1 February 2023

The history behind Edinburgh’s theatres

Lyceum Exterior

Edinburgh’s theatres have been entertaining us for years, from ground-breaking shows to the annual Christmas pantomime. We’ve been captivated by thought-provoking drama, laughed till our sides ached at comedy shows and been mesmerised by dance, song and poetry.

And the city's theatres are no stranger to stars of stage and screen, with some of the most well-known names in the business treading Edinburgh's boards.

Read on to discover more about the history of these grand buildings - one thing’s for sure – Edinburgh sure knows how to put on a show!

The King’s Theatre

Famous For

Being one of Scotland’s oldest theatres.

Known locally as ‘The Grand Old Lady of Leven Street’, construction of the beautiful red sandstone King’s Theatre began in 1905, before opening to the public on 08 December 1906 – making her one of the oldest theatres in Scotland.

The opening performance was Cinderella – marking the beginning of the annual pantomime tradition that has continued ever since.

The auditorium was originally built with three balconies overlooking the stalls and could accommodate a packed house of 2,500 people. This was revamped in the 1950s and reduced to just the stalls, grand and upper circles, reducing audience capacity to a much more comfortable 1350 people. Once the current plans to revamp the theatre are completed, capacity will be a roomy 1050.

Many famous faces have graced the King’s over the years – Sir Laurence Olivier starred in Noël Coward’s Private Lives when it had its world premiere here in 1930, legendary opera singer Maria Callas sang here in 1957, and, more recently, it has played host to famous names such as Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart and Penelope Keith. Scotland’s own Sir Sean Connery even started his career here as a stagehand. He auditioned for a production of South Pacific, landed a small part, and the rest is history.

Discover 10 Things You (Possibly) Didn’t Know About the King’s Theatre

The King’s is currently closed for refurbishment. Keep an eye on their website for further announcements.

The Usher Hall

Famous for

Its title of Scotland’s only 5-star concert hall.

Usher Hall

Located on Lothian Road, The Usher Hall was named after Andrew Usher, a prominent Edinburgh whisky distiller and philanthropist who in 1896 gifted £100,000 to the city of Edinburgh specifically for the purpose of building a concert hall.

It opened to the public on 06 March 1914, with a series of three concerts featuring the music of Handel, Bach, Beethoven and Scottish composer, Hamish MacCunn. The concerts were a roaring success and the Usher Hall became the talk of the town.

Notable events include the 1986 Commonwealth Games (with the hall providing the venue for the Boxing Tournament) and The 1972 Eurovision Song Contest. This was the first time the show had been held in the UK outside London. The contest was won by Luxembourg with Apres Toi by Vicky Leandros. The UK’s entry, Beg, Steal or Borrow by the New Seekers came in at a very respectable second place!

For over a century, audiences have been dazzled by a galaxy of stars – from The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney & Wings to Elton John, Jools Holland and Ed Sheeran. A key venue for visiting national and international orchestras and the main venue for the Edinburgh International Festival since 1947, the Usher Hall’s legacy of a centre of excellence looks set to continue for a long time.

From music to theatre, explore upcoming Usher Hall events

The Traverse Theatre

Famous for

Commissioning and producing new and exciting shows for everyone to enjoy.

Traverse Theatre

To the left of the Usher Hall is the Traverse Theatre, an Edinburgh icon which specialises in producing and presenting new work from Scottish and Scottish-based playwrights, both here and on tour worldwide.

Today’s theatre is actually the Traverse’s third home since it was founded in 1963. It moved to its current location at Cambridge Street, a purpose-built two theatre space with bar café in 1992. The two spaces are known as Trav 1, which can accommodate up to 300 people and Trav 2, which can seat up to 120.

Many well-known names have appeared on stage here over the years, such as Alan Cumming, Robbie Coltrane, Tilda Swinton and James McAvoy. Many theatre creatives have also started their careers here and gone onto huge things around the world – as have many of the plays first staged or produced here.

One of the most legendary on-stage events happened early on – on 03 January 1963 actress Colette O’Neil was accidentally stabbed with a real knife after it got caught in the folds of her costume. Ever the pro, she delivered her final poignant line: ‘You can’t kill me, I’m already dead,’ before collapsing on the stage in a pool of blood. Thankfully she survived and the event didn’t put her off having a successful career, returning in 2000 to appear in another play.

Today, the Traverse is a creative centre for excellence, with new writing and new works at its core. It also does a wide-ranging amount of work in the local community, including the flagship educational project, Class Act, which has been working with secondary schools for the last 30 years to grow and nurture future playwrights.

Explore upcoming performances at the Traverse Theatre

The Royal Lyceum Theatre 

Famous for

Showcasing Scottish talent as well as presenting the best of international drama.


A beautiful Victorian building, The Royal Lyceum Theatre is home to the Lyceum Youth Theatre and The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, one of the largest producing companies in the UK.

It opened on 10 September 1883 with a production of Much Ado About Nothing, starring two of the most renowned Shakespearean actors of the time, Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Ellen is also considered to be ‘The Blue Lady’, a ghostly presence who reputedly haunts the theatre to this day.

The Lyceum was the first theatre in Scotland to use an iron safety curtain, the solid wall which descends during the interval of a performance, as well as the first to use electric lighting.

Committed to developing Scotland’s homegrown talents while presenting the best of international drama, the Lyceum is home to an array of both classical and contemporary work, as well as being used as one of the principal stages of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Discover shows coming to The Lyceum this year

The Edinburgh Playhouse

Famous for

From comedy to dance, musical theatre to music, this renowned theatre has something for all tastes.

The Playhouse

Seating over 3,000, Edinburgh Playhouse is the UK’s largest all-seated theatre. Hosting large-scale touring productions, it has played host to some of the biggest names in live music, comedy and musical theatre.

Built in 1929, the Playhouse began life as a ‘super’ cinema and was modelled on similar buildings in the USA. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was transformed into the theatre we know and love today.

Within its grand auditorium, hundreds of blockbuster musicals, concerts, comedy and dance performances have taken place including Mary Poppins, The Phantom of the Opera, Hairspray, Riverdance and concerts by Bryan Adams, Phil Collins and Iron Maiden.

The theatre is even thought to have its own resident ghost, aka Albert. Believed to be a former stagehand, he is said to wander the theatre’s vast space!

Book your tickets for upcoming shows at the Edinburgh Playhouse

Bedlam Theatre

Famous for

Being the oldest student-run theatre in Britain.

A former church dating from the 1840s, Bedlam Theatre is today owned by the University of Edinburgh and run entirely by students (The Edinburgh University Theatre Company).

It takes its name as a reference to the city’s first mental health hospital that once stood nearby. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the building took on a new purpose as Bedlam Theatre.

Each year, over 40 shows are shown in the 90 seater theatre, with students taking care of all aspects of the performance, from the lighting and stage design through to directing and performing. Many alumni of the Edinburgh University Theatre Company, or Bedlamites as they are commonly known, have gone on to have successful careers, including playwright Ella Hickson and comedian Miles Jupp.

Check out their What’s On page for upcoming performances

Church Hill Theatre

Famous for

Its accolade of one of Scotland’s leading non-professional theatres.

Located in the picturesque area of Morningside, Church Hill Theatre is today home to many of Edinburgh’s amateur theatrical companies.

Built as Morningside High Church in 1892, it was converted into a theatre in the 1960s, opening on 25 September 1965 with a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Since then, it has gained a reputation as one of Scotland’s leading non-professional theatres.

Throughout the year, it plays host to a variety of theatre & dance performances, concerts, talks and small conferences. 

Explore their What’s On page for details of upcoming performances.

Leith Theatre

Famous for

Its varied use. It has played host to theatre and music performances, as well as political rallies and even served as the venue for the weight lifting tournament in the 1972 Commonwealth Games.

A theatre with huge historical significance, Leith Theatre was a gift to the people of Leith following the amalgamation of the borough into Edinburgh in 1920.

Construction began in 1929, with the theatre opening in 1932. However, in 1941, at the height of WWII, a bomb which was intended for the docks, damaged the main auditorium. It wasn’t until 1961 that it re-opened.

Over the years it has hosted a wide variety of artists and bands, including Thin Lizzy and AC/DC. It even served as the venue for the weightlifting tournament in the 1970 Commonwealth Games.

Sadly, the theatre closed in 1988. A move to sell the site for residential development was stopped by locals, who in 2004 formed the Leith Theatre Trust, whose aim is to safeguard the theatre for the future.

In 2017 the theatre was used for the first time in almost 30 years as a venue for Hidden Door Festival, an event that proved so popular that it paved the way for other events. It has also played an important part in the local community, by serving as an NHS blood donation venue, a food bank donation venue and as the home of Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts, a food poverty charity.

Leith Theatre Trust continues to fundraise to enable this historic building to open on a permanent basis and in April 2021 it launched Live in Leith, a series of live music broadcasts featuring emerging Scottish talent.

Festival Theatre

Famous for

Offering a variety of world-class productions – from ballet and opera to musical theatre and children’s shows.

Festival Theatre

The Festival Theatre sits on Edinburgh’s longest continuous theatre site – there has been an entertainment venue here in one form or another since 1830.

The first venues created here were a series of circus and music halls, (many of which were destroyed by fire), before opening as The Empire Palace Theatre in 1892. This was a beautiful and ornate building, sitting an astronomical 3,000 people, which is well over today’s capacity. In 1896 Scotland’s first moving picture was shown here – indeed, the theatre is still used as a cinema today, showing live theatrical broadcasts from theatres and opera houses from around the world.

Sadly, the Empire Palace was too destroyed in a fire. In true theatre fashion though, the show must go on and it was rebuilt – remaining intact for 17 years – before being replaced in 1928 with the Empire Theatre, which included the spectacular auditorium that we know today.

Well-known entertainers like Harry Lauder, the singing cowboy Roy Rogers and his horse, Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe and Wise, Margot Fonteyn and Judy Garland all pulled in large crowds. From 1963 to 1991, the Empire took on a new lease, becoming a bingo hall during the day and a concert venue by night – T Rex and David Bowie were just two of the names who took to the stage.

It was in 1994 that it was refurbished and renamed The Festival Theatre, continuing to offer a varied programme of events. Explore upcoming shows and book tickets.

Find out What’s On

From theatre to whisky tastings, festivals to exhibitions, there’s always something happening in Edinburgh.


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