Leith enjoying new lease of life as Edinburgh Festival hub

Actors from Volcano Theatre's Seagulls perform partly submerged in 45 tons of water in a disused church. Picture: Alistair Linford
Actors from Volcano Theatre's Seagulls perform partly submerged in 45 tons of water in a disused church. Picture: Alistair Linford
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Every year at the festival, thoughts are spared for Leith’s role in what’s going on throughout August – or its lack of one, with even Fringe events barely touching upon Edinburgh’s old port area.

Yet the spirit of messy, forward-thinking and largely non-corporate arts and music activities which have been filling the area’s disused garages and industrial buildings in recent years has reached a new level this year.

Wider attention for the incredible opportunities Leith offers arrived back in May, when local pop-up ­festival ­Hidden Door filled the derelict old Leith Theatre with ten days of ad hoc music, art and theatre, revealing a ­stunning if careworn 1,400-capacity space which has hosted AC/DC, ­Kraftwerk and the Edinburgh International Festival in a past life. With the right care, it could be the equal of most other concert halls in Scotland.

In agreement with this assessment were Irvine Welsh – one of the patrons of the campaign to reactivate the theatre – and his old Rebel Inc publisher Kevin Williamson, who now runs irreverent and much-loved spoken word, music and film night Neu! Reekie! with poet Michael Pedersen. Spotting the 21st anniversary of Trainspotting’s adaptation as a movie, in the same year as Danny Boyle’s sequel emerged, the trio have chosen Leith Theatre as host venue to a celebratory event which will feature a screening of the first film, readings from actor Ewen Bremner, the reformation of seminal Edinburgh post-punk group the Fire Engines, and the Edinburgh debut of DJ and New Order producer Arthur Baker.

“This is a Leith Theatre fundraiser, we all want it back in place as one of the nation’s leading spaces,” says Pedersen. “The venue was the impetus for many elements of the show – for example, the Fire Engines wouldn’t be back if it wasn’t for the space and the significance of this occasion for Leith.

“It’s also a necessary reminder that you don’t need the sanction of Fringe gatekeepers in Edinburgh over August, a reminder that those of us operating here all year round can still create events which may well end up being Festival highlights and fastest-selling shows. This event is on no posters or flyers, and will appear in no programmes. It’s a beacon for Leith and Edinburgh, made by people who love it dearly.”

Evidence for this is provided by the fact the event sold all of its 1,000 tickets within 48 hours – but it’s right to flag it up, and that many will be disappointed to miss it, because Leith Theatre deserves to have a buzz built around it.

“We’re under no illusion that we need a small sum,” says Jack Hunter of Leith Theatre Trust, who says roughly half a million pounds is needed for basic structural work, and five million for a complete modernisation, “but the result would be a venue of 1500 capacity, with the independence to programme both international music and art and smaller grassroots projects.”

This isn’t the only event which audiences should jump on a No 7 bus for. Fringe shows are also being held at the excellent and distinctive Leith Walk bars Woodland Creatures and Leith Depot, as well as Bonnington warehouse space the Biscuit Factory. The owners of the latter have teamed up with Swansea’s Volcano Theatre to run Leith Volcano, a new venue in a ­disused Leith church offering live music, pop-up food and a site-specific version of Volcano’s take on Chekov’s Seagulls, with a lake built into the venue.

“We choose to be in Leith because we like it,” says Claudine Conway, communications manager for Volcano, who first came to the area in 2015 when they performed Black Stuff in a warehouse filled with four tons of coal.

“It’s a real place with a centre and a community, and plenty of energy and creativity, but it’s not very well served by the Fringe. We think there should be interesting stuff for people to go to on their doorsteps. Although it’s a small programme, three of our productions feature in the British Council ­Showcase and one is in the Made in Scotland showcase.”

Visitors can also see Cryptic’s XFRMR, Powys Dance’s family show Flying Atoms and Figs in Wigs, while Edinburgh’s Decagram have programmed high-quality local music including BMX Bandits, Meursault and Bitches Brew. “The city’s resident arts community is strong on quality and boasts local and international artists,” says Decagram’s Ed Stack. “The International Festival’s shown fresh thinking in embracing new music as a prominent part of its programme, and I think there might be scope for a dialogue that would bring larger shows to venues like Leith Theatre and the Biscuit Factory as a way of supporting sustainable year-round programming in Leith.”

For those who want to get a good look at the area, meanwhile, the Leith instalment of Edinburgh Art Festival’s Art Late events tours from the Collective Gallery – sited next to the best view of Leith in the city – all the way to new art space Custom Lane on the Shore. “I think visitors appreciate the ­opportunity to visit new spaces that are a bit more off the beaten track,” says Rosheen Murray, development ­manager at EAF.

“Many tourists wouldn’t naturally make it down to Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop or Rhubaba, for instance, so it’s important that we give audiences opportunities to visit these spaces.”