The King’s Theatre, Edinburgh:

The Edinburgh Branch was delighted to enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour of the King’s Theatre, led by Lucille Bluefield and John Robb, which gave us a chance to understand the complexity of the building and appreciate how its forthcoming transformation will benefit performers and audiences alike.

One of the most complete surviving Edwardian theatres in the UK, the Grade A-listed King’s is affectionately regarded as “Edinburgh’s own” owing to its long association with pantomimes, Scout gang-shows and other productions of particularly local appeal. The exterior is Dumfries red ashlar sandstone, with beautiful, glazed panel doors carrying bevelled glass in swirling Art Nouveau frames. Foyer spaces have a civic grandeur with marble and parquet floors, mahogany panelling, marbled staircases, heavily modelled architraves, lofty gilded ceilings, and marvellous stained glass.

The memorial stone was laid in 1906 by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the year the theatre opened with the pantomime Cinderella. However, the theatre had a problematic start when the builder W S Cruikshank found that he could not pass it into the hands of the cash-strapped commissioning company. So, he ran it himself, and his son went on to become Managing Director of theatre-owning, production, and management company Howard & Wyndham.  A venue for the Edinburgh International Festival from its inception in 1947 for world premieres, its auditorium was decongested by the removal of a top tier in 1951, and in 1969 it was sold to the Council.

Parts of the building were conserved in 1985 with the installation of Pullman seating, and after Festival City Theatres Trust (now Capital Theatres) had taken over management in 1998 a further refurbishment in 2012 saw provision of a reconfigured box office, a small platform lift for access to the stalls, reseating and upgrading of fire prevention and ventilation systems (a nod to history since the fire that claimed the life of illusionist, the Great Lafayette at the Empire - now the Festival Theatre also run by Capital Theatres - in 1911, had implications for theatre design the world over).  Also completed at that time was John Byrne’s stunning mural for the dome.

However, the present stage retains an old-fashioned sloping rake, and its functionality has been likened to a 1950s Soviet submarine! The whole building suffers from poor accessibility – there is no lift for anyone who cannot use the stairs to the Dress Circle or Upper Circle and backstage, the outdated scenery flying system needs to be completely replaced. The renovation plan involves removing the raked stage floor and building a new fly tower to make presenting touring productions much easier.

Now the King’s is on the verge of a two-year £25M refurbishment starting in September 2022

- a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address accessibility by providing lifts either side of the building and to improve circulation across the four floors of the building. The raked stage will have to go, and the headroom for lifting props and scenery will be raised. Little-sold seats with poor views of the stage at the back of the Upper Circle will make room for a brand-new Creative Engagement studio which can be hired for special events. Relocation of the control box releases alternative capacity, and the lighting rigs on the front of the boxes will be relocated to improve visibility, and ensure the boxes’ elegance is once again visible. The dressing-rooms will retain their traditional appearance, and one oddity will remain – the Lochrin Burn, which once supplied the Drumdryan Brewery that previously stood on the site, and still flows in a culvert underneath the theatre. 

Noel Coward’s Private Lives premiered at the King’s in 1930, with Coward himself starring along with Gertrude Lawrence and Lawrence Olivier. Other famous names to have performed here include Anna Pavlova, Maria Callas, Juliet Binoche, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Penelope Keith and James Corden, and the King’s is one of only three principal number-one touring houses for drama remaining in Scotland. The King’s has been home to Edinburgh’s vibrant amateur performing companies for over fifty years including an unbroken (until the pandemic) run of 57 Gang shows. The King’s pantomime is now the most popular in Scotland, with every year, in normal times, over 90,000 customers turning out, and famous panto stars include Una Maclean, Jimmy Logan, Rikki Fulton, Jack Milroy and Ronnie Corbett, with Stanley Baxter making his King’s debut in 1951.  More recently Allan Stewart, Grant Stott and, until his sad death last year, Andy Gray have been the stalwart panto stars at the King’s.  There is thus a mighty legacy to be taken forward when the new-look King’s opens its doors in 2024. To find out more about the redevelopment visit and how you can support the project visit


– written by Convenor John Yellowlees who organised a tour last week with the Edinburgh Branch, hosted by John Robb and Lucille Bluefield.