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Restoration plays on actors' minds

Pauline McLean | 19:55 UK time, Thursday, 23 December 2010

With just weeks to go before work gets underway on a £9m project to revamp Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms, the row continues about whether it's the right kind of restoration.

On one side, Edinburgh City Council, who plan to completely refurbish the18th century building, which has staged everything from rallies to ceilidhs via fashion shows and awards ceremonies over the years.

On the other side, those with a stake in the building as one of the biggest and best known venues on the Edinburgh Fringe. Assembly Theatre have staged shows at the fringe for the last 30 years.

Both sides agree that the venue is in urgent need of an overhaul. Paint is peeling, cornicing is cracked and those ornate chandeliers illuminate tired and shabby rooms.

But it's about more than aesthetics. The electrics need urgent attention, there's rot in the woodwork, the theatre seats are broken and torn.

But the contentious part of the plan is the inclusion of shops and a restaurant on the ground floor.

Edinburgh City Council says it's vital for the commercial viability of the project. In essence, the commerce will pay for the refurbishment. They also point out the assembly rooms have housed shops in the past - most recently in the 1950s.

Assembly Theatre are less convinced. The shops will reduce the available theatre spaces by five, making the commercial viability of their own operation difficult. More than 10,000 people - including Simon Callow, Johnny Vegas and Jo Brand - have signed an online petition calling on the council to reconsider.

And while it's easy to dismiss the opposition as online hysteria by people who don't live in Edinburgh all year round, and have their own interests at heart, it's worth thinking about who might run the Assembly Rooms in festival time, if not William Burdett Coutts and Assembly Theatre?

If he can't see the value in running the reduced theatre space, who can? Promoters of stand up comedy? Bang goes the support for challenging theatre. Forget co-productions of Scottish classics. Much easier to stage existing commercial shows - with small casts and little risk.

That's why other people with an investment in the overall fringe have entered the fray.
They also question whether the finished product will boast, as promised, high end shops and a classy restaurant. Or as one campaigner put it to me "tartan tat and takeaway."

Councillor Deirdre Brock, culture convenor at Edinburgh City Council dismisses that.

She says: "We do not plan to turn the Assembly Rooms into a shopping mall. Can I just nail that now?

"There has been so much misinformation about what we want to do. This is about refurbishing a much loved city centre venue, making it fit for the 21st century and making it commercially viable.

"If we didn't do this, the Assembly Rooms would close, and no one wants that."

But the Assembly Rooms have effectively closed. Their doors are locked, their rooms emptied in preparation for work beginning on 10 January. Historic Scotland has given its consent, the final details are expected to be signed off this week.

But campaigners plan to take things one step further. Assembly Theatre director Sandy Ross says they intend to call on the Scottish government to scrutinise the decision of Edinburgh City Council to award planning permission to their own project.

Several MSPs have also promised their support but they have only a few short weeks before work begins.


  • Comment number 1.

    Please, please don't let the same influence brigade that gave us that glorified regional council carbunkle sited near Holyrood commonmly known as the Scottish Parliament, quite frankly it still gives me the baulk! Have a look at something like the restoration of St Andrew's in the Sq in Glasgow's Merchant City......

  • Comment number 2.

    Ahh Pauline, nice to see you back.. glad to see your 'blogs' are improving after the self- gratifying on 'the art of the critic' episode a couple of weeks back. You must have been so busy thinking that one up that you completely disappeared when it was announced a Scottish Artist had won the Turner Prize.

    Yes admittedly Ms Phillipsz does now live in Berlin, but wait a sec. - your the BBC Scotland's art correspondent, why no report from you ? Isn't that just the kind of thing we pay you for ?



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