It has been a long time coming, but now the stage is set for a forgotten venue of the Edinburgh International Festival to make a spectacular comeback.
At around 7.30pm tonight the rebirth of Leith Theatre will be complete as the venue opens its doors for the city’s most prestigious cultural event after a 30-year hiatus.
The first in a series of 16 events will also herald its revival as a live music venue decades on from playing host to the likes of Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, Kraftwerk, Slade, John Martyn and Mott the Hoople.
The EIF’s Light on the Shore programme will feature acts like Mogwai, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Lau, Karine Polwart, The Pastels, Django Django and Anna Meredith.
The building’s 1300-capacity and its acoustics have already heightened expectations that Leith could permanently become home to a live music venue as significant as Glasgow Barrowland, which was famously revived for the first time in decades when it was used for a Simple Minds video in the early 1980s.
Crucially, Leith Theatre’s use for the EIF is expected to generate significant interest and support for ambitions to carry out a multi-million pound refurbishment to make it suitable for year-round events. Visitors will be able to support the campaign by snapping up souvenir merchandise created by the EIF’s design agency Touch.
Those plans are being spearheaded by the Leith Theatre Trust, which was formed in the wake of a campaign that halted a planned sell-off in 2004 to help pay for a refurbishment of the King’s Theatre.
The EIF has joined forces with bands, artists and several other events to programme Light on the Shore, including Glasgow’s Celtic Connections music festival, the arts collective Neu! Reekie! and the festival Hidden Door, which reopened the building this year and last year for two lengthy programmes.
Tonight’s opening Light on the Shore concert, headlined by Fife singer-songwriter King Creosote, will be the result of months of work at the venue led by the EIF’s head of technical, John Robb, who has overseen a 25-strong team putting the finishing touches to the venue in recent days.
He said: “We have been looking at the building since last September, but it wasn’t until January that the festival committed to use it this year.
“We started doing a bit of work on rewiring backstage in February as the whole place was pitch black when we come in. We had to use mobile phones to light it up in places.
“We’ve actually spent months doing work stabilising the venue for the future, including plumbing and lighting backstage. We know there is a long term plan to do the building up so we’ve done everything as a quick fix for us to use it this month until a proper refurbishment plan is conceived, although the basic structure of the building is pretty good and the front of house areas only really needed cleaned up.
“We’ve been working with the Leith Theatre Trust to try to ensure that they can keep using it as a venue after the festival until they know what they really want to do.
“We’re discovering a lot of things about the venue that will really help them. The big issue is that there’s not enough power in the building - we’ve had to bring in generators for the festival. But it could now be used relatively easily now and nothing we’ve done will hamper any long-term refurbishment.
“We’re taking a really classic civic town hall venue and are basically rediscovering what it really should be, which is Edinburgh’s Barrowland. This is the gig space which Edinburgh doesn’t have at the moment. Hopefully what Hidden Door has done and what we’ve done will really show what it could be in future.”
Festival director Fergus Linehan said: “We didn’t really want to make a huge number of changes to the building, but it was obviously important to bring the venue up to a certain standard.
“Our production team has a pet project every year and this has very much been a labour of love for them. They have put a lot of work getting the venue to where it is now.
“I’d love it if was regularly in our programme again. The other venues we use for live music, the Usher Hall and the Queen’s Hall, have really successful established programmes. We’re also aware that this was a venue for us for a very long time previously.”
The revival of Leith Theatre is being supported by the Scottish Government to the tune of £190,000 from its Festivals Expo Fund.