Joyce McMillan: Why St Stephen’s must be saved

St Stephens Church, Edinburgh. Picture: Stephens Church, Edinburgh. Picture:
St Stephens Church, Edinburgh. Picture:
The fight is on to save one of Edinburgh’s finest Fringe venues from closure

It’s many years since it was in regular use as a church, and now its handsome frontage bears a large For Sale notice. Yet St Stephen’s Church remains one of the glorious landmark buildings of Edinburgh’s New Town, designed by the great Georgian achitect William Playfair to dominate the magnificent vista from the summit of Frederick Street, down across North Edinburgh, to the hills of Fife beyond.

St Stephen’s was built by Edinburgh Corporation as a burgh church, and passed to the Church Of Scotland in the 1920s; in the 1950s, it was divided horizontally to create an octagonal Great Room at balcony level, with two floors of smaller spaces below. And for the last 15 years it has been run by the combined Stockbridge parishes as the St Stephen’s Centre, used for a variety of community purposes, and as a Fringe venue during the Edinburgh Festival.

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And it’s because of St Stephen’s glittering Fringe history, as well as its value to the Stockbridge community, that ripples of concern are running through the dance and theatre world following the Church of Scotland’s recent decision to put the building up for sale. During the Edinburgh Festival of 2001, St Stephen’s was adopted by the young German performer-producer Wolfgang Hoffmann as the Edinburgh home of Aurora Nova, a company that presents cutting-edge visual theatre and dance across the world; and for several years, the Great Room at St Stephens became a key international space for audiences who loved the thrill of watching the world’s most innovative dance companies.

Aurora Nova left St Stephen’s in 2007; but since then, the lower rooms have been used by the Arches Theatre in Glasgow as a free-flowing festival base, and – since 2012 – by Northern Stage from Newcastle, who have built an enthusiastic audience for their award-winning work from across the north of England. So the loss of St Stephen’s as a public buiiding would be a blow both to the physical and psychological landscape of the New Town – one of Scotland’s World Heritage Sites – and to the international theatre scene.

The good news, though, is that St Stephen’s has a strong chance of being saved for public use. Its Grade 1 listed building status effectively forbids many commercial uses; and now, a powerful group of local residents, led by architect James Simpson, has come together in a new organisation called the St Stephen’s Playfair Trust, to try to raise money to buy the building at the current price of £500,000, to upgrade it, and to seek to run it on the same basis as the Mansfield Traquair Church at Mansfield Place, as a historic public space, funded by commercial office space on one of the lower floors. The closing date for the purchase is 20 February, and the trust hopes that if its bid is successful, it will be allowed to lease the building for one year, while it raises the money; in which case, Northern Stage will be back at St Stephen’s this August, and the various community uses of the space can continue.

There are many hurdles still to be overcome; the deal will, for example, need a final nod from Edinburgh City Council, the building’s original owner. Since the sad closure of the Theatre Workshop on Hamilton Place, though, Stockbridge and north-west Edinburgh is an area that needs to cultivate its remaining community spaces. Simpson is convinced that given the right care and investment, the Great Room could become one of Edinburgh’s finest music and performance venues, all year round. And if there is any community in Scotland capable of raising the resources to support such a grand and life-enhancing project, then surely the New Town and Stockbridge must be the one; provided Dr Simpson and his colleagues can help it find the energy and determination – and of course, an essential measure of good luck.

Contact the St. Stephen’s Playfair Trust at [email protected], and on social media