We take a first look inside the Edinburgh Playhouse after a year of lockdown
The smell of the greasepaint has faded, the roars of the crowd silenced. Just over a year ago, the pandemic forced the curtain to fall on performances at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Ever since, only the glow of a ghost light has remained to keep the spirit of the building alive.
On a normal show day some 200 people work backstage, onstage and front of house at The Playhouse, each ensuring a not to be forgotten experience is had at the 3,000 plus capacity venue, the largest seated proscenium arch theatre in Europe. Today, just five people are on site, the most since lockdown began reveals theatre director Colin Marr.
Photographer Andy O'Brien and myself make it seven - it's the first time visitors have been allowed into the Greenside Place premises since its doors closed to the public on March 23, 2020.
Sitting, socially distanced and masked, in the stalls, I remember most theatre owners insist they never really own a venue, they simply care-take it for future generations. Theatre directors are the same, although a year of literally caretaking The Playhouse, as owners ATG furloughed staff, was never something Colin imagined having to do.
He reflects, "That's a lovely sentiment but I never thought I would actually be a caretaker. Obviously our job is entertaining the people of Edinburgh on a day to day basis, but yes, we also have to look after this building, which has been here for close to 100 years now, and to make sure it is here, developing and growing for the next 100 years."
Consequently, throughout the last 12 months, Colin has often found himself alone in the theatre, discovering parts of the building he never knew existed.
"Over the last year I have been here, very often on my own, and I have got into all sorts of nooks and crannies of which I wasn't aware - old rooms, stairways and secret passages. I have also realised there are a lot of stairs – getting in my 10,000 steps a day has become easy."
Opened in 1929 as one of Scotland’s first ‘super-cinemas’, the labyrinth of old stone corridors and stairwells of The Playhouse have proved a ghost hunters delight over the years with a number of overnight vigils being held in the hope of contacting Albert, the resident ghost, and while Colin is sceptical about the spectre’s existence, he admits walking the empty, dark hallways certainly had its scarier moments.
"It took me the first four or five times being in the building on my own, often walking around with just a torch, because it's often easier to catch a leak or a damp patch in a torch beam than with full lights, to get used to it."
He explains, "Buildings this age make noises, they move a lot. So in the beginning I jumped a lot, there's no question about that. After a while you settle into it and begin to understand what’s making the noises - you know that if you walk along one corridor, the door you've just come through will take 30 seconds to shut and will go bang when you are at the other end of the corridor. So, while I personally have no experience of Albert, I know many of the staff do and I'm sure he's up there somewhere."
Colin, who was appointed Theatre Director in 2017, now has a better understanding of the building he runs but not just from his patrols of the building, lockdown has also allowed work to begin on a new scene dock, stage right.
"In the time we have been closed we’ve been able to take down the old scene dock. Hopefully we will have built a replacement before we reopen," he says, elaborating, "That work has entailed a lot of meetings with architects and looking at the original plans of The Playhouse. Being able to marry up my own experiences of the venue over the past year with those plans has given me a real insight into the building."
Despite the ongoing construction work, the auditorium is surprisingly free of dust considering the length of time it has been devoid of life.
"There are bits of the building that are very dusty, but the auditorium is remarkably dust free which is not the case in a lot of theatres up and down the land. We've been very lucky," admits Colin.
In fact, the auditorium looks very much as though it could have just waved farewell to its last audience moments before. Looking back, Colin concedes that although he could see lockdown coming last March, he never imagined its full impact.
"We could all see it coming in the weeks leading up to theatres being closed. We weren't sure exactly when it would happen, but the day it came I phoned my wife and said, 'That's us closed, probably for six or seven weeks...' That was my guess and here we are, more than a year later."
Time may indeed have passed, but even now, sitting in the stalls, there is an innate sense of expectation, very much that which might be experienced before another opening of another show.
"Apart from the auditorium, theatres can feel like bricks and mortar, but when you are sitting here there is an energy. Even when there is nothing on stage, you can feel it. Strangely enough, I get it even more in the dress circle than the stalls."
That expectation is finally beginning to feel well placed as the relaxation of lockdown tentatively begins.
"Yes there is light at the end of the tunnel but we still don't know how long that tunnel is and when we will be back,” Colin cautions, “but the hopeful sign from my perspective is that very few shows have disappeared, so we have a year's worth of shows still wanting to come. They’re almost fighting over diary space. So the signs are hopeful that when we reopen, the programme will be good quite quickly."
Big shows that have already secured their slots include The Book of Mormon, which was supposed to open last summer before being moved to this summer and just recently to September 2022. Disney's Beauty and the Beast, meanwhile, is due in town this October for a six week season. The returns of Hairspray and Riverdance have also been confirmed for later this year.
Before we set off for a tour of the venue, the last words go to Colin, who says, “The worst thing about the last year for me has been missing the staff and audiences. We are very much a family here and I can not wait for the time when we can open our doors again and I can stand in the foyer welcoming everyone back for a night at The Playhouse."