Leith Theatre: Scotland's best new live music venue / credit: Chris Scott
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Leith Theatre Trust and Hidden Door, the 1400-capacity hall is back in action – and it's incredible
If you live in Edinburgh and you have even a passing interest in live music, you need to get to the Hidden Door Festival at Leith Theatre before it finishes this weekend. Honestly, drop everything and make time. If you have kids, take them during the day for a wander round and a look at some free visual art. This place is incredible. Not a 'gosh, that's interesting, I didn't know this was here' kind of incredible; more 'hold on, this is the best live music venue in Scotland outside of the Barrowlands and it's been used for Council storage and gathering pigeon shit for 30 years? That's obscene!'
Hidden Door's opening gig last Friday was a revelation, and not just because Anna Meredith closed the venue's first night of live music in 29 years with The Proclaimers' 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' to a rapturous response. In semi-darkness and with proper stage lights on it looks stunning – both the high stage and the deep, sweeping arc of the balcony at the back of the hall – and sound quality and sightlines are great wherever you are in the room.
Idlewild at Hidden Door on Sat 27 May / credit: Chris Scott The 1400-capacity hall is more intimate than the Usher Hall, more expansive than the Queen's Hall and better-shaped than the old Picture House on Lothian Road, whose sad closure in 2014 was the most telling symptom of the current (and questionable) cliché that Edinburgh as a city couldn't give a flying toss about live music.
Let's not hold back here. If the City of Edinburgh Council – together with the local community as a whole, local and national music promoters, and Leith Theatre Trust, who are working tirelessly to revive the building – don't do every reasonable thing in their power to help this magnificent, historic, exciting building come back to life, that cliché will be reality. Someone needs to make this a cause now.
Hidden Door 2017 / credit: Chris Scott Opened in 1932 (as a gift from the people of Edinburgh to the people of Leith following their merger), Leith Theatre has survived World War II bomb damage and fiery gigs from AC/DC and Thin Lizzy, but in 1988 it couldn't outlast the dilapidation of the area around it. That the Council tried to sell it off at the beginning of the millennium to fund renovations to more central theatres (they were foiled by a public campaign) meets every stereotype of tone-deaf bureaucracy imaginable.
Yet Leith Theatre Trust's tireless Chair Jack Hunter has only praise for a list of current local councillors and Leith's MP Deidre Brock. He's less convinced that the upper echelons of the Council are taking notice so far, but he's hopeful that events like the fiercely successful Hidden Door will help get the word out.
Hidden Door 2017 / credit: Chris Scott Leith Theatre has 'one and three-quarter members of staff' and a number of volunteer supporters, says Hunter, and most have lately been charged with manning the phones to deal with an increased number of inquiries. Both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe have had site visits during Hidden Door (the theatre will be used for small shows at Leith Festival and this year's Fringe, with a view to a much larger presence in 2018), while music promoters and Unique Events' Pete Irvine have also held discussions. Apparently, since Hidden Door has brought the place back into use, we can expect more pop-up events and concerts in the near future.
In the meantime, the Theatre's immediate needs are mapped out: around £50k for a proper, comprehensive surveyor's report of the site; another £50k to restore the toilets (an important licensing condition); a very rough estimate of £3.5m for a partial restoration using the current fixtures and fittings; and another very rough estimate of £10.5m for a full modernisation throughout. 'Any public money or rich benefactors would be very welcome,' smiles Hunter. As would members of the public getting a look at the place and campaigning for its rebirth.
Hidden Door 2017 / credit: Chris Scott Hidden Door's creative director David Martin, meanwhile, is very pleased with how things are going this week. 'A complaint we often hear is that we clean a space up, then developers notice it and move in,' he says, referring to the team of hundreds who help restore the site (including, this year, a group of young Mormons visiting Edinburgh and keen to help the community). 'This time we're cleaning it up so the public can see what a fantastic building this is.' He tells of the moment an ugly black curtain was ripped from the stage, revealing a beautifully plastered proscenium arch and the crest and motto of Leith. 'Persevere,' it says – and we all have to come together and ensure that Leith Theatre does just that.
Artists of all stripes congregate for the Hidden Door interdisciplinary arts festival, which features dozens of cool musicians, bands, artists, filmmakers and poets, often working in new and exciting combinations. The fifth edition of the festival includes an extended events programme of school tours, artists’ talks…
The theatre complex was a gift from the people of Edinburgh to the people of Leith following the decision to incorporate the Burgh of Leith into Edinburgh. It opened in 1932 and over the years Leith Theatre hosted performances by AC/DC, Thin Lizzy…