Edinburgh Playhouse at 85: Looking back

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LAVISH and luxurious, with the grandest of entrances and the chance to snap up a plush gold cushioned balcony seat for a mere shilling, the curtain rose on Edinburgh’s newest entertainment venue for a production that would run and run.

Like all good theatre performances, there’s been high drama, song and dance, laughter, the occasional hiccup – not that the audience ever knew about it – and a few heart-wrenching moments of despair, doom and gloom.

The Edinburgh Playhouse as it once was. Picture: Comp

The Edinburgh Playhouse as it once was. Picture: Comp

But 85 years since the Playhouse opened its doors to allow the first full house of more than 3000 eager entertainment seekers inside – the show is still going strong.

The grand old lady of Greenside Place is preparing to mark her 85th birthday with a party that reflects her own gripping tale.

It will cover that opening chapter on August 12, 1929 when, after a slightly stuttering start, the first of what would become hundreds of thousands of audience members took their seats, and continue to do so right up to the present day.

Later this month, 120 of the area’s most talented young people will tread the floorboards of the massive stage for Megamix, a two-night production featuring music, dance and drama drawn from the thousands of shows and stars who have kept Playhouse ­audiences entertained down the decades.

The young performers will follow in the famous footsteps of some of the globe’s biggest names – including Laurel and Hardy, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Billy Connolly, along with theatre world’s best-loved musicals, such as Cats, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera. They have all brought the cavernous theatre to life.

But while the Playhouse has a modern reputation as Scotland’s very own “West End” venue, home of the blockbuster musical and thrilling live performances, it was moving pictures – and in particular, new fangled “talkies” – that drew those first audiences over the threshold.

Building had started on the new Playhouse in 1927, but fittingly for what would become a premium location for high drama, there were problems.

Subsidence brought work to a halt and the opening date was shelved for a year while piles were driven up to 60ft into the bedrock, hundreds of tons of concrete poured into the new foundations and huge steel rods erected to shore up the structure.

It was a grim process that cost almost the same as the actual building and nearly bankrupted the parent company.

The Playhouse eventually opened as a “super cinema” with a bill of two talkie movies and a silent film featuring leading actress of the day Clara Bow. But the real A-list performer that night, was the spectacular theatre itself.

Designed by Scottish ­architect John Fairweather and based on the Roxy Theatre in New York, it transformed a trip to the cinema into an opulent affair starring thick carpets, the luxury of electric fires in the foyer, comfortable lounges, cosy cafes and soda fountains, with plush seats of crimson for the stalls, purple for the circle and gold for the balcony.

Above the stage was a striking feature depicting morning sunrise, golden sunset or the deep blue sky of a summer’s evening, changeable depending on what was happening outside, and, most impressive, was an electric lift to raise and lower the orchestra or organ as required.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Playhouse was its ability to switch roles down the years, including as a pre-war cinema venue, a thumping rock and roll concert hall, a sophisticated set for opera and ballet, an intimate comedy show venue and its most ­recent star performance as Scotland’s prime musical theatre venue.

Pam Aldred, 42, has worked behind the scenes at the Playhouse for 25 years and is now deputy marketing manager.

She remembers a revitalised theatre in the late Eighties, having survived the threat of demolition and several years in darkness during the Seventies.

“I started here in 1989 and in the first couple of weeks there had been two nights of Elton John, two nights of Stevie Wonder and two nights of the Eurythmics. It was gig after gig after gig.”

When the rock and roll shifted west to Glasgow’s new SECC, the musical theatre rolled in – and stayed.

According to manager Adam Knight, the Playhouse may be 85 this year but she is still evolving and moving with the times.

He says: “We are the home of the big musical in 
Scotland.

“The Lion King last year, we have the Jersey Boys in October, Wicked at Christmas and more big shows on the way.

“But we are also developing a creative learning programme for people of all ages who want to get involved in the arts.

“The Playhouse is an iconic venue for the city that’s well loved by everyone, all generations. We’ve no plans to stand still.”

• Megamix, a celebration of the best musicals and performances shown through the years at the Playhouse is on 25 and 26 ­August, 7.30pm (2.30pm matinee on 26). Tickets: www.atgtickets.com/edinburgh or 0844 871 3014