troupe The Invisible Circus.
"The show brings together a stellar cast of international circus artists and home-grown talent, showcasing skills from hip-hop hat juggling to beautiful trapeze – and the world's most dangerous cup of tea," Keda enthuses.
And why should Bristol's music and performance fans come and check out the newly reborn Empire? at their earliest convenience?
"For something different from the norm, and to dance the night away! We're looking to create a late-night venue with entertainment at its heart – and a truly diverse audience that reflects this fascinating, varied part of town."
Arbor Nights is on Saturday, October 19, at 8pm, at Empire Theatre, 23 West Street, Old Market, Bristol