Once again Leith has thrown off the dust covers of another tumbledown treasure. On the 29th April 2017 the Custom House opened its doors to the public for the second time in nearly three decades. This time the old Leith Theatre is shedding its cloak after 28 years and is celebrating that fact by hosting the fourth Hidden Door Festival. From the 26th May to the 4th June 2017 this beautiful old art deco building will host a huge variety of live music, theatre, visual art, film and spoken word and in doing so, will bring life back to its beating heart.
The hope is that this theatre will shine again, as it did in its former years, not just for these 10 days but for the foreseeable future. The Leith TheatreTrust was set up in 2004 after a public outcry when the buildings were under threat of being sold off and turned into flats. The Trust’s main goal then was to examine the possibilities of reusing the theatre. In June 2013 they were successful in their bid to take over the management of the theatre complex and signed a 5 year lease with Edinburgh City Council in early 2016 to secure the longterm future of the building. Their aim now is to refurbish the theatre’s main auditorium and reopen it to provide a series of spaces which can host a wide range of arts, educational activities and events.
The Hidden Door Festival, I think, is the best way to showcase this amazing venue, with its labyrinthian backstage rooms, halls and stunning main auditorium. More importantly though, it gives the theatre complex a chance to show off its numerous capabilities of a being a multi-purpose venue which will add value to the Leith Community and generate business in the area. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s the theatre hosted opera and ballet performances and even some famous rock bands like AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and Slade.
The theatre and the Festival have pulled out all the stops this year to make sure that the event is a successful one. They’ve done an excellent job so far. I wandered down there last Saturday and Sunday in the daytime to have a look around. The building itself seems to be in pretty good shape and is a lot bigger than you would expect but does need a lot of renovation. The corridor and back rooms that surround the main theatre were full with all sorts of contemporary visual art. The paint is curling off the walls nearly everywhere you look but this adds character to the place. I popped my head around the door of the cinema upstairs just to see what it was like and it was packed to the rafters with people watching a movie that was being shown by the Edinburgh Short Film Festival.
What really took my breath away was the main auditorium. As I walked through the entrance my heart skipped a beat or two. I was so taken aback by the beauty of the place. The theatre is massive with lots of open space on the ground floor, a bar and a small cloakroom. The best view of the theatre though was from the u-shaped balcony upstairs.
The main lights were turned down with floodlights on here and there highlighting various pieces of art which were on display especially for the Festival. There was a band on stage doing a sound check. Moving lights of stars and moons that were reflected on the ceiling added to the atmosphere and beauty of the place. You could smell the dust in the air. The seats were steeply tiered and very old. Even in the half light you could see the grandeur of it all. Being up there on the balcony, taking in the smells, sights and sounds of the auditorium, with lots of people wandering around, was brilliant.
I loved the feel of place, the oldness of it, the anticipatory buzz of a venue like this waking up out of a deep sleep, ready to begin afresh, ready to bring some life, music and energy back into its bones. I like it when it’s at this stage: half in and half out of its cocoon. It’s a unique part of its revival which I love. It can be very difficult to hold onto or re-capture that sense of oldness at this stage of the process. But I’m sure it will be great when it is renovated and brought back to its former glory.
I walked around the corner of the building to the Speakeasy venue, or Thomas Morton Hall as it’s usually called. This hall was being used mostly for poetry readings and spoken word. They had transformed it into a lovely, cosy seated area, with round tables covered in dark table cloths, with candles dotted here and there, comfortable armchairs scattered around the walls and back of the room and dimmed lighting. There was such a nice atmosphere here too. Outside there were food stalls and a bar, with a few seats and tables here and there and coloured lights hanging up along the promenade.
The events that were going on during the day were free and from 6pm onwards it was ticketed, costing around £16 for the whole evening. Friday and Saturday night’s gigs were continuing until 3am. I bought a ticket for Friday 2nd June and went to see Werkha, Soweto Kinch and the Riot Jazz Band. It was midnight by the time the Riot Jazz Band started playing but it was worth the wait. They’re a very lively 9-piece brass band that play a mixture of aggressive jazz, funk, soul and hip hop. The place was rocking and you could feel the energy of the music from the word go. I should also mention that the light show for all the bands that played last night was fantastic.
In their bid to bring the theatre back to full use, the Leith Theatre Trust have gained the support of some well known stars, to encourage people to get involved in saving the future of the theatre. Rod Stewart, The Proclaimers, Irvine Welsh, Ewen Bremner and Danny Boyle are amongst the many who have become Ambassadors for the cause. There are so many ways to make a difference – by attending events, by hiring Thomas Morton Hall and the Crush Foyer for weddings and parties, cultural events and exhibitions, by donating, by spreading the word about this wonderful space or by becoming a volunteer.
The theatre complex was a gift from the people of Edinburgh to the people of Leith following the decision to incorporate the Burgh of Leith into Edinburgh in October 1920. It would be great to see the people of Leith and Edinburgh giving their support back to the Theatre making it a vibrant and exciting creative hub now and in the future. I wish the Leith Theatre Trust the best of luck with this campaign and hope it’s a magnificent success.