Festival review: Hidden Door, Electric City, Edinburgh

A hidden gem that shines in the shadow of the castle, writes Kelly Apter

Music from Rosie Lowe and Nimmo amongst the hidden jems. Picture: contributed

Hidden Door | Rating: **** | Electric City, Edinburgh

Finding your way inside the Hidden Door festival is almost a metaphor for the event itself. Connecting the box office with the courtyard where it all happens is a dark passageway with barely a chink of light. As you walk gingerly through, unsure of where you are or what you’re doing, you feel intrigued, bemused, excited, vaguely nervous and filled with a sense that you’re doing something out of the ordinary.

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All of which, minus the nervous bit, continues inside. Since it first entered Edinburgh’s already heavily populated festival scene in 2010, Hidden Door has consistently proved a need for itself– there is something wonderfully unique about this nine-day event.

First and foremost, it’s run entirely by volunteers. A core team of 30, backed by dozens more during the festival, who plan, curate and organise it all purely for the love of it.

Then there’s the space itself – a moveable feast which, for the past two years, has been a former council lighting depot in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. As with Hidden Door’s previous venues, re-development is afoot, so new premises will be sought for 2017. But for this year, the depot – re-named “Electric City” – proved a worthy home.

Taking over the entire top floor of one of the buildings, the visual art was eclectic in every sense. Photography, installations, mixed media – too much to mention, but a few personal favourites emerged. Will Urmston hitchhiked across Scotland, starting and ending at Hidden Door, and created Fate and Strangers. A photograph and quote from each driver who stopped for him builds a fascinating picture of the socio-political views of both residents and tourists.

Heather Marshall’s Re:Place saw one space turned into an impromptu bedsit, decorated by the homeless people she worked with, and featuring some poignant quotes about life on the streets.

A blend of visual art and film installation, Precious was a collaboration by Bright Side Studios, Pantovola and the fabulously named Alabastar De Plume. This animated tale of Bragi, a sad young man whose pearl-like tears are collected by a woman called Precious, drew me back several times. While Flore Gardner’s striking installation, M(ob)ile featured a mile of knitted red cord which filled an entire room and snaked out of the building.

The performance programme was equally diverse, and although of varying quality, even the less successful pieces planted a seed in the memory. Easily one of the most engaging events of the week, Magnetic North’s Walden adapted the work of 19th century American author Henry David Thoreau into a one-man monologue.

Inspired by the life of 18th century Irish actress Dorothea Jordan, Mrs Jordan felt under-written but still managed to convey a sense of mental imbalance in the face of maternal longing. On The Box, by Charlotte Hastings and Company, told us nothing we didn’t already know about our increasing obsession with empty reality TV, but raised a few smiles and proffered some thought-provoking televisual lowlights. And while it may have been hard to hear everything in Heroes Theatre’s Glittered, the sheer fact the monologue was accompanied by full-kit drumming is inspired in itself.

One of Hidden Door’s strengths lies in its variety, and two of my favourite performances – Parallel and Beethoven – illustrated that perfectly. Staged by Lethally Harmless, Parallel found us sitting on cushions with seven strangers, staring into each other’s eyes for three long minutes. Initially awkward and embarrassing, by the end, we were all touched by the humanity of our time together.

The audience’s collective experience of Beethoven was much simpler – that of shared laughter. Dressed in wig and tights, Andrew Simpson played the great composer with inventive, cheeky wit. Looking for inspiration for the next few bars of music, Beethoven discovers that a little white powder goes a long way, to hilarious effect.

Which leads to the only downside of Hidden Door – our inability to be in two places at once. If you’re watching a performance in the Peely Theatre, you’re missing a band in the Long Room. If you’re enjoying Poets Against Humanity on the Electric City Stage, you’re missing a screening of Drive in the Cinema. But such is festival life, and the live music strand – Withered Hand, Rosie Lowe, HQFU and This is the Kit being amongst my highlights – had the crowds hot and jumping behind the doors.