Edinburgh’s west end is to be transformed for the festive season by a spectacular light show which attracted more than a quarter of a million people to the Royal Mile last year.
The Street of Light event is moving from the heart of the High Street to the west end of George Street under a shake-up aimed at boosting the fortunes of local businesses and year-round cultural venues.
Fringe promoters brought in to rethink the Capital’s winter programme three years ago have added an extra ten days on to the run of the event, which will see 24 arches up to 19 metres high installed along the street.
A Broadway musical favourite will also be staged inside a new pop-up theatre in Edinburgh’s cultural quarter under a drive to take the seven-week festival into new parts of the city.
Underbelly has joined forces with stage impresario Cameron Mackintosh and Hollywood actor Clarke Peters to revive their hit show Five Guys Named Moe in a brand new arena off Lothian Road.
A 600-capacity Spiegeltent will take over Festival Square under the latest shake-up of the Christmas events by Underbelly, which has pledged to turn the area into the home of live entertainment at the festival, which is said to be worth almost £200 million to the city’s economy.
The Olivier award-winning musical, which will run from November 18 till January 7, will be at the heart of a new joint campaign, dubbed Christmas on Stage, to promote shows at the Royal Lyceum and Traverse theatres, and the Usher Hall.
Underbelly has forged new partnerships with two major employers in the west end area, Standard Life and the Sheraton Hotel, to help boost the expansion of the Christmas festivities, which attracted some 1.3m visitors last year.
The section of George Street between Castle Street and Charlotte Square will be closed to traffic to accommodate the vast light installation, which features around 60,000 light bulbs and is expected to attract up to 350,000 visitors in its new location.
Two 15-minute light shows set to specially-recorded soundtracks are staged each evening during the run, which gets under way on November 20, when George Street will host an open-air carnival to herald the switching on of Christmas lights across the city centre.
One of the city’s main festive markets is also being relocated to the west end of George Street from St Andrew Square, where the city’s main ice rink will be retained. City centre managers say the new arena in Festival Square and the removal of the market will help ease pressure on the square’s garden, which is also deployed for Fringe shows each summer.
The expansion plans for Edinburgh’s Christmas have been confirmed months after Underbelly director Charlie Wood declared an ambition to stage events in more parts of the city in future years.
Much was made of last year’s move into the Old Town, but Mr Wood said George Street was a much more suitable location for Street of Light because it is flatter and wider than the Royal Mile.
Underbelly says around 100,000 extra tickets will be available for Street of Light this year, which will feature recorded music from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the junior chorus of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Highland folk group Blazin’ Fiddles and Glasgow-based Bhangra outfit Tigerstyle.
Mr Wood said: “Last year the event was very much about watching and taking in the music, but this year – particularly with the involvement of Blazin’ Fiddles and Tigerstyle – we want to get people dancing. It should be about participating as much as spectating.
“We are trying to do the best we can for as much of the city as possible. With the budget we have, there is only so much that we can do. We’re contracted to do things all around the city and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
“Around 60 per cent of people who came to Street of Light last year said that they were only there for the event that day. It literally brought tens of thousands of people into the city centre who would not otherwise have been there.”
Five Guys Named Moe, which was a huge Fringe hit when it was staged at Edinburgh University’s McEwan Hall in 2010, was created by Peters, one of the main stars of crime drama The Wire, who has given the green light for the Edinburgh revival of the show he launched in London 26 years ago.
Festival Square, which was created opposite the Usher Hall during the development of Edinburgh’s financial district, has been little used for cultural events in recent years, when it was dominated by a controversial giant TV screen, which has now been removed.
Mr Wood added: “It really makes sense for us to use Festival Square this year, it was the most obvious place. To be honest, the size of the Spiegeltent that we are bringing over from Belgium for Five Guys Named Moe simply wouldn’t fit into St Andrew Square.
“It’s not just about creating a bigger audience capacity, it’s also about the amount of staging we can put in for the show. We did look at other places around Edinburgh, but it makes a lot of sense for us to expand to Festival Square. “With our partnership other venues in the area, I think there will be the real sense of a cultural hub. They will audiences that we don’t have and we will have audiences that they don’t have. By pooling all of our resources and efforts I think we can achieve a lot.”
The Christmas on Stage initiative – which replicates a long-standing partnership between Underbelly and three rival Fringe promoters – will see collaboration on the promotion of shows, selling of tickets and the sharing of audience databases.
David Greig, artistic director of the Royal Lyceum, said, “I love Christmas shows, it’s the perfect time to coorie in with the ones you love in a theatre and laugh, cry and share the joy of a good story well told. Christmas on Stage is going to be a blast.”
Linda Crooks, executive producer of the Traverse, added: “We’re delighted to be a part of this new collaboration, which celebrates Edinburgh as a year-round destination for quality entertainment.
“As a venue and producer of new work throughout the year, we aim to continuously enrich the cultural offering for visitors to the city whenever they come. The Christmas on Stage partnership celebrates the diversity of live performance to be found in the city’s west end.”
Five Guys Named Moe was initially staged at the Theatre Royal Stratford East before securing transfers to the West End and Broadway. The cast of the new production of Five Guys Named Moe offered a taste of the Festival Square show at the launch of Edinburgh’s Christmas programme at the Traverse.
The show tells the story of a down-on-his-luck and newly-single young man who finds solace with the five singers who suddenly materialise out of his ready and start to perform the songs of jazz and blues legend Louis Jordan.
Speaking about the forthcoming run in Edinburgh, New York-born Peters said: “What’s nice about a venue like the Spiegeltent is that it feels like the circus. That environment, in the way that we hope to use, will be as zany as hell.
“I guarantee you that at the end of Five Guys Named Moe you will have a real good sense of who Louise Jordan was – that spirit and joi de vivre is something we really need right now.
“Louis wanted to really give people a good time. That is exactly what Five Games Named Moe is about.”
Paulette Randall, director of Five Guys Named Moe, added “I’m thrilled and so excited to be back in Edinburgh with this amazing show. We had a such a warm and enthusiastic response last time we here and this Christmas promises to be even better.”
The relocation of Street of Light and the Scottish market to the west end of George Street have emerged in the wake of an admission from city centre chief that the area needs more support to help it cope with the impact of forthcoming developments in the east end, including the long-awaited replacement for the St James shopping centre.
Several new restaurants are expected to open on the south side of St Andrew Square as part of a new commercial development spearheaded by Standard Life. Its partnership with Underbelly will see 10,000 free tickets for the ice rink given away to schoolchildren in Edinburgh. Roddy Smith, chief executive of business group Essential Edinburgh, said: “Edinburgh’s Christmas has been very successful at bringing people to the city centre during the Festive Season in even greater numbers, so we welcome the announcement of such an exciting programme.
“It is excellent that the festival is being spread across the city centre with both George Street and the west end at Festival Square becoming new hubs of activity.”