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King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Architects: John D. Swanston (interior), James Davidson (exterior)

First Opened: 8th December 1906 (117 years ago)

Closed for Renovation: 28th August 2022

Anticipated Reopening: December 2025

Status: Closed for refurbishment

Website: www.capitaltheatres.com/kings Open website in new window

Telephone: 0131 529 6000 Call 0131 529 6000

Address: 2 Leven St, Edinburgh, EH3 9LQ Show address in Google Maps (new window)

Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, opened in December 1906, was originally built to rival to the city’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, however found a different audience and in 1928 merged with the UK theatre chain managed by impresarios Howard & Wyndham. The King’s is locally known as The Grand Old Lady of Leven Street.

Featured Photos

Detailed Information

Foundation Stone
Foundation Stone

Building commenced in August 1905, the exterior building being designed by James Davidson and the interior being designed by John Swanston. A year after building commenced, Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie laid the memorial stone, which can still be seen on the landing of the central staircase leading from the main foyer to the Grand Circle bar.

The building’s red sandstone exterior presents a stern appearance, typical of Scottish civic buildings and reflecting Davidson’s signature “Lanarkshire municipal” style. The style is a little out of place amongst Edinburgh’s refined grey sandstone and more classical styles.

King’s Theatre Exterior
King’s Theatre Exterior

The interior design leads from grand foyers/lobbies and staircases – with some superb examples of Edwardian stained glass – into an auditorium of opulence, executed in a luscious Viennese Baroque style and colored with delicate creams and gold. Voluptuous semi-nude caryatids, representing music and the arts, support the three levels of boxes on either side of the proscenium arch with numerous cornucopias, scrolls, trumpet-playing putti, masks, and cartouches completing the heavily-detailed plasterwork throughout the auditorium.

After a final bill of some £70,000, the theatre opened on 8th December 1906 with a lavish production of “Cinderella”. Mr Robert Courtneidge, a well-known theatre manager/producer and playwright of the time, and a native of Edinburgh, produced the spectacle. Local newspaper reports of the opening night were extremely favorable.

The King’s Theatre was built by the Edinburgh Construction Company (Limited), whose chairman Robert C. Buchanan managed the theatre from its opening, however by 1908 it became clear that Buchanan’s company could not pay the second half of the construction bill and so the theatre fell into the hands of William Stuart Cruikshank, the building’s contractor.

William Cruikshank’s son, A. Stewart Cruikshank, took on the role of theatre manager, and the theatre ran successfully under Cruikshank’s management for 20 years. In 1928 the King’s was merged with the Howard & Wyndham Ltd chain of theatres, and A. Stewart Cruikshank became chairman of the group. Cruikshank was regarded as one of the most powerful people in UK theatre industry at the time.

Audience awaiting a performance by Sir Harry Lauder
Audience awaiting a performance by Sir Harry Lauder

The Cruikshank Room, located at Grand Circle level, was A. Stewart Cruikshank’s office and also the location of Howard & Wyndham Ltd annual shareholder meetings which were deliberately held on Christmas Eve to ensure minimal shareholder intervention.

The theatre was originally equipped with film projection facilities in the form of a “Bioscope Box”, 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 (5.5m by 3.7m) over an 80ft (24.4m) 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/gridiron above the stage!

Portobello-born Harry Lauder was a regular performer on the King’s stage in the 1920s, including at the height of his fame when he was one of the highest paid performers in the world. Lauder was knighted in 1919 for his tireless work organizing entertainment for the troops in the First World War. A plaque, presented by the British Music Hall Society Link opens in new window and located in the foyer of the King’s, commemorates Lauder’s long association with the theatre.

The famous Half Past Eight variety shows played the Summer season at the King’s starting in 1934, to capacity audiences with stars including Dave Willis, Harry Gordon, Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton, and Jimmy Logan.

King’s Theatre in the 20th century
King’s Theatre in the 20th century

The King’s auditorium currently has two balconies, however it was originally built with three and boasted a seating capacity of 2,500 spread across four levels. In 1951 the Gallery, always uncomfortable but latterly also unsafe, was demolished and the Family/Upper Circle (middle balcony) was re-raked more steeply backwards and extended rear-ward to the upper level of the old Gallery, but set further back from it by knocking through the original rear auditorium wall at Gallery level. This created what is now called the Upper Circle and reduced the overall seating capacity to 1,530. The rear portion of the Upper Circle, behind a broad cross-aisle sweeping across the entire Upper Circle approximately midway, was initially called the Family Circle.

The structural alterations, designed by architects Rowand Anderson, Kininmonth and Paul, lasted 10 months with the theatre being closed from the end of the 1950-51 pantomime “Cinderella” to the start of the 1951-52 pantomime “Puss In Boots”. The theatre was committed to be open for the 1951 International Festival (staged annually in August), however in May 1951 it was regretfully announced that the works would not be completed in time for the Festival, and as such the Upper Circle seating area would be unavailable for Festival audiences (shows continued, using only the main floor and first balcony levels). The theatre later reopened fully on 14th December 1951 with the 1951-52 pantomime “Puss In Boots”.

Auditorium from first level of Boxes
Auditorium from first level of Boxes

The King’s had undergone some improvements the previous year. In June 1950 the theatre’s original exterior canopy/marquee was removed, replaced with a more modern design in time for the 1950 International Festival. It was noted that the new canopy, replacing the original which had been in place since the theatre’s opening in 1906, would have no stanchions on the street which impeded pedestrians alighting from cabs or taxis, as it would be designed on the “cantilever principle”. The 1950 canopy remains in place to this day although it has been adapted over the years as required.

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, which was in situ until the completion of the repainted dome in 2013, was a poor reflection of the original chandelier. The replacement chandelier now hangs in a bar area of His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen.

1950s Followspot Box
1950s Followspot Box

A spotlight booth (followspot box) was added at the rear of the new Upper Circle as part of the 1950-51 revamp, accessed from the attic space above the old Upper Billiard Room. The Dress Circle (lower balcony) was renamed the Grand Circle. The reduction in balconies from three to two explains the large swathes of plain plaster wall that are seen on either side of the auditorium flanking the Upper Circle.

The upper Billiard Room, in the front section of the building and several levels above the entrance lobby/foyer, 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.

In 1958 the original hemp scenery flying system was upgraded to a counterweight system from Hall Stage. The installation was overseen by Rowand Anderson, Kininmonth & Paul, architects for the 1950-51 renovation.

An enclosed box for stage lighting was added to the front of the Upper Circle (a feature commonly known as “auto bins”), extremely sympathetic to the theatre’s Viennese Baroque design, sometime after the 1950-51 revamp and prior to 1973. A similar but smaller box was added to the front of the Grand Circle at a later date.

Sir Sean Connery used to work backstage at the King’s Theatre. In 1951, Sean (then known as Tam) worked as a stagehand and it is alleged that his time at the King’s kindled an interest in the profession. He auditioned for a touring production of South Pacific in 1954 and, now calling himself Sean, landed a small part – and the rest is history. In 1959 Connery returned to the stage of the King’s Theatre, although this time in front of the lights, in a production of “The Seashell”.

By the late 1960s variety theatre was being eclipsed by television across the United Kingdom and so in a bid to secure the venue’s future, the Howard & Wyndham Company came up with a plan in 1968 to sell the King’s Theatre to Edinburgh City Council. The plan was not without precedent; the City Council had previously taken on the Lyceum Theatre from Howard & Wyndham in 1964.

1985 trompe l’oeil ceiling dome
1985 trompe l’oeil ceiling dome

In 1985 the City Council invested in the theatre by renovating and restoring soft furnishings, woodwork, glass, 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 by William McLaren, 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.

During the 1985 renovation it was found that a well had been sunk into the ground when the land the theatre is built upon had served as a brewery. The well’s presence necessitated reinforcement works underneath the theatre’s auditorium boxes to prevent foundations from shifting over time – one of the side-walls of the auditorium had been balancing precariously on the edge of the well for 80 years!

In 1998 management of the King’s Theatre was handed-over from the City of Edinburgh to the Festival City Theatres Trust (FCTT), a charitable trust established in 1991 as the Empire Theatre Trust to transform the city’s shuttered Empire Theatre into the renovated and improved Festival Theatre, in order to run the two theatres in harmony and to cut costs by sharing resources.

2013 ceiling dome by John Byrne
2013 ceiling dome by John Byrne

In 2012, further renovations improved the seating at the King’s Theatre (Stalls / main floor and Grand Circle only) with a return to traditional theatre-style seating replacing the cinema-style seating installed in 1985; and fixed antiquated ventilation systems and leaks in the roof, the latter necessitating the re-plastering of large swathes of the auditorium dome.

As the 1985 trompe l’oeil auditorium ceiling dome decoration was not original, Festival City Theatres Trust commissioned Scottish artist John Byrne to design a completely new painting for the recently repaired ceiling dome. The design, completed in 2013, is a vivid and colorful play on duality, light and shade, the sun and the moon, rich in theatrical motifs, and featuring the opening lines from Jacques’ famous monologue in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage”. The design was painted onto the 55ft (17m) high dome in the Summer of 2013 by a team led by scenic artist Kevin Leary, and including John Byrne’s daughter Celie Byrne, and John himself.

The newly-painted dome was revealed on 6th August 2013. Capital Theatres’ website features a special section all about the ceiling dome painting Link opens in new window which includes photos and video.

The safety/fire curtain dates back to at least 1930 and is likely original. Tradition has seen past productions record their time at the King’s on the rear of the safety curtain.

Original 1906 Paint Frame
Original 1906 Paint Frame

Another detail not visible to the public is the original paint frame at the rear of the theatre, immediately downstage of the rear fly floor. This allowed scenic artists to paint full-size backdrops without impacting theatre operations, even during performances. The area was originally lit through large open windows on the east-facing sloping roof above, however these were covered-up likely during the war years. There is evidence of a second paint frame on the rear of the stagehouse wall with vertical runners still intact.

The paint frame is not regularly used however it has been used for painting backdrops as recently as 2018. According to the Association of British Theatre Technicians Historical Committee Link opens in new window it is one of only six working paint frames in Scotland.

Other original stage machinery includes a seldom-used Corner Trap, which can be positioned at either Downstage Left or Downstage Right, and a Transformation Drum (more commonly known as a “drum and shaft” mechanism or – now inappropriately – a “Chinaman”) above the grid which was used to control scene changes of flown wings, borders, and backdrops in a coordinated fashion thus achieving a complete change of scene by operating a single mechanism.

In 2018, Festival City Theatres Trust, by this time Scotland’s largest independent theatre organization, was renamed as Capital Theatres, and announced an ambitious £20-25 million redevelopment project to secure the theatre’s future for the next 50-100 years.

It was announced in the January 2019 edition of Light and Sound International Link opens in new window that theatre consultants Theatreplan Link opens in new window had been chosen to work alongside architects Bennetts Associates Link opens in new window on the redevelopment of the theatre.

Redevelopment Visualization (© Capital Theatres / Bennetts Associates)
Redevelopment Visualization (© Capital Theatres / Bennetts Associates)

The redevelopment project plans to transform the theatre into an accessible, all-day arts venue with new spaces created for learning and heritage activities as well as hospitality. Backstage, the raked stage will be leveled, the fly tower extended in height, and new scenic flying systems installed. The theatre’s bars and foyers will be overhauled, new dressing rooms and wardrobe facilities created, a new street-level café-bar opened up, and a new education studio built. The project aims to increase the theatre’s annual visitor count by 50%. Scottish actors Brian Cox, Bill Paterson, the late playwright John Byrne, author Ian Rankin, and pantomime stars Grant Stott, the late Andy Gray, and Allan Stewart all lended their support to the project.

In March 2020, Capital Theatres announced that the redevelopment of the King’s, due to break ground in September 2021, would go on hold due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Dame Joan Stringer, chair of the board of Capital Theatres, noted “What is absolutely clear is that we all remain committed to delivering on our plans to redevelop the King’s into a modern venue, celebrating its rich heritage whilst sustaining it for future generations of enjoyment. We are, however, realistic and recognise that the current situation will affect our ability to deliver the project in our current timescales. The redevelopment works were due to start in September 2021, completing in Summer 2023. We have therefore taken the difficult decision to pause the project, and are exploring the potential of starting the project 12 months later, in September 2022”.

Redevelopment Exterior Visualization (© Capital Theatres / Bennetts Associates)
Redevelopment Exterior Visualization (© Capital Theatres / Bennetts Associates)

In early October 2020 the planning application for the redevelopment project was approved by the City of Edinburgh, moving the project into “shovel ready” status.

In late October 2020 Capital Theatres was awarded £500,000 by the Scottish government, on top of £250,000 from Creative Scotland awarded through the Performing Arts Venue Relief Fund. Capital Theatres’ financial savings over the years, long-term planned to finance the King’s refurbishment project, put them into a ridiculous “double jeopardy” situation which meant they were initially ineligible for emergency funding due to the Covid-19 pandemic given their saved-up cash reserves.

Click here to find out more about the King’s redevelopment project Link opens in new window, in a video hosted by King’s panto regular, and Edinburgh native, Grant Stott.

The theatre closed on 28th August 2022 with the final performance of the 2022 Edinburgh International Festival production of “Walking With Ghosts” starring Gabriel Byrne. Following the curtain call Mr Byrne delivered a stirring and heartfelt speech which you can watch on YouTube here Link opens in new window.

In January 2023, having raised £26 million to fund the project, Capital Theatres announced Link opens in new window that the theatre had 35 days to close a funding gap of £8.9 million, following the City of Edinburgh’s failed application for the UK government’s Levelling Up fund. The funding gap arose from increased inflation and the increased cost of construction post-Covid, and delaying the project further would result in spiraling and unpredicted costs. In late February 2023 it was announced Link opens in new window that the funding gap had been essentially closed, with 95% of funding in place.

In April 2024, at the project’s halfway point, progress photos Link opens in new window and a progress video Link opens in new window were released.

The King’s Theatre in Edinburgh is the theatre which piqued Historic Theatre Photos’ founder Mike Hume’s interest in all things theatre, and led to the development of this website!

Movie, TV & Music Video Appearances


Listed/Landmark Building Status

How do I visit the King’s Theatre?

Tours are on hiatus while the building is closed for refurbishment.

Further Reading



Technical Information

Flying System
Flying System
Hall Stage counterweight system comprising 57 Linesets (3-line): Bars A-D downstage of bridge between fly floors, and Bars 1-53 upstage of bridge (House Tabs are on their own dedicated counterweight lineset downstage of Bar A).
Grid Height (downstage)
53ft (16.2m)
Average Bar/Pipe Length
39ft 4in (12m)
Counterweight System
Single Purchase apart from Bars/Linesets 44-53 which are Double Purchase to allow space for Dock Door to Stage below.
FOH Truss Height Measurements
Auditorium ceiling opening to hanging point above: 4ft 6in (1.4m). Stalls floor to auditorium ceiling opening: 53ft 6in (16.3m). Auditorium ceiling opening 5in (0.1m) diameter.
FOH Truss Pickup Points
Stage Right and Stage Left suspension points, 19ft (5.8m) point-to-point centred on CS line. Stage Right Point to Safety Curtain: 8ft 2in. Stage Left Point to Safety Curtain: 8ft 9in.
Hemp Sets
4 Hemp linesets are installed upstage of Bar 53, others can be installed to suit.
Safe Working Load per Lineset
600lbs (250kg)
Bars 11 and 34 only fly to a maximum height of 30ft 10in (9.4m) due to location of counterweight frame tie-bars. Bars 19, 20, 43 and 44 are underslung from the main roof beams which shortens the flying height by 1ft 4in (0.4m).
General Information
Dock Door
15ft 9in high by 7ft 6in wide (4.8m by 2.3m)
Theatre Masking
Full black-box masking available
Control system
ETC GIO 4,000 channel
252 channels Avolites Art 2000 (240 @ 2kW, 12 @ 5kW)
2 x Robert Juliat Super Korrigan (1.2kW HMI)
Orchestra Pit
Variable Size
Pit partially under forestage, mechanized lift as stage extension, removable decking for largest pit.
Stage Dimensions
Bridge from SR to SL
Located between Bars D and 1, 1ft (0.3m) wide, 28ft 4in (8.6m) above stage floor.
Height of Fly Floor (downstage)
23ft 5in (7.2m)
Height of Fly Floor (upstage)
22ft (6.7m)
Proscenium Arch Height
21ft 3.9in (6.5m)
Proscenium Arch Width
31ft 11.9in (9.8m)
Stage Rake
Width of Stage Left wing
13ft 7in (4.1m)
Width of Stage Right wing
16ft 7in (5.1m)
Historic Photos & Documents
Files displayed in this section may be subject to copyright; refer to our Copyright Fair Use Statement regarding our use of copyrighted media.

Photos of the King’s Theatre

Jump to Photo Section:

  1. Auditorium: Stalls
  2. Auditorium: Grand Circle
  3. Auditorium: Upper Circle
  4. Auditorium: Boxes
  5. Auditorium: Closeups
  6. Auditorium: From Stage
  7. Front of House
  8. Front of House Closeups
  9. Stained Glass
  10. Exterior
  11. Backstage
  12. Fly Floor & Grid
  13. Followspot Box
  14. Auditorium Attic
  15. 2022/3 Renovation
Auditorium: Stalls
Auditorium: Grand Circle
Auditorium: Upper Circle
Auditorium: Boxes

There are nine auditorium boxes on each side of the auditorium, on three levels. On either side the towering range of boxes are separated by Viennese Baroque pilasters, featuring Terms of voluptuous partially-naked figures holding gold face masks at the lowest level of boxes. The sightlines from the boxes are not good, particularly from the upper row of boxes which are more aligned with the decorative panels above the proscenium arch than the stage, and the upper levels have been given over to housing technical equipment.

Auditorium: Closeups

Note the trumpet-playing putti featured on the front of the boxes.

Auditorium: From Stage
Front of House

In addition to the fine Viennese Baroque interior, the front of house areas feature some superb examples of Edwardian stained glass, particularly above the main lobby doors.

Front of House Closeups
Stained Glass

The theatre features a number of doors and glass panels featuring Art Nouveau stained glass.


The exterior of the theatre was originally criticized as being somewhat dour and unidentifiable as a theatre – more like a bank, however after more than 100 years The King’s and its signature red sandstone façade is a welcome and instantly recognizable sight to locals.

Access to the stage is via Tarvit Street and pedestrians are often seen gawking from the pavement as they pass by and see the theatre’s massive roller shutter door open, affording a glimpse into the backstage workings of the theatre.

In addition to the fine Viennese Baroque interior the front of house areas feature some superb examples of Edwardian stained glass, particularly the main lobby doors.

Fly Floor & Grid

The main Fly Floor is located Stage Right and is very wide by today’s standards, which relates to the theatre originally being a hemp house. The onstage side of the Fly Floor still features the original cleat rail.

The Hall Stage counterweight system was installed in 1956. There is a Fly Floor at the same level on Stage Left which is primarily used for spot lines, electrics, and sometimes as an access point to move wardrobe hampers from the stage floor up to the Wardrobe Department on the second level of the dressing room block. The rear fly gallery provides a crossover and access to the paint frame.

There is a bridge across the Stage a few steps above Fly Floor level, 28ft 4in above the Stage floor, and accessible from both Stage Left and Stage Right Fly Floors, a few feet (and 4 counterweight bars) upstage of the Proscenium Arch. The bridge is a mere 12 inches wide. It is commonly used for drops or spot effects such as falling snow.

Followspot Box

The Followspot Box dates from the 1951 building work which removed the Gallery and created the more steeply-raked Upper Circle. The followspots pictured are rented for the annual pantomime; for the remainder of the year two Robert Juliat Super Korrigan 1.2kW HMI followspots are resident in the Followspot Box.

Auditorium Attic
2022/3 Renovation

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