NOTE - STAR RATING NOT USED ON THIS REVIEW
The Festival Theatre Edinburgh is celebrating its 25th Birthday this year (2019) and tonight a special performance show “25 LIVE: The Big Birthday Show” celebrated this landmark year. Interestingly, and very importantly, this event was not an all-star “showbiz extravaganza” (which the theatre could so easily have arranged), but a celebration of the many community projects that it is involved with and the simple fact that, behind all of the many diverse productions that take to the Festival Theatre stage every year, the venue is at its core a “Theatre for the whole community”.
For anyone outside Edinburgh (or perhaps new to the city), The Festival Theatre is located at 13-29 Nicolson St, Edinburgh. This part of Edinburgh is situated in the “Southside”, an area of Edinburgh with much history and its very own distinctive identity. The area is also home to the world famous “University of Edinburgh”.
The Festival Theatre was designed to be a major venue for “The Arts” and opened its doors on 18th June 1994. The space that the theatre occupies, however, has a long history of “theatrical performance”, and the main building (still there folks) was well loved by many generations of theatre goers as The Empire Theatre (originally The Empire Palace Theatre), part of the Moss Theatre Empire. Its theatrical links however pre-date even this as it is also the site of the oldest continually used theatrical space in Edinburgh with links dating back to 1830.
It is all too easy now to forget that in the early 1990s the “Southside” area was still recovering from terrible planning decisions in the 60s and 70s that saw many of the original streets pulled down and 1,000s of Southsiders relocated outside of the area. The Festival Theatre project was a big risk in many people’s eyes, but it has proven all its doubters wrong over the years and firmly established itself as a major “arts and performance” venue with a reputation that allows it to attract top shows and artistic talents to its stage from around the world. The theatre is also a major performance venue for Scottish Opera, Scottish Ballet and The Edinburgh International Festival.
What makes the Festival Theatre so successful and so special though? The answer to that is simple – PEOPLE - everyone who enters its doors from audiences to performers and the many people who come to participate in its community events, or simply meet for a cup of coffee or tea in its ever busy coffee shop, and not forgetting the small army of staff (visible and unseen by the public) that always make any visit to its space a pleasure.
The Festival Theatre is also in a unique position to partner with many of the companies that visit its stage (Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet to name only two) and many other important artistic and financial supporters to develop community programmes both inside and outside the theatre, and tonight’s show gave just a glimpse of that programme diversity with productions that involved the very young all the way through to a few people soon to celebrate their 100th birthday. The Festival Theatre has no physical, cultural, social or ethnic barriers, everyone is welcome within its doors and many projects are specifically targeted at people who might (for whatever reason) not be able to otherwise enjoy a performance, or even come to a theatre.
Celebrating that diversity on stage tonight Dance Ihayami and WHALE Arts celebrate 50 years of Wester Hailes with a new dance piece, celebrating the rich cultural history of authentic Indian dance. Scottish Opera brings Spinning Songs, an inter-generational songwriting and singing project.
Pilrig Park School joined Harmeny in working with FTs engagement artists to create two new unmissable pieces, plus short films from Braidburn School with "All Among The Pines" and a short from LGBT Youth Scotland gave us an idea of just how diverse FT projects can be. The Theatre has projects for all ages, and The Vintage Chorus proved that music and song can be enjoyed no matter how old you are. One of my favourites, not on stage but on film, highlights the wonderful ladies involved currently with “An Audience With… Janice Parker Projects.” Here, four amazing women with a combined age getting close to 400 years, share their love of dancing with other people regularly at the theatre. These women have all been professional stage dancers and trod the boards of many of the UK’s most famous theatres (including this one when it was The Empire) in their performance days. Some of these projects are also part of the larger work that the theatre is involved with towards making their venue more “dementia friendly”.
What we saw tonight on stage was of course only the “performance moments” that represent the peak of so much time, development, involvement, and practice by everyone involved in these performances and projects, and this review has no star-rating simply because what people’s involvement in these projects gives them as individuals is simply far beyond what any star rating system can give.
The Festival Theatre is part of “Capital Theatres Trust” which also oversees “The Studio” (behind the main theatre) and the much loved King’s Theatre and it is always important, I think, to remember that these wonderful venues are all part of a charitable trust that is constantly re-investing back into the theatres and communities both local and beyond.
Happy 25th Birthday Festival Theatre
Review by Tom King