If there’s one fact not involving castles that everyone knows about Edinburgh, it’s that Sean Connery worked for many years in his youth delivering milk for St Cuthbert’s Co-operative Society on the streets around the King’s Theatre. What is less well known is that he actually worked in the King’s itself, backstage as a stagehand, and eventually found his way onto the boards in 1959, when he appeared in a production of The Sea Shell.
In its illustrious history, the King’s Theatre has attracted few more famous names than the confirmed “sexiest man of the 20th century”, but the line-up of talent which has come to Edinburgh and graced the stage here is long and often surprising. The first guest of international renown to appear arrived before the theatre was even opened in 1906, with Dunfermline-born industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie laying the memorial stone that remains visible in the foyer to this day.
Over the following years, the King’s would style itself as a touring theatre “in the vanguard for revue, opera, drama, ballet and pantomime”, with Sir Harry Lauder turning out regularly in this early era. One of the greatest coups of the theatre’s lifetime came on 18 August 1930, when Noël Coward’s Private Lives received its world premiere on the King’s stage, the play starring not only Coward himself, but also Sir Laurence Olivier alongside the actresses Adrianne Allen and Gertrude Lawrence.
The beginning of the 1930s was a fruitful time for the King’s, with 1930 also bringing Paul Robeson with a touring production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. The year after, meanwhile, would see internationally celebrated Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova and her company visit Edinburgh with versions of Snowflakes and her Uday Shankar choreographed piece A Hindu Wedding.
The post-war years would see both a resurgence in the popularity of variety theatre and the arrival of the Edinburgh Festival bringing two very different experiences to the King’s Theatre’s audience. Among the more highbrow marquee names of the time was the legendary opera singer Maria Callas, who performed Bellini’s La sonnambula in 1957, while Katharine Hepburn appeared in 1952 in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionaires.
This was a golden age for Scottish variety, and many performers who would go on to become household names came to the King’s as part of the Scottish circuit in the 1950s and 60s. Their number included Stanley Baxter and Jimmy Logan, and it was here that Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy would first meet one another, resulting in the nationally beloved double act Francie and Josie. Johnny Beattie, Chic Murray and Andy Stewart were further success stories from the Scottish scene who played the King’s, with the likes of Elaine C Smith, Dorothy Paul, Tony Roper, Forbes Masson, John Gordon Sinclair and the late Gerard Kelly carrying on this homegrown tradition in later years.
Stars from elsewhere in the United Kingdom appearing on into the 1970s and 80s would include Cilla Black, Danny La Rue, Prunella Scales, Nigel Havers and Timothy Dalton. In 1972, the American performer Eartha Kitt would bring her own show to the theatre, while high-profile dance performances included work by Rudolf Nureyev in 1975 and Wayne Sleep in 1981 and 1982.
The final years of the 20th century would see a procession of big theatre names, including Dame Maggie Smith and Annette Crosbie in a version of Albee’s A Delicate Balance; a revival of Molière’s The School for Wives, starring Peter Bowles, Eric Sykes, Carmen Silvera and Paul Daniels; and a new take of Death of a Salesman, starring Alun Armstrong and Mark Strong, paving the way for a new century in which the King’s would continue to attract big-name national and international stars.
Among their number in recent times are Naked Gun actor Leslie Nielson in the one-man show Clarence Darrow (2000); Iain Glen and Cillian Murphy in The Seagull (2003); the dream team of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart alongside Simon Callow in Waiting for Godot (2009), James Corden starring in One Man, Two Guvnors (2011 and French actress Juliette Binoche performing in Ivo Van Hove’s adaptation of Antigone in the Edinburgh International Festival programme in 2015.
To mark the opening of a new display celebrating the King’s’ heritage, we remember some of the famous faces who have performed on the King’s stage over the years. Remembering The Past As We Look To The Future is the name of the new exhibition display at the King’s Theatre, located in the Stalls Bar area.
Words by David Pollock