Inside the 19th century gothic building towering over Edinburgh’s Old Town, Broadway star Alan Cumming is sending several hundred revellers into a hedonistic frenzy. And almost everyone there is pinching themselves that they are at an Edinburgh International Festival event. A building better known for hosting wedding receptions and corporate dinners has been transformed beyond recognition into a New York-style cabaret venue for the Scottish actor’s month-long residency. Just two years ago, before the tenure of EIF director Fergus Linehan began, the thought of such a big name gracing the building would have seemed ridiculous. But he has torn up the book of unwritten EIF rules with his programming of shows and rethinking of sites as varied as The Hub, the Playhouse, and the faces of the Usher Hall and the castle rock.
However a far different scene greets me in the heart of Princes Street Gardens on the second Saturday of the festival period – one of the busiest of the month. Against the stunning backdrop of the castle, two lonely-looking unicyclists are practising their moves in the otherwise-deserted Ross Theatre arena. It is a painfully sad sight. What should be a bustling hub for festival activity is a creaking, crumbling eyesore. In previous years, thousands of people watched performers take to the bandstand stage every day. These days it is only used in August for the traditional fireworks finale to the EIF, the hugely-popular social occasion when thousands of picnicking locals watch the summer festivities draw to a close above them. The staging of 10 major concerts this month at Kelvingrove Bandstand in Glasgow – in the face of so much competition from events in Edinburgh – shows the value of the refurbishment completed there in 2014, after a long campaign for its rebirth.
There are growing hopes the Ross Theatre in Edinburgh will get similar investment, thanks to the tireless efforts of businessman Norman Springford, who has won backing in principle from the city for his idea of an independent trust taking over the site. The bandstand, which dates back to 1877, is one of several historic venues in Edinburgh which are in desperate need of regeneration or are frankly passed their sell-by date. A refurbishment of the King’s Theatre, a replacement for the Filmhouse Cinema, a new building for the Traverse Theatre and a fitting home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have long been aspirations, but all feel remote to say the least. Then there is the lack of a major indoor arena, which can accommodate the kind of stages and sets required for major concert and theatre productions which are able to tour rival cities to Edinburgh all around the world.
In this context, it was heartening to hear lthat tackling the ageing arts infrastructure is likely to be one of the first priorities of a new cultural task force – which will be looking at how to main and enhance Edinburgh’s world-leading reputation at a time of dwindling public sector funding. Bringing more backers like Springford and Carol Hogel, the philanthropist behind plans to turn the old Royal High School into a music venue, to the table would appear to be crucial.
However getting leading figures from the worlds of the arts, commercial property, architecture and academia to sing from the same hymn sheet would be the first sign of a new dawn and a promising vision for the future of the arts in Edinburgh taking shape.