Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre set to undergo £25m makeover

Kings Theatre chief executive Duncan Hendry inside the historic Edinburgh theatre. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Kings Theatre chief executive Duncan Hendry inside the historic Edinburgh theatre. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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One of Edinburgh’s most historic cultural venues is to undergo a £25 million makeover to secure its future for another 50 years.

The King’s Theatre, which dates back to 1906, would close for 18 months to allow the biggest overhaul in its history to be carried out.

Radical improvements to its stage, auditorium, backstage areas, bars and cafes areas would be carried out under a blueprint aimed at preventing it from sudden closure.

The city council and the Heritage Lottery Fund would contribute £5 million each under a rescue plan which see a similar amount generated via contributions from theatregoers.

The charitable trust, which runs the theatre on behalf of the council, needs a further £10 million from a public appeal to ensure work can begin as planned in 2021.

Councillors will be asked next week to approve the £5 million backing in principle to allow a bid to be lodged with the HLF later this year. It is not yet known whether the timetable of work would affect two summer festival periods or two pantomimes. The trust also programmes events at the Festival Theatre, which would host the Christmas show during a closure of the King’s.

The first major overhaul of the “Grand Old Lady of Leven Street” since the 1950s, when its upper balcony was removed, is expected to operate as a daily visitor attraction, with guided tours and an exhibition of archive material.

Key priorities in the forthcoming revamp include improving access for disabled people, replacing the an outdated “raked stage” and providing new workshop space for school and students.

The theatre’s currently 1350 capacity is expected to be reduced by around 200 to allow the back of the upper stalls to be moved forward and new corporate hospitality spaces to be created, including a possible glass roofed area boasting views across the city.

The King’s has played host to the likes of Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Simon Callow, Maria Callas, Ian McKellen, Rikki Fulton and Sean Connery since 1906.

However a major overhaul of the King’s, one of the flagship venues used for the Edinburgh International Festival, is seen as long overdue.

A planned £14 million revamp in time for its centenary was shelved after the project was turned down for backing by the HLF and the then Scottish Arts Council.

A £2.6 million scheme to carry out urgent repairs, ensure the building was wind and watertight, and install new seating in the stalls and dress circle was carried out in 2012.

However a new report for the city council, which has owned the building since 1969, warns that it is “in need of major development to bring it up to 21st century standards.”

It states: “Backstage redevelopment is essential to meet current legislative requirements and to attract modern touring companies. The exterior and interior of the building are in a poor state, and facilities are in need of modernisation. Access is extremely difficult for visitors with limited mobility.

“The ambition is to modernise and preserve the King’s for at least the next 50 years. The redevelopment would give a new lease of life to a beautiful and important historic building, and an asset to the city and local community.”

The council report warns the HLF is “highly unlikely” to support the project unless the council matches the £5 million contribution from the trust, which is being generated from a £1.50 levy on tickets.

Duncan Hendry, chief executive of the Festival City Theatres Trust, said: “Access to the theatre is very poor at the moment and the backstage facilities are not in great shape. There’s a risk of gradual decline, with attendances dropping and companies not coming here any more because the facilities don’t match their expectations.

“On a more positive note, Edwardian and Victorian theatres that been done up around the UK tend to be reinvigorated by that process.”

“We would probably start work on the project either after a festive season or after the pantomime, but we would not want to prioritise one or another at this stage. The timeframes may change once we get into the detailed design work.”

Under the proposed blueprint for the future of the King’s, the council would agree a 25-year lease with Festival City Theatres Trust, which has a current agree that is due to expire in 2023.

Richard Lewis, the council’s culture leader, said: “We’ve been looking very closely at the future of the King’s, which has had very little work done to it since the 1980s, and has backstage facilities which date back to the 1950s.

“There have been various options, but we’ve decided to go for a transformative one because otherwise we would just be delaying the inevitable. We’ve got a building which needs work done on it if it’s going to have a future life. There’s no question about it.

“It will be up to the next council administration to sign off the money, but it is very important to put down a market that this is one of our major priorities.

“I feel very strongly that this is something we need to get moving on.”