Reflections On the Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Trends and Portents

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The 2001 Edinburgh Festival has ended. What trends did it show, and what suggestions does it offer about its future direction?

The 2001 Edinburgh Festival has ended. What trends did it show, and what suggestions does it offer about its future direction?

This year Edinburgh has received mixed reviews: on the one hand there was much talk of record ticket sales (over a million), on the other there have been reports of even very good acts playing to tiny audiences. This apparent contradiction is explained by the sheer number of shows; over 1400 were performed in the three weeks of the International and Fringe festivals, and indicates one of the central ironies of Edinburgh - the greater the buzz and the wider the choice, the harder it is to see all the shows one would like.

This means that publicity and promotion are crucial. One of the most heavily promoted — and artistically successful — shows was Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way, a play that emerged from the National Theatre studio and which had already been scheduled to appear at the National's Cottesloe auditorium (previews from Sept. 29; opens Oct. 3).

This arrangement bucked the usual point of the festival as being a showcase for new talent which, against the odds, might be spotted and a deal arranged with a London producer or venue. Gagarin Way, in effect, was a case of the National using Edinburgh for some pre-National publicity: something it achieved with spectacular success but which thereby turned the usual dynamics of Edinburgh on their head.

This case was all the more marked as this year's Festival saw very little in the way of major discoveries among plays and even less in the area of stand-up comedy, traditionally the highest-profile and most popular part of the fringe. This may have been partly due to the depressing effect of previous Perrier Award winners (for comedy) demanding that this year's candidates boycott the awards for socio-political reasons. Not a lot of laughs there, then. All five people on the short list performed at the Pleasance, one of the largest and most succesful fringe organizations, so the Pleasance's management, at least, were chuckling all the way to the bank. As was Garth Marenghi, the overall winner of the Perrier Award, whose spoof presentations of horror novels will be seen at the Perrier Pick of the Fringe in London in October at a venue yet to be confirmed. Not laughing at all were female comics, not one of whom appeared in the shortlist, and none of whom have won the Perrier for six years: the last winner was comedienne and actress Jenny Eclair. It may be that performers and writers who want to catch the attention of a London management should think carefully about committing themselves to the cost of appearing at Edinburgh unless, like Gagarin Way, they have already been booked in elsewhere and can treat Edinburgh as a try out and pre-production publicity exercise. Counting on Edinburgh to make an impression and to launch a show or a career is increasingly (and, again, partly due to the overall success and therefore size of the fringe festival) unpredictable, however good the performance. The likelihood of being reviewed by the national press is remote; most drama critics seem to have attended the same shows this year, as if huddling together for support in a strange environment where they were unknown to barmen and ushers. And television is showing an ambivalent approach: this year BBC2 dropped its usual regular coverage, while ITV stepped-up its own.

For foreign companies, however, Edinburgh still offers a useful showcase and a chance of public and press attention lacking anywhere else: this year the St Petersburg company Formalny-Baltic won rave reviews for their surreal show School For Fools, performing at the St Stephen's Centre — a relatively new but impressive Edinburgh venue which won the prestigious new 'Jack Tinker Spirit of The Fringe Award' given in honour of the late and much-missed drama critic of the Daily Mail.

For all the undoubted fun and razzamatazz of Edinburgh's month in the sun, the fact remains that despite some artistic outposts in Scarborough, Leeds, Chichester and so on, British theatre still seems to be centred — other than in August — in London. In the theatre industry there is the same sense of relief at the new West End season starting in September as there is in families getting back from an enjoyable but slightly disruptive holiday away from home.

— by Paul Webb Theatrenow

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