Historic St Stephen’s Church to be Fringe venue

St Stephen's Church above is owned by Leslie Benzies but is open to the community. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
St Stephen's Church above is owned by Leslie Benzies but is open to the community. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
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An iconic Geogian church owned by a video game tycoon is set to become a staple of the Fringe calender.

St Stephen’s Church was sold to Grand Theft Auto creator Leslie Benzies by the Church of Scotland in an undisclosed deal thought to be well in excess of £500,000.

The multi-millionaire president of games giant Rockstar North said he wanted to preserve the A-listed building and renovate it for the benefit of the local community.

The three-level Stockbridge church was a popular Fringe venue up until 2013, but no shows were staged there last year as the building’s future was in doubt.

Now it has emerged that a raft of UK theatre companies have lodged an interest in leasing it for this year’s Fringe.

Among the budding tenants is Sell a Door, which has proposed to stage events from the church alongside Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which was co-founded by Beatles star Sir Paul McCartney.

The Benzies Foundation, the charitable trust which manages the venue on behalf of the ­philathropist, is in talks with several arts companies.

The team is keen to capitalise on the lucrative summer festival season. However, no final agreements have been struck with the interested firms.

St Stephen’s has a range of performance spaces, including an 800-capacity main hall and another hall with space for 200 seated spectators.

If Sell a Door theatre company is successful, the building – which would be operated under the name Momentum Venues – would host a mix of productions. The firm’s artistic director, David Hutchinson, said the venture would focus on musicals, while also offering other platforms.

He said: “The 200-seat playhouse will be more traditional new writing and drama and the 50-seat studio for the smaller one-man small-set pieces.”

Philip Johnston, Mr Benzies’ agent, said letting out the venue for the Fringe season was a key aim of the trust.

“It’s important that we let the space out for the Festival. We had four or five serious offers and a large amount of general inquiries. The serious offers were from companies in Newcastle, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Nothing has been agreed yet.”

He said yoga classes, theatre rehearsals and meetings were among the other events regularly held at the venue.

“There was a function there last night, and there’s a Burns Supper over the weekend, while Edinburgh Academy use it for prizegivings,” he said. “It’s now getting used as we had intended.”

A community consultation will be held into extensive renovation plans for the A-listed venue, which does not have disabled access. The trust is also in ongoing talks with the Council to reach a solution over the St Stephen’s church bell.

The 186-year-old bell has been stopped from chiming by environmental health officers after four objections were made over decibel levels at night.

The A-listed building, which dates back to the 1820s, has been hailed as one of the most important Georgian buildings in the New Town.