Edinburgh’s old Royal High School set to become biggest new Fringe addition as musical ‘melting pot’

It is one of Edinburgh’s most celebrated historic landmarks, which was once earmarked as a home for the Scottish Parliament, but has hardly been used for more than half a century.

Tuesday, 2nd August 2022, 4:55 am
Updated Tuesday, 2nd August 2022, 12:17 pm

Now the old Royal High School on Calton Hill is set to burst into life as the biggest new venue at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in its 75th-anniversary year.

Dozens of acts are set to appear in three separate performance spaces in the building, which has been lying virtually unused since the school relocated in 1968.

Musicians who have taken over the building in the past few weeks hope it will become a “melting pot” for local and international talent over the next few weeks.

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    Although the Fringe officially gets underway on Friday, shows and performances are still being booked into the venue, which will include a terrace bar overlooking Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh’s Old Town. It is hoped the venue will be able to host impromptu performances by acts appearing elsewhere in the festivals.

    Two Edinburgh-based musical institutions – Pianodrome and the Tinderbox Collective – have joined forces to programme acts in the venue. The building is being made available for the Fringe before work begins in the autumn on a project to transform the landmark into a National Centre for Music.

    The venue was previously earmarked to become a luxury hotel, only for those plans to be rejected by councillors following protests over their potential impact on views of Calton Hill. The local authority gave its approval to the new music centre vision in October after examining the rival proposals for the site, near the east end of Princes Street.

    Initial plans to use it for a pop-up amphitheatre made out of recycled pianos have since been expanded to bring the Parliament’s planned debating chamber created in the 1970s into use, while free performances and sessions will be staged in an adjacent “residency bar”.

    Jack Nissan, artistic director of the Tinderbox Collective, and Matthew Wright, co-creator of the Pianodrome, at the old Royal High School, which will be used for this year's Fringe.

    The A-listed building was brought back into use earlier this year for the annual Hidden Door festival, which featured the latest incarnation of the Pianodrome, a venue made from “upcycled pianos”, which has been kept open since then for regular concerts.

    The company behind the Pianodrome had previously been in discussion with St Mary’s Music School, which will be moving into the redeveloped building and the charitable trust behind the National Music Centre, about being able to stage performances on site before work gets underway on the project.

    The Fringe collaboration between Pianodrome and the Tinderbox Collective will see dozens of performances, ranging from recitals and musical theatre to big-band gigs, with the musical styles ranging from classical, jazz and folk to electronica and hip-hop, staged over the next few weeks.

    Among the performers confirmed so far are jazz musician Fergus McCreadie, who has just been nominated for the Mercury Prize, opera singer Andrea Baker, folk favourites Chris Stout and Finlay MacDonald, and singer-songwriters Rachel Sermanni and Karine Polwart.

    Playing Beethoven will be among the Fringe shows staged at the old Royal High School. Picture: Douglas Robertson

    Other acts appearing include Chinese folk-punk ensemble Dawanggang, spoken word-rap collective Culture Clan, Indian puppeteer and drumming outfit Kathputli Colony, Kenyan dance troupe Project Elimu, alt-folk duo Jellyman’s Daughter, indie songwriter Brave Little Note and Edinburgh-based European folk collective Firelight Trio.

    Matthew Wright, co-creator of the Pianodrome, said: "The original idea for the Fringe was to have an amazing room where we could build a Pianodrome where we would have maybe four or five shows a day. We weren’t sure at that point whether we could take on any more than that.

    "But when we started to see the potential with the other amazing spaces in the building, we just felt that we had to use them. We felt it would be a crying shame if we didn’t fill it with loads of amazing stuff.

    "I do keep thinking that the building could have been open and in use for the last 30 years. It has a beautiful acoustic.”

    Musicians and Pianodrome founders Tim Vincent-Smith and Matthew Wright will be appearing at the old Royal High School during the Fringe. Picture: Gary Cavanagh

    Jack Nissan, artistic director of the Tinderbox Collective, said: “The building really exploded into life for the Hidden Door festival. You could really see its potential.

    "There has been an enormous effort to turn it into a venue this year and it just felt like such a great opportunity to be able to use the most incredible building for the whole month of the Fringe. It’s almost too good to be true.

    "Hidden Door was unbelievable when it was held here – it was so good to see the place come to life. What Pianodrome do is brilliant and unique as well. They were putting everyone into opening it up for the Fringe and I was really keen to help.

    "The Tinderbox Orchestra were already doing a run of shows with various collaborators. We only decided a week ago to put on more late-night events to bring it to life a bit more. We just had to go for it."

    The old Royal High School represents a major expansion of the footprint of the Fringe, which will also see a Spiegeltent venue operated at the nearby St James Quarter, which is also home to the Fringe’s official performers’ centre and new street theatre areas this year.

    Mr Wright added: "The basic concept we have got is that the more we put on, the more people will come. And the more people come, the more we can put on.

    The Tinderbox Orchestra will be playing the old Royal High School throughout the Fringe. Picture: Chris Scott

    "We’ve already had so many bands wanting to play here.”

    Mr Nissan said: "It would be a crime if the spaces in the building were not being used during the Fringe.

    “We have got access to the building before it becomes the new music centre and have real freedom to use it at the moment. As an artist and musician you just want to make things happen here.

    "I think it’s really going to catch on during the Fringe. It’s such a brilliant venue, in such a brilliant location, with so much brilliant stuff going on. We just have to get people to come here.”

    A pop-up Pianodrome will be hosting performances throughout the Fringe. Picture: Gary Cavanagh