The same ceremony during this year's Edinburgh Fringe which saw the first award of a supreme Fringe First among this year's fifteen winners (the laurel going deservedly to Gagarin Way) bestowed the inaugural Jack Tinker Award for the Spirit of the Fringe to the Aurora-Nova World Theatre Festival at St Stephen's Centre. In the space of only a couple of years, St Stephens has taken up and rekindled the torch carried for so long (and often so erratically) by Richard Demarco, offering a platform for vibrant eastern European theatre. Its flagship production this year has been School For Fools, an adaptation of Sokolov's novel about a 1950s childhood from the Russian company Formalny-Baltic. It is an impressive combination of deadpan humour, deliberate mistakes and haunting, elegiac imagery, often the more potent for being glimpsed only indistinctly behind gauzes. Video projections, taped and live simultaneous translation and a clutch of graceful performances all add to the cumulative effect.
St Stephens is run in partnership with Komedia, the Brighton club which has also established itself as an Edinburgh Fringe power over the last few years, now running three venues. Indeed, in many ways one of the most interesting developments on this year's Fringe has been the realignment of venue "empires". The C group has taken over a number of the spaces formerly operated by the semi-imploded Gilded Balloon, and in so doing has further broadened its bill of fare from its recent position as the kingpin of student and post-student theatre. That area has seen a strong initial showing by the Underbelly in the bowels of the city's old central library, formerly a C venue but now run independently. Its bill includes Ghost Shirt from Lu Kemp's promising Theatre By Design company, an enthralling tapestry of stories woven around the 1998 return to the Lakota Sioux nation of a ceremonial ghost dance shirt housed for a century in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum, and a solid adaptation of Bulgakov's The Master And Margarita by Peter Morris (author of The Age Of Consent) and co-directed by up-and-coming student physical theatre name Dominic Leclerc.
This consolidation of more and more Fringe venues into groups could be seen as a sign of the increasing corporatisation of the Fringe as it bows to economic pressures and moves further from the golden age of "let's do the show right here". In practice, this year it has proven almost entirely beneficial, as this new stratum of venues has served to fill an increasing gap left by the "premiership" spaces. Whilst the commitment to theatre of the Assembly Rooms, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon remains more or less undiminished numerically, the growing dominance of comedy has made itself felt in terms of scheduling: it is harder and harder to find any actual plays at the big three venues in evening slots.
One of the greatest delights at the Assembly Rooms, Bette Bourne's magnificent performance as Quentin Crisp in Tim Fountain's Resident Alien, first seen at the Bush in London in 1999, kicks off before noon; Peter Dineen's rumbustious revival of Conor McPherson's St Nicholas, a bizarre but powerful monologue about a theatre critic who finds himself pimping for a group of vampires, has a mid-afternoon slot. Almost the only evening theatre offerings at the venue are Maureen Beattie's tour de force in Liz Lochhead's adaptation of Medea for theatre babel and Stephen Powell and Lynn Ferguson's more modest but still effective psychiatric-nurse two-hander Mental (also a Fringe First winner).
In contrast, the ever-growing Pleasance empire – now operating fifteen performance spaces on three sites – underlined the box-office primacy of comedy on the Fringe by garnering, for the first time that I can recall, a clean sweep in the Perrier stakes: all five nominees for the main award have been performing at Pleasance venues.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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