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The 1906 King’s Theatre was designed by James Davidson (exterior) and J D Swanston (interior), originally as a rival to Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, however in 1928 merged into the UK theatre empire managed by Howard & Wyndham. The theatre is locally known as “The Grand Old Lady Of Leven Street”.
Although the building’s red sandstone exterior presents a somewhat somber appearance, the interior design is a delicate Viennese Baroque with some superb examples of Edwardian stained glass throughout the front of house areas.
The King’s currently has two balconies in the auditorium, however it was originally built with three balconies (from lowest level upward: the Dress Circle, Family Circle, and Gallery) with a total seating capacity of 2,500.
The theatre was originally equipped with film projection facilities in the form of a “Bioscope Box”, described as being built of concrete and placed behind the Grand Circle promenade. It was likely a late addition, as it does not appear on the 1905 plans for the theatre. Two Simplex projectors (bioscopes) created a picture of 18ft by 12ft over an 80ft throw. A 120-horsepower 100-amp generator supplied 80V DC to the projectors and three 30-amp Flood Arcs. The theatre was also originally fitted with a central vacuum cleaning plant, with taps to all areas of the auditorium, stage, offices, and even the grid!
In 1950-51 the Gallery, always uncomfortable but latterly also unsafe, was demolished and the Family Circle was re-raked more steeply and extended to the rear of the old Gallery, creating what is now called the Upper Circle and reducing overall seating capacity to 1,530. The Dress Circle was renamed the Grand Circle. The reduction in balconies from three to two explains the large swathes of plain plaster wall which can be seen on either side of the auditorium flanking the Upper Circle. An enclosed box for stage lights (commonly known as “auto bins”), extremely sympathetic to the theatre’s Viennese Baroque design, was added to the front of the Upper Circle (note: at a later unknown date, prior to 1973, a similar box was added to the front of the Grand Circle). The upper Billiard Room, in the front section of the building, became redundant with the removal of the Gallery; this was used as office space for some time but is now a rehearsal room. The lower Billiard Room is now the Upper Circle bar area. During the 1950-51 revamp, which included redecoration of the auditorium dome, the auditorium’s grand chandelier was taken down. It mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. The replacement, still in situ, is a poor reflection of its former self.
By the late 1960s variety theatre was being eclipsed by television across the United Kingdom, and in a bid to secure the venue’s future the Howard & Wyndham company came up with a deal to sell the King’s to Edinburgh City Council in 1968/9. The Council had previously taken on the Lyceum Theatre from Howard & Wyndham in 1964.
In 1985 the Council invested in the theatre by renovating and restoring soft furnishings, wood, and marblework. An orchestra pit lift was installed yielding a seldom-used extended capacity pit, and cinema-style seating replaced the traditional theatre seats reducing overall capacity to 1,336. At this time a trompe l’oeil painting, harmonious with the auditorium’s decoration and color scheme, was added to the auditorium ceiling’s dome, replacing the 1950s incarnation, which in turn had been painted over the original dome painting.
Most recently in 2012 further renovations restored the seating (Stalls and Grand Circle only) with traditional theatre-style seats, fixed antiquated ventilation systems and a leaking roof, the latter necessitating the re-painting of the auditorium dome. As the 1985 painting was not original the Festival City Theatres Trust commissioned Scottish artist John Byrne to design a completely new painting for the dome.
The safety/fire curtain dates back to at least 1930 and is likely original. Tradition sees productions record their time at the King’s on the rear of the safety curtain. Another detail not visible to the public is the original paintframe at the rear of the theatre, immediately downstage of the rear fly floor. This allowed scenic artists to paint full-size backdrops using the hand-winched paintframe without impacting theatre operations, even during performances. The paintframe is last known to have been used in the early 2000’s. Original stage machinery includes a seldom-used trapdoor mechanism (4+ operators required), and a transformation drum above the grid which was used to control multiple flown scenic elements in a coordinated fashion thus achieving a complete change of scene by operating a single mechanism.
Tours are available roughly once per month. The full schedule is available on the theatre’s website . Tours cost £10 per person (£8 for Friends) and run for around 90 minutes.
After reminding yourself of the public areas you’ll get to see Backstage and, if you’re lucky, the Understage and Dressing Room areas of the theatre normally closed-off to the public! Note: Backstage access is dependent on the visiting company's theatre operations on the day of your tour and is not guaranteed. Information correct as of March 2017.
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