Leith Theatre

Empty since 1988, and previously threatened by residential development, the Leith Theatre complex is currently being restored and reopened to provide spaces for a variety of performances, events, and classes.

Entrance to Leith Theatre.
Address
Ferry Road, Leith, Edinburgh, EH6 4AE
Risk Rating
6 (Community Value: 3, Star Rating: 2, Risk Factor: 1)
Local Authority
Edinburgh City Council
Architect
Bradshaw, Gass & Hope
Date of Construction
1932
Listing
Category B
Capacity
1,500

Significance

Leith Theatre opened in 1932, built for the people of Leith 'as a gift from the people of Edinburgh', following the Burgh of Leith’s incorporation into Edinburgh. The building is part of a complex that includes Leith Library, the Registrar's Office, and Thomas Morton Hall. It is owned by Edinburgh City Council. It has a classical façade and a sumptuous Art Deco circular entrance and box office. This leads to the main auditorium, a flat-floored hall with a U-shaped balcony and proscenium stage. The space is classically detailed with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and glazed roof lights.

Why is this theatre at risk?

Leith Theatre has been on the Theatres at Risk Register since 2016.

Leith Theatre closed in 1983 but continued to host the Edinburgh International Festival every August until 1988, after which time the building was left empty. In 2004, Edinburgh City Council approved the sale of the theatre for residential development – a move that was stopped by concerned locals, and from which Leith Theatre Trust was established. The council initially granted Leith Theatre Trust a five-year lease on the building, and this was extended on a rolling year basis.  In September 2023 the Trust secured council approval for a 50-year lease for the building, which is currently being progressed, and which will secure its long-term future.

Although Leith Theatre Trust has been making great strides with the building being in more regular use, there is still much work to be done to enable it to open, programme, and operate on a permanent basis. This includes essential fabric repairs and the introduction of sanitation. All services within the complex are at end of life or already decommissioned. The theatre operation is still in the early stages of development and remains fragile, with the pandemic being a further difficulty it has had to endure.

Darkened auditorium of Leith Theatre from the back of the single balcony overlooking the flat-floored stalls and to the stageTheatre potential

Leath Theatre is an ideal capacity for a mid-sized music venue in Edinburgh, sitting in an area of regeneration and high population density outside the city centre.

Since Leith Theatre Trust took over the building and has started to programme events the potential of the building has become clear.  In May 2017, the building opened its doors for the Hidden Door Festival, a temporary event, but the first performance in the main auditorium for almost 30 years. The event was hugely successful and was attended by nearly 13,000 people. It proved a major turning point in the theatre’s fortunes, showcasing the potential of the venue and demonstrating its viability. The theatre has gone on to host further one-off events and for activities such as the Edinburgh International Festival, Live in Leith programme, and as a filming location for the BBC daytime series The Bidding Room.

The theatre has also been open for a variety of community activities, including celebrations and parties, classes, workshops, and small music events.

Current situation

Since taking over the building Leith Theatre Trust has undertaken an incremental approach to the development of the organisation and the refurbishment of the building.  Initial grant funding from the Architectural Heritage Fund, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Edinburgh Council saw strategic work begin: appointing an executive director (now chief executive); initiating a feasibility study and beginning electrical capacity works; and bringing power to the building via the stage. The council pledged £1m in funding for the theatre, to be drawn down in stages.

In May 2020, Leith Theatre Trust was awarded a Theatres Trust Theatres at Risk Capacity Building Programme grant of £11,000 to support mentoring and skills training, and a package of consultancy work to increase knowledge within the team and to strengthen Leith Theatre’s position as a viable theatre and cultural business going forward. A new chair of the board was appointed in summer 2022 to play a pivotal role in supporting the chief executive as the organisation develops and moves forward in this next phase of development.

 

In mid-March 2020 the theatre closed due to Covid restrictions. While the pandemic meant the theatre was unable to hold live performances, it also presented opportunities.  The theatre received Covid emergency funding to stabilise through the pandemic. It was awarded Scottish Government’s Performing Arts Venue Relief Fund and with this grant set up an in-house production arm, Live in Leith™, initially creating a series of digital gigs. The theatre also continued to play a vital role in engaging with and supporting its local community through its partnership with food poverty charity Empty Kitchens Full Hearts CIC preparing and delivering over 1.3m meals from the kitchens and Thomas Morton Hall.  In late 2021 the theatre also undertook a period of consultation with a wide range of stakeholders to help plan for its future.

 

Throughout 2023 as part of due diligence towards securing the building’s future, Leith Theatre Trust managed ongoing investigative and repair works, mainly in the main auditorium. The focus of this work, which is still ongoing, is to get the building wind and watertight and to carry out first stage repairs due to water damage.

The legal work to establish a new long lease is currently underway with the hope of this being realised in 2024. This is an important step forward as it brings security to the ownership arrangements and will support its fundraising plans and long-term ambitions for the much-needed capital refurbishment required to open permanently as a full-time cultural venue. Further extensive building fabric repairs, heating and toilets are all critical to obtaining a permanent licence for the venue in the future. The funding for these works is yet to be secured, but Leith Theatre Trust is now investment-ready and looking towards making the improvements needed to transform the building.

Theatres Trust will continue to support Leith Theatre Trust as it grows in strength and capacity, helping the team achieve the ambition to restore and fully reopen the theatre as a thriving cultural asset for the local community.

Video (from 2020)

https://youtu.be/W9SEX_M_pMM

Main photo Leith Theatre, Theatres Trust. Auditorium image from Leith Theatre Trust.