Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre is facing a previously unthinkable bleak future – Brian Ferguson
January is normally a bleak enough month.
But the growing sense of unease in the Scottish cultural sector has taken an even more sobering turn with the news that the future of one of Edinburgh’s best-known entertainment venues is on the line, once again.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve written about the precarious fate of the King’s Theatre over the last 20 years. It has lost out while major works were carried out at the Assembly Rooms and the Usher Hall, despite various redevelopment plans, rescue packages and funding bids in that time.
Yet the King’s is the latest addition to a depressing and lengthening list of historic cultural venues in the Scottish capital in a state of limbo, including the Ross Bandstand, Leith Theatre, and the Filmhouse and Odeon cinema buildings. It is six years since Capital Theatres, which runs the King’s on behalf of the city council, warned of the growing risk of a “sudden closure” due to its outdated and run-down facilities.
A tour of its backstage areas was an eye-opening experience to say the least. The scale of work needed meant that the cost of bringing it properly up to scratch had topped £25 million by the time detailed designs were drawn up.
When Fiona Gibson was unveiled as the new chief executive of Capital Theatres in 2019, she inherited a King’s refurbishment project that, at long last, appeared to be on track, despite another lottery bid setback, after securing the backing of the Scottish Government and the city council.
The fates have not been kind to the King’s since then, with the postponement of a planned 2021 start date due to the pandemic, and a redrawn timetable thrown into turmoil by the spiralling cost of the project over the last year, which have been blamed on inflation and the war in Ukraine. When actor Brian Cox highlighted the plight of the King’s in August, its outlook was grim, with a £7 million funding gap to be bridged to ensure work could begin on the revamp. Its situation looks even more desperate now.
Hopes that the UK Government could bail out of the project through its “Levelling Up” fund were dashed last week, sparking warnings that the venue was in the “last chance saloon” unless the funding gap, now nearly £8.9m, can be bridged. That would be enough of a challenge to achieve in the next few years given the squeeze on public spending.
But Capital Theatres has set a 35-day deadline to secure the backing in the hope of being able to keep to its latest timetable for refurbishment. In another, not-so-distant era, I would have been optimistic of a swift solution being found. The long-term closure of the King’s would have been unthinkable.
But as anyone working in the arts will tell you, these are not normal times. A walk past Edinburgh’s boarded-up Filmhouse building will also tell you that the previously unthinkable has already come to pass.
The current cultural climate probably explains why Fiona Gibson does not appear to be bluffing about the seriousness of the situation over the King’s. Whether anyone in power in the city, or at the highest levels of the Scottish Government, can do anything about it is another matter.