Festival Theatre celebrates 25 years at heart of Edinburgh’s entertainment scene

ON the 18th of June 1994, having languished as a bingo hall for three decades or more, Edinburgh’s Empire Theatre rose phoenix-like from the dust of a £20million redevelopment as The Festival Theatre.
Festival TheatreFestival Theatre
Festival Theatre

Celebrating its silver anniversary this weekend, the venue marks the milestone with 25 Live, a variety show highlighting the work it does with its many community partners.

It’s a fitting nod to the theatre’s grand opening 25 years ago, which saw the Nicolson Street venue open its doors to the public for the first time with the gala variety performance, Meet Me At The Empire.

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Duncan Hendry, chief executive of Capital Theatres, recalls, “When the Empire Theatre was redeveloped and reopened, it was built to be Edinburgh’s Opera House.

Dame Edna with Chief Executive Duncan HendryDame Edna with Chief Executive Duncan Hendry
Dame Edna with Chief Executive Duncan Hendry

“The then General Manager Paul Iles had the vision to understand that even though it had the grandeur, the stage and the acoustics to fulfil that role, its function would also be to present a broader programme beyond opera and ballet.

“He opened the building with a variety show - with the Krankies top of the bill - and a gala performance of Scottish Opera’s Tristan und Isolde to say that the Festival Theatre had the capacity to be home to a broad and eclectic programme of live entertainment.”

The Festival Theatre has lived up to that dream of diversity in the intervening years staging ballet, opera, comedy, musicals, films and contemporary dance.

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It has also hosted the Edinburgh International Film Festival as well as the finals of the Evening News’ own star search, Edinburgh Has Talent, in 2013.

Donny OsmondDonny Osmond
Donny Osmond

Another major moment in the venue’s history came 10 years earlier when in 2003 it was chosen to host the 75th Royal Variety Performance.

Held in the presence of the Queen and Duke Of Edinburgh, it was broadcast on ITV and starred Ronnie Corbett, The Osmonds, Gloria Estefan, Westlife and Luciano Pavarotti amongst others.

Some of the Festival Theatre’s more bizarre highlights over the years, however, include the filming of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent auditions.

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They generated so much excitement in 2012, Simon Cowell and co. returned in 2015.

Another larger than life character to walk down the red carpet was Dame Edna Everage ahead of her Eat Pray Laugh! tour.

Entertaining fans, Dame Edna handed out her signature gladioli and joked that had she known The Full Monty was playing the venue at the time, she would have got her bikini line done.

Mr Hendry reflects, “I think in its 25 year history so far, Paul’s vision has held true.

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“The Festival Theatre continues to be Edinburgh’s Opera House but it is also Scotland’s leading venue for contemporary and international dance.

“Because of its incredible acoustics and its vast stage, it’s also a great venue for event theatre, big shows like War Horse, and the big blockbuster musicals like Miss Saigon and Mary Poppins.”

Off-stage, perhaps the most striking change to the Nicolson Street landscape brought about by the opening of the Festival Theatre is the now iconic ‘fish-tank’ glass frontage and foyer, designed by architect Colin Ross.

Although it was immediately passed by the planning department a quarter of a century ago, current Lord Provost Frank Ross recently speculated the 82ft high structure wouldn’t get past the planners now.

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If the exterior changed, inside the original 1928 auditorium of the old Empire remains to this day, refurbished and boasting a new two-metre high art deco chandelier comprising 76 lamps and 180 glass facets.

The original fittings of 1928 would have been far less grand.

On Saturday, 1 June, 25 Live will reflect the Festival Theatre’s place at the heart of the Capital’s entertainment scene with a show that brings together groups from around the city and includes a snapshot of the venue’s ground breaking dementia friendly work.

Presented by Radio Scotland’s Jamie MacDougall and BBC 3’s Saskia Ashdown, the variety show will feature the pupils of Pilrig Park School and premiere two new works commissioned specifically for the occasion - Dance Ihayami and WHALE Arts will celebrate 50 years of Wester Hailes with a new dance piece and Scottish Opera will present Spinning Songs, an inter-generational song-writing project.

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Mr Hendry says, “The Festival Theatre was the first venue in Scotland to stage a relaxed performance and we’ve led the way in making live performance accessible to everyone with relaxed and dementia friendly performances a big part of what we do.

“I’m sure that in the next 25 years the Festival Theatre will continue to present a broad programme in a relaxed and friendly environment where everyone feels welcome.”

25 Live: The Big Birthday Bash, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 7pm, £10, 0131-529 6000