The old lady of Leven Street is set for a facelift as a £25m project aims to install new lifts, a flatter stage and a glass-walled rooftop function room, writes Joyce McMillan
If everything goes according to plan, then one day in the autumn of 2021, just after the Edinburgh Festival, the city’s much-loved King’s Theatre in Leven Street will close its doors, wrap itself in dust-sheets, and invite the builders in.
There will also be new lifts and staircases travelling the full seven-storey height of the building, new scene dock access from Tarvit Street, a flatter stage so that the theatre can host state-of-the-art dance, and, on the rooftop of the building, a brand new glass-walled function room with dazzling views across the city. And Festival City Theatres trust chief executive Duncan Hendry, who runs both the King’s and Festival Theatres, hopes that with these changes, the King’s can become to Tollcross what the Festival Theatre already is in Nicolson Street – a bustling, always-open daytime hub for the local area, as well as a beloved and beautiful place of entertainment in the evenings.
“This is such a beautiful building,” says Duncan Hendry, looking around at the glorious red-and-gold auditorium, with its 2013 painted dome by John Byrne. “It’s exciting to think of redesigning it so that it can be open and full of life all day long. We’re hoping to have exhibitions here about the history of theatre, the history of pantomime, and the history of Tollcross, and we’re trying to work out a route so that people can tour the whole building, on almost any day they visit.”
The cost of the planned works is daunting, though, at an estimated £25 million. And although some of the money is already in place – from Festival City Theatres’ own £1.50 building levy on each ticket sold, and from Edinburgh City Council, which has committed to cross-party support for the project – Duncan Hendry was delighted, last week, to announce that the leading Scottish actor Brian Cox, who is already patron of the Lyceum Theatre, has agreed to become Honorary Patron of the campaign to transform the King’s. A key application to the Heritage Lottery Fund is under way; and if that is successful, then the campaign will begin the herculean task of raising the final £10m, from sponsors, trusts, foundations, and from the theatre’s loyal and loving public.
“I believe the King’s is the perfect corollary to the other traditional theatre spaces in Edinburgh,” says Brian Cox. “It has such a diverse programme, and a long history very much in the best tradition of popular theatre, from the famous Howard and Wyndham Five Past Eight shows, to the continuous legacy of pantomime involving some of the greatest performers of the past – Stanley Baxter, Duncan Macrae, Edinburgh’s own Ronnie Corbett. So I am very proud to be patron of the King’s refurbishment, bringing this great space into the 21st century.”
And two of theatre’s current panto stars, Andy Gray and Grant Stott, agree that much though they love the theatre, the time for change has come. “It’s terrible in there!” says Andy Gray, of the dingy stage-level “star” dressing room he occupies for months every winter. “There’s penicillin growing in the shower – in fact I haven’t dared to use it for years, since I saw a mouse racing out of it! Then of course, while I was on stage, Grant got hold of a giant mouse costume from the forest creatures scene in the panto, and stuck it in the corner. I nearly screamed the place down.”
Stars as distinguished as Lisa Goddard have been known to complain of being unable to get elaborate costumes in and out of the tiny, 1950s-sized toilet cubicles at the end of each dressing-room corridor. And when Grant Stott resumed residence in his regular upstairs dressing room, some years ago, he set about refurbishing the whole thing, with the help of a friend who worked at Stirling World Of Furniture.
“Oh, I feel so affectionate about the whole place,” says Stott. “It’s been all my Christmases for the past 20 years, and it’s also the memories of going there with my granny, when I was about six – I can still remember where I was sitting. But really, I often wonder what the big stars who come here with touring shows must think of it, backstage. And there’s so much that could be done by opening up the theatre during the day. When I interviewed Duncan for a video we’ve made about this, he called the King’s a sleeping giant, at the heart of Edinburgh; and that’s really what it is.”
So now, the hard work of reimagining and fundraising begins, with everyone who has memories or knowledge of the King’s, or who would like to be involved, warmly invited to contact Duncan Hendry at Festival City Theatres. To Hendry’s delight, Nick Thomas of Q-dos, the Scarborough-based pantomime producing company, has already offered to sponsor a special part of the work, the full restoration of the wood-panelled first floor Cruickshank Room, which was once the boardroom for the whole Howard and Wyndham’s theatre organisation, UK-wide. And with that kind of luck, and plenty of help from its tens of thousands of friends, it looks as though the sleeping giant of Edinburgh theatre – the dear old lady of Leven Street – may be waking up, one day six years from now, to a whole new lease of life. ■