Music review: Hidden Door Opening Night, Old Royal High School, Edinburgh

Saint Etienne may have been the musical highlight of the Hidden Door Festival’s opening night, writes David Pollock, but the venue stole the show

Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne PIC: Jim Dyson/Getty Images
Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne PIC: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Hidden Door Festival, Old Royal High School, Edinburgh ****

One of the first thoughts which sprang to mind on the opening night of Edinburgh’s annual Hidden Door festival is just how much better the space containing it will be as a music school than as the luxury hotel development which was long campaigned against. In fact, the old Royal High School on the south face of Calton Hill also does just as well – as is Hidden Door’s ongoing M.O. – as an ad-hoc temporary arts centre filled with art, music and eccentric performance pieces.

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Built in 1829 to Thomas Hamilton’s design and unused since the school’s relocation in 1968, the building has lain empty ever since, although it was famously proposed as a possible site for the new Scottish Parliament after the devolution referendum of 1979. Its sense of repurposed institutional 19th century grandeur calls to mind Summerhall, although its state of disrepair is more like that of Leith Theatre, a previous Hidden Door site.

Through murky subterranean corridors illuminated with ravey neon striplights, and old offices, store cupboards and dank off-street vaults turned into DIY art galleries, the persistent joy of Hidden Door is in the striking union of place and creativity. It’s an exercise in urban and artistic exploration.

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One main performance hall, the Pianodrome, is a circular amphitheatre of wooden seats, made entirely of pianos, another is a more traditional gig space, and the arched basement is like a Cowgate club, where local DJs and promoters Leonidas and Hobbes created a late-night programme including the live electronics of Gaming and a thunderous DJ set from Nina Stanger.

The historic assembly hall makes for an atmospheric performance space, and on opening night it hosted an electronic set from Maranta, soundtracking a display of esoteric sci-fi Paganism under neon in the land of Microsteria, as constructed by visual artist Chell Young, costume designers Vomiton and choreographer Hannah Draper.

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The highlight of the evening, though, was the headline set on the outdoor stage from the mighty Saint Etienne, whose potent roster of greatest hits – including Like a Motorway, Nothing Can Stop Us and He’s on the Phone – fused English beat-pop nostalgia and eternal, undatable house music to joyful effect.

Hidden Door runs at the Old Royal High School, Edinburgh, until 18 June, see www.hiddendoorarts.org