Venue of the Month: Edinburgh Festival Theatre

With its contemporary glass façade, the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, which opened in 1994, looks very much the modern venue. However, behind this sleek exterior lies a colourful history that stretches back to the early nineteenth century.

Feature by Susannah Radford | 17 Dec 2009

There’s been a theatre on the Nicolson Street site since 1830, meaning that Southsiders have been served their dose of culture, or popular entertainment, for nearly 180 years. Nicolson Street has witnessed many theatrical incarnations on this site as theatres have been built, burnt down, rebuilt, demolished and rebuilt again.

Over the years, the shows presented here have included ice spectaculars and variety shows, musicals and music halls, operas and ballets in addition to a rather unglamorous stint as a bingo hall. Bingo calling aside, these productions celebrated the spectacular; something that was very evident on the opening night of the Empire Palace Theatre, built in 1892. With two massed bands, a 30-piece orchestra, not to mention performers, acrobats and performing dogs, it was such a spectacle you might have thought they were missing only an elephant – and that you could find amongst designer Frank Matcham’s plasterwork in the theatre itself.

The spectacular is manifest today in the restored auditorium. Capturing the Empire Palace Theatre’s 1928 glory, it looks like a traditional theatre should with three levels of seating, lush stage curtains and boxes fit for celebrities. Nowadays it’s known primarily as a dance theatre. Little wonder it succeeds as a dance house when the theatre itself was designed for ballet, musicals and opera.

John Stalker, Chief Executive of Festival City Theatres Trust, the charitable trust that runs both the King’s and the Festival Theatres, programmes for both venues. “Keeping the programme fresh is always a challenge. Audiences are always looking for something new, something just a little bit quirky. All I know is that I have to work very hard to please what is a very knowledgeable and demanding audience.”

He has brought some dance luminaries to the Festival Theatre over the past few years, including the Nederlands Dans Theater, Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT) and more recently the Mark Morris Dance Group. One upcoming show not to be missed is Off Kilter.

Combining the talents of SDT’s Janet Smith, Scottish Ballet’s Ashley Page and Mark Morris among others, it "attempts to challenge the notion of dance in Scotland as being all tartan and shortbread and reflect all the dance styles evident in Scotland today,” says Stalker. “It’s about a proud country showing off its culture to the rest of the world.”

2010 is also looking good. Stalker is really excited about the Royal Scottish Academy’s production of War and Peace which sees the premiere of Prokofiev’s original version of the opera and Traces, described as a “dazzling display of urban acrobatics”. Then there is that perennial favourite, Stomp, "a high-octane meeting of slick choreography, tight ensemble work, industrial percussion and anarchic clowning". If they just added some performing dogs we might feel we’re back at the Empire; as it is we’ll be happy to be at home in the Festival.

Off Kilter 29 – 30 Dec 2009, 2 Jan 2010 7.30pm, 31 Dec, 1 – 2 Jan 2.30pm £15 - £25

War and Peace 28, 30 Jan, 7.15pm, £13.50 - £21.50

Stomp Tue 12 – Sun 17 Jan 7.30pm / Sat & Sun 2.30pm, £13.50 - £27.00

Traces 1- 3 Feb 7.30pm, £13.50 - £21.50

Edinburgh Festival Theatre 0131 529 6000,