During this week last year, London was burning thanks to the riots that took place across the city. And this year, London is burning up with something else entirely: Olympics fever. Yet in the parallel universe of the Edinburgh Fringe, where every waking hour is consumed with going to the theatre, talking about shows or writing about them, it’s difficult to acknowledge there’s a life beyond here.
Not that the Olympics are exactly on my radar anyway; but it was a rather sad sight to see a few hardy, huddled souls watching them in the inevitable rain on the giant screen erected in the open space opposite the Usher Hall on the Lothian Road on Sunday night.
It would be tempting to push an Olympics analogy and say that, while the world’s biggest sporting event nears its once every four years end in London, the world’s largest annual cultural one is getting into its stride here in Scotland, with the International Festival joining the Fringe today; but of course while the Olympics is about excellence across the board, Edinburgh is famously a free-for-all — and sorting the sheaves of wheat from the debris of chaff is harder than ever here.
Defying gravity (and any kind of business sense), the fringe continues to multiply — this year the statistics are for a record-breaking 2,695 shows taking place in 279 venues featuring an estimated 22,457 performers — including David Hasselhoff.
No wonder that critics — and reviewing outlets — are proliferating in kind to cover it. In a world where everyone’s now a critic — or at least wants a free ticket — there seem to be as many pop-up publications here as venues, as well as the regular Scottish outlets like The Scotsman and The List providing a more comprehensive service than any London-based national can attempt. (A dedicated team of professional reviewers for The Stage manages to review a whopping 330 shows, too, joined by student reviewers from the website The U-Review that it has partnered with to cover another 100 shows).
But even the daily London freesheet the Evening Standard is here. For some reason, the Standard routinely covers Edinburgh, even though its distribution doesn’t even stretch to all London suburbs. It dips a toe into the Fringe, publishing a daily review from here from Fiona Mountford; we seem to have inadvertently stalking each other during our travels.
In a festival where there are nearly 2,700 shows to choose from to cover, and probably as many restaurants, I’ve run into Fiona at three separate shows, and two restaurants; and have also had regular encounters with Ian Shuttleworth, Lyn Gardner, Dominic Cavendish and Libby Purves. Of course, you might expect to run into fellow critics at the Traverse, the epicentre of curated serious theatre at Edinburgh, which helps making finding it easier; and where a very well-run press office (a year-round operation, not an ever-changing pop-up operation as at other venues) smooths our passage effortlessly, too.
But it is still a remarkable fact that critics coincide at all on our travels, given the number of shows to choose from and the different time slots we could all choose. Yet seeing Nichola McAuliffe’s new play Maurice’s Jubilee at the Pleasance the other day, I only noticed that the person sitting on the other side of my partner was Fiona after we sat down, while Ian Shuttleworth was behind us.
And this morning, Scottish-based critic Mark Fisher, who has recently published The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, is hosting a session where fringe theatre makers can find out how to get their shows noticed by critics, with a live panel that includes Lyn Gardner and Brian Logan, the Guardian’s comedy critic.
No sooner was I off the train from London last Saturday than I ran into my first Olivier Award winning West End-turned-fringe performer before I’d even left the station: Leanne Jones, who is appearing here in the Lyric Belfast’s fringe transfer of a new musical Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory, which I’d funnily enough scheduled as my first fringe show later that afternoon. And walking along Rose Street on my way to that show, I ran into Les Dennis, on his way out after his own performance in the same venue, the revamped Assembly Rooms.
The Assembly Rooms were the Edinburgh Fringe first mega-venue, squeezing performance spaces into every nook and cranny of this grand old civic building on George Street, originally built in 1787, and run as a fringe venue by William Burdett-Coutts since around 1788, it seems. Or at least for thirty years, until he lost the contract to run it after Edinburgh City Council put it out to tender after its refurbishment.
Burdett-Coutts moved his Assembly operation to University buildings in George Square on the other side of time, but held onto the name Assembly, presumably partly because he also runs Assembly Hall on the Mound. But there’s room, inevitably, for plenty of confusion for the public between the two sets of Assembly managements. Earlier this year, Burdett-Coutts urged the new management of the Assembly Rooms, the Stand Comedy Club’s Tommy Sheppard, to change the venue’s name to avoid confusion. In an interview with the BBC Scotland website, Sheppard replied, “It shows breathtaking ignorance and arrogance to ask for the Assembly Rooms to be renamed…. He should be the one to change his name now that he has nothing to do with the Assembly Rooms.”
The City Council, meanwhile, weighed in with words of its own, with its head of culture and sport Lynn Halfpenny commenting, “The Assembly Rooms has been known as the Assembly Rooms for nearly 250 years and we certainly have no plans to change the name.”
Stewart Lee has another suggestion for the name clash: in a recent feature in The Guardian, he said he calls Burdett-Coutts’ operation “False Assembly, to distinguish it from its former parent venue, Edinburgh Council’s Assembly Rooms, which I now call the One and Only Real Assembly Rooms, and where I appear at 6.05pm.”
In Edinburgh, of course, you have to use every possible opportunity to plug your show — and those of your family. As a sidebar to the Guardian feature, he offered his own pick of the fringe, which included Bridget Christie, a “feminist standup in donkey costume.” At least he introduced his recommendations by saying, “In the interest of full disclosure, I have had children with one of these. And it isn’t Künt & the Gang.”
One of the venues that “False Assembly” have taken over this year is the Roxy, just up the hill from the Pleasance, than in its time has been run by Richard Demarco (a long-time gallery operator in the city who also ran networks of fringe venues), the Pleasance itself… and me! I hired this grand old church building for two years in the mid-80s — in 1985, as a home for the Cambridge Mummers, whom I was producing; and the following year, I joined forces with Julius Green, now a senior producer for Bill Kenwright Ltd who has just authored ‘How to Produce a West End Show’ for Oberon Books, to run it as a home for his Cambridge student Park Bench Theatre company and hire it out to others.
The dusty venue has barely changed in the 25+ years since I ran it, apart from new toilets in the basement. But seeing a show in the smaller upstairs space that has carved out since I ran it, I was struck by another thing that never changes in Edinburgh: the sheer physical discomfort of most of the seating here. With narrow hardwood seats tied together to comply with safety rules, there’s less room to move than in the Trafalgar Studios in London.
But that’s still a marginal improvement on the dreadful plastic tip-up stadium seats that crush you against the people not just sitting on either side of you but also in front of you at many other venues; just whose back the curvature of the rear support has been designed for is total mystery, too.
And while I’m complaining: it may be an inevitable by-product of running shows back-to-back in small venues, with heavy lighting and zero ventilation, but many venues turn into stifling sweatboxes. Attending a late show in the packed basement studio at St Augustine’s on George IV Bridge, I could barely breathe. I felt as if my innards were being brought to a slow boil, a bit like being on the London tube in a packed train at rush hour that’s being endlessly held in a tunnel.
So praise where praise is due: it was nice to sit in ‘proper’ seats in the fringe’s grandest venue, the chandeliered splendour of the Music Hall at the (One and Only Real) Assembly Rooms, which are obviously a permanent installation.
Quotes of the week: step forward, Stewart Lee once again, who in the same feature already quoted from in The Guardian, complains about the fragmentation of the Fringe that followed the re-branding of the big Four venues - the Pleasance, Underbelly, Gilded Balloon and Assembly - under the self-labelled banner the “Edinburgh Comedy Festival” that happened five years ago, “re-pointing the fragile but functioning ecosystem of the Fringe for their own ends, with their own printed programme and their own box office. The collapse of the People’s Democratic Republic of Arty Farty Twats had begun…. Here was an act of corporate cattle rustling familiar from 30 years of government sell-offs…. The establishment of the assumed Edinburgh Comedy festival in isolation from the Fringe festival saw many tacit threads of standardised practise - a mutually observed ticket release date for example - fall away, and the Fringe entered the deregulated free-market phase of late capitalism.”
And, he goes on, “The agents who nudge their acts towards the big four Edinburgh Comedy festival venues are most likely to be charging their clients huge fees for advertising and networking, because their eyes are set on the prize of TV deals for their own production companies to develop their own acts, and they feel a presence in the Edinburgh Comedy festival, as distinct from the Edinburgh Fringe festival, will best achieve this. They are not wrong.”
That pushes up the price all around in turn. And its not confined to the greed of the venues, agents and managers, either: “Edinburgh residents, with no apparent grasp of cause and effect, criticise Fringe prices while boasting about how they tripled the rent of their flats for the summer.”