Edinburgh Fringe: Preview
Like a child continually blowing up a balloon, blissfully unaware that it can only get so large, the Edinburgh Fringe continues to grow. The question now being asked is can the world’s largest arts festival sustain its growth or is the balloon going to burst, leaving the debris scattered around the city that hosts it?
This year, the Fringe boasts 3,841 shows, an 8% increase on last year’s 3,548. These shows will give a total of 59,600 performances, up almost 5% on the 56,796 performances there were last year. The performers will come from a record 63 countries and will be appearing across more than 500 venues, making the Fringe the third biggest ticketed gathering in the world, after the World Cup and the Olympics.
The line-up boasts some of the top names in British comedy, with the likes of Frank Skinner, Rhod Gilbert, Paul Merton, Sean Walsh, Lucy Porter, Ed Byrne and even Basil Brush listed in the programme. A recent announcement that Dead Ringers star Jan Ravens was cancelling her entire Fringe run for personal reasons went largely unnoticed, perhaps because top name comics are like buses at this time of the year – there will always be another one along soon.
The programme at the Traverse includes the returns of Cora Bissett’s 2018 award winning Fringe show What Girls are Made Of and Kieran Hurley’s superb Mouthpiece, a play that had a sell-out run at the venue at the end of last year, alongside new productions from David Edgar and Stef Smith, while Summerhall also has a line-up that draws on some of the most respected theatre makers around at the moment.
All of which suggests that the Fringe is in rude health.
However, at the same time, a toxic mix of rising accommodation costs and reduced coverage by mainstream media mean that the Fringe is becoming less viable for new artists hoping to break into the big time. Alongside this, there has been a steady creeping up in ticket prices, with tickets for bigger names frequently making it above £20, meaning that people have less money to spend on taking a chance on new talent. This may be why ever more acts are turning to the free Fringe, or doing ‘pay what you want’ shows, as they seek to attract audiences and avoid some of the staggering costs of hiring a venue.
On this model, the Fringe may be thriving, but is built on pillars of sand so that it’s a matter of when, rather than if, it comes crashing down. In reality, it probably lies somewhere between the two extremes.
An increase in the number of returning shows and fans favourites may suggest that the bigger venues are playing it relatively safe, at odds with the risk-taking, innovative spirit that defined the Fringe, but, looking further into the schedules, the safe bets are accompanied by more adventurous productions, creating a unique eco-system where revenue generated through established acts makes it possible for new talent to continue to emerge.
One example of this is My Name is Irrelevant, a show where a man giving a lecture about all the people he has met in his life, escalates into a heartfelt and fascinating insight into the workings of a confused mind. It’s an excellent show that made a low-key Fringe debut, tucked away in an afternoon slot at the Assembly in 2017, and now returns in an early evening slot in the less crowded schedule at Summerhall.
That said, the continued success of the Fringe should not be taken for granted, and there remains a need to ensure that the costs of putting on a show do not get so high, and the exposure the Fringe offers to upcoming acts is so low, that it chokes off the lifeblood that the event needs in order for it to survive into the next decade and beyond.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from 2 to 26 August 2019. Full details at https://www.edfringe.com/