The Old lady of Leven Street
The King’s Theatre opened in Tollcross on the 8th of December 1906, adding a vibrant burst to this once industrial corner of Edinburgh. Standing proudly on the corner of Leven Street and Tarvit Street, the People’s Theatre is the oldest continuously operational theatre in Scotland.
The new King’ Theatre […] is in construction and appearance unsurpassed by any in the countryEdinburgh Evening News, 7th Dec 1906
This street corner has changed dramatically over the years. Before the King’s was built, the site was home to the Drumdryan Brewery. The brewers had worked at the edge of the Dalry Burn since 1760, using the flowing water for their beer. Although the brewery is long gone, the river still exists and runs beneath the modern theatre.
1905: Construction Begins
W.S. Cruickshank & Son set about building the King's and they commissioned architect James F. Davidson to design the exterior of the building. Davidson's conservative, red sandstone front belied the extravagance of the loud interior. The decorative, flamboyant entry hall and auditorium of the King’s was the vision of Kirkaldy based architect, John D. Swanston. This unlikely partnership produced a unique marvel, the King’s is the only theatre designed by Swanston and Davidson.
The enterprise drew so much attention, that the Dunfermline-born steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie laid the memorial stone in the marble stairway. The theatre opened with a pantomime, Cinderella – a symbolic start, marking the beginning of the King’s cultural speciality. The site now hosts Scotland’s most successful pantomime, with more than 90,000 people flocking to enjoy this Christmas tradition every year.
This exceptional space was nearly undone before it began. In 1909, a passer-by noticed smoke billowing out of the upper windows. A fire had broken out in the auditorium, setting the dress circle ablaze. The spirit of the King’s staff is clear. The Scotsman newspaper reported on that same day: “entertainment will proceed as usual tonight”.
Despite fires and modest alterations over the years, a considerable amount of the original fabric from 1906 survives. This theatre's Grade A listing 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”.
A Theatre Alive
But a theatre is so much more than its bricks and mortar. Quality drama has played a crucial role in its success and iconic place in the community. The King’s has been a pivotal venue for the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). 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 Fonteyn, Maria Callas, Juliette Binoche and Dame Maggie Smith.
The King’s is home to touring drama all year round, and the theatre has welcomed some of the UK’s most celebrated actors of stage and screen including, in most recent years, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Penelope Keith, James Corden and Robert Powell.
All the World's a Stage
In 2013 the King's received a vibrant new addition to the historic auditorium. A ceiling mural decorating the inside of the main dome was painted by artist and playwright John Byrne. Working 17m up in the air, Byrne and his team completed the work over a five-week period. This vivid celestial scene, with theatrical motifs and nods, takes its name from William Shakespeare's 1599 comedy As You Like It: "All the World's a Stage".
If you love the King's Theatre and want to get involved preserving its heritage, we want to hear from you. Whatever your connection or experiences with the King’s, share your thoughts with us and contribute to our Oral History Project: The People’s Archive. This new platform will showcase archival material, oral history interviews, and blog posts that celebrate the theatre and Tollcross area.
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