SAY what you like about modern-day dress sense, but when Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms returns to life, today’s fashionistas will have some stiff competition. Yes, they’ll be excited about the opening ceilidh in July and the high-profile Fringe line-up that includes Stewart Lee, the National Theatre of Scotland and Phil Nichol, but will they be any match for the audience of August 1822, when King George IV came to town?
Back then, eyewitness Thomas Mudie was so taken by the guests at the Peers Ball, he wrote a whole book about it. ‘The ladies were in most elegant white dresses, richly bespangled, and had on plumes of white ostrich feathers, their plumage in constant undulation, appearing to the eye like an ocean of foam,’ he wrote.
Stick that in your Topshop and smoke it.
But even if our glad rags don’t have quite the same class, we’ll certainly be able to savour the refreshed elegance of a building brought back to its 18th century splendour. After an 18-month closure and a £9.3m refit, the George Street venue where once Dickens, Scott and Thackeray gave readings has been returned to its Georgian prime – with a Jamie Oliver restaurant thrown in for good measure.
‘What people will notice is it’s going to be much lighter, airier and more contemporary when they come in,’ says general manager Shona Clelland. ‘Then, as they go up the stairs, they will be blown away by the restoration in the first-fl oor rooms. It’s going to be back to the grandeur that it originally had.’
Visitors will now find ground-floor shop units where previously the Wildman Room and the box office stood, as well as a branch of Jamie’s Italian in the old Supper Room, with a second entrance on Rose Street. Upstairs, the Ballroom, Music Hall, Crush Hall and the East and West Drawing Rooms have had plasterwork, cornicing and chandeliers spruced up. Walls have been repainted in muted tones, gold-leaf finishings have been replaced and decorative rosettes restored.
‘People will notice the obvious things like the decoration and the restoration,’ says Clelland, who’s lining up a programme of book readings, dances, conferences, dinners and craft fairs, ‘but all the infrastructure – new sound systems, new heating and ventilation system, all the behind-the-scenes things – will make being in the Assembly Rooms so much easier.’
The scheme has not been without its critics. Longstanding festival resident William Burdett-Coutts was forced to move his main Assembly Fringe operation to George Square after last year’s closure. He was concerned the loss of the smaller groundfloor spaces would put an end to the building’s ability to present work on all scales and force promoters to concentrate on the more commercial end of the market.
It is not an argument that convinces Clelland. ‘The Assembly festival created lots of spaces within the building, but for the rest of the year, those spaces were not utilised fully,’ she says. ‘OK, there’s not so many spaces downstairs during the festival; however we’ve still got four spaces upstairs, two of which are small. I’ve never been concerned about that, because I have to make the building work year-round. For the citizens of Edinburgh, we want this building to be somewhere people come – they might come for a meal or for a shop, but at least they’re coming to the building.’
Equally convinced is Tommy Sheppard, director of the Stand Comedy Club, who has been awarded the five-year contract to programme the venue in August. He’s broadening his previous programming range to include theatre and music, while holding on to the ethical values that have made his existing venues such a hit with performers. ‘We’re going to translate to the Assembly Rooms the attitudes we think have underpinned our success on the Fringe,’ he says. ‘Broadly speaking, we are taking the risk on the programme and we should be able to ensure the profit-making shows subsidise the loss-making shows, so we won’t be transferring those losses to the individual artists.’
The programme ranges from Stewart Lee’s Carpet Remnant World to the National Theatre of Scotland’s An Appointment with the Wicker Man, from Irish chanteuse Camille to Phil Nichol in The Intervention, a serious drama about an alcoholic. The smaller shows will have a top ticket price of £10; the bigger ones shouldn’t go much over £15.
‘We’re in it to do something good for the city and the festival,’ says Sheppard. ‘We’ve taken advantage of moving up the road to allow a number of the people we work with to move to that platform. Stu and Garry, who have done a show every Sunday for nine years, are going to be doing a lunchtime improv show every day at the Assembly Rooms. And there are a few people who we’ve worked with, like Bridget Christie, who are going there, not so much because it’s a step up but there’s a different tone to it – it’s a bit more theatrical.’
If negotiations with the council are successful and if traffic can be diverted off George Street, he’ll be putting a tent on the front of the building to create a festival hub and to give audiences an extra place to hang out. Even if that doesn’t happen, the venue will have a less hurried ambiance than elsewhere on the Fringe, chiming in with the more classy approach of neighbouring venues such as the New Town Theatre, the Traverse and St Stephen’s, as well as the Edinburgh International Book Festival. ‘The sub-Glastonbury atmosphere being created in the university area is a million miles away from where I want to be,’ he says. ‘The emphasis in the bars and the programme at the Assembly Rooms will be the best possible quality at the lowest possible price. And if I can get through August without having a single queue, I’ll be happy.’
In the meantime, Sheppard is like a child with a shiny new toy: ‘The Assembly Rooms always was the best venue on the Fringe and the council has spent £10m on it, so imagine the Assembly Rooms being fully air-onditioned, with new sound systems, 100 per cent new seating, new floors, sound-proofed, new bar areas and better circulation space, and then with a programmer saying, “You won’t have to queue – and you’ll pay less than you paid before.” I’m feeling extremely positive about it.’
Flingin’ wi’ Ceilidh Stomp, Sat 21 Jul, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh. Fringe programme, Fri 3-Sun 26 Aug. © Mark Fisher, 2012