The Old Lady of Leven Street
The King’s Theatre Edinburgh opened on 8th December 1906. Standing proudly on the corner of Leven Street and Tarvit Street, the King’s is one of Scotland’s oldest theatres and the only surviving operational Edwardian theatre by the architects Swanston and Davidson. The street has changed dramatically over the years. Before the Kings was built, the Drumdryan Brewery used to stand on the same corner and the river that used to service the brewery still runs underneath the theatre.
Prolific theatre architect J. D. Swanston of Kirkcaldy was largely responsible for the decorative, flamboyant interior of the King’s, which contrasts with the more conservative red sandstone exterior designed by Scottish architect James Davidson. Whilst modest interventions have been made over the years to ensure the building is fit for operation, the considerable amount of surviving 1906 fabric accentuates the importance of the King’s. The Grade A listing of the theatre is indicative of both its national and international significance. It has been described by the Theatres Trust as ‘a space of operatic magnificence, a glorious extravaganza of lush Viennese Baroque’. In 2013, artist and playwright John Byrne completed a mural titled 'All the World's Stage' on the ceiling dome.
Construction of the King’s began in 1905, and a memorial stone was laid in the wall of the marble stairway by steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie on Saturday 18th August 1906. The King’s opened with a festive showing of the pantomime, Cinderella, marking the beginning of the annual pantomime tradition that has continued ever since. The King’s now hosts Scotland’s most successful pantomime, with some 90,000 people a year flocking to enjoy a Christmas tradition that brings families together at the theatre.
The King’s standing as a quality drama house plays a crucial role in its success. Home to quality touring drama all year round, the theatre has welcomed some of the UK’s most celebrated actors of stage and screen including, in most recent years, famous names such as Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Penelope Keith, James Corden and Robert Powell.
The King’s has also been a pivotal venue for the Edinburgh International Festival. Noël Coward's Private Lives premiered at the King's during the Festival in August 1930, with Coward himself starring alongside Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier and Adrianne Allen. Other famous names who performed at the King’s in EIF performances include Anna Pavlova, Dame Margot Fontaine, Maria Callas, Juliette Binoche and Dame Maggie Smith.
A building is just a building without people to make it come alive, and this is especially true for the King’s Theatre. It has a rich cultural heritage and has played an important role in the social scene of Edinburgh over the years. The King’s is truly a theatre for everyone. Its eclectic programme has ranged from the “high art” of opera and ballet to the broad appeal of variety shows such as the Five Past Eight Show, the summer variety season and the annual pantomime. In its long and illustrious history, the King’s has also been home to the city’s amateur performing companies for over fifty years and has hosted an unbroken run of 58 Gang Shows.