Review: Leith Festival, Edinburgh

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SOMETIMES, in any city, an area emerges as the hub of creative life for a whole generation of artists; and that’s what’s happening right now around Edinburgh’s old port of Leith.

It was always a feisty community with a strong sense of identity, recently gentrified through several decades of waterfront development, and now – following the recent commercial property crash, and a powerful surge of immigration in the last decade – suddenly full of people and spaces dedicated to the making of art.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that this year’s Leith Festival emerged as something of a vintage event. Leith Theatre (the old town hall) celebrated its grand reopening after the transfer of ownership last week to a local trust; and the festival programme listed a dozen exhibitions in bars and gallery spaces, ten music events, and plenty of dance, alongside the theatre programme.

The final weekend began, on Thursday evening, with the annual LeithLate event, a brilliant idea masterminded by young producer Morvern Cunningham, which has almost 20 shops, cafes and galleries all along Leith Walk staying open far into the summer evening, with a programme of poetry, music and visual art.

This year’s highlights included some superb political poetry from Rachel Amey at the I Heart Cafe in Haddington Place, a packed exhibition-and-talk event at the Old Ambulance Depot in Brunswick Street, and some gorgeous animated films by Edinburgh College Of Art students at the back of the Brass Monkey in Leith Walk. LeithLate is such a striking success that the only question is why this kind of event doesn’t happen at least once a month in neighbourhoods all across Scotland, rather than just once a year, in Leith.

As for the Festival theatre shows, they varied – as usual – from energetic but patchy community work like Active Inquiry’s interesting challenge to abusive and exploitative television reality shows (Taking Care Of Business at the Out Of The Blue Drill Hall) to shoestring professional work like Black Dingo’s Sanctuary at the Whitespace Gallery, a downbeat but painfully observant show about a young couple driven apart after an abortion, featuring two moving performances from Rob David and Cara Wicks.

My favourites were another fine night at the Village Pub Theatre in South Fort Street – featuring a selection of their brilliant 140-character Twitter plays, new writing by Catherine Grosvenor and Sylvia Dow, and terrific performances from Steve McMahon, Tom Freeman and Ros Sydney – and Kingdom Theatre’s undemanding but beautifully suave tribute show Sinatra: The Final Curtain, at the Whitespace Gallery. The storyline is super-simple in John Murray’s 80-minute script. On his deathbed in a Los Angeles hospital, the elderly Frank describes his life and career to a sparky young nurse. The music, though is so fine – and so beautifully performed by a superb Murray Innes as the older Frank – that the show becomes irresistible; and fans of Ol’ Blue Eyes can see it again, on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.