PROMPT CORNER 16–17/2009
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Various venues
August, 2009

In this issue, you can read coverage of the National Theatre’s Watch This Space festival and the Riverside Studios’ Tête À Tête opera festival, but LIFT’s Molten festival doesn’t appear to have received any coverage, and events on the Camden Fringe have been digested within the issue as a whole; next issue, Grimeborn at the Arcola, then BAC’s Scratch festival…  Are we in danger of becoming festivalled out?  Not really, because the word “festival” is in danger of becoming meaningless in theatre programming.  Any themed season simply sounds more exciting and dynamic when you call it a “Festival”.  This, in turn, devalues those programmes of work which do qualify for the term, stretching across organisations and venues, such as Molten and Camden.


And with so many festivals around, what need of so much coverage even of the biggest arts festival in the world?  Yes, once again the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe received less media attention this year than last, despite being bigger and more successful.  (Ah, but we’ll come to that point later…)  Once again, Lyn Gardner of the Guardian and I were the only national reviewers in situ for pretty much the duration, and I think each of us had less space; I certainly did in the Financial Times.  Even the Scotsman, hitherto considered the Festivalgoer’s journalistic bible, was publishing noticeably less review coverage from a far smaller team of reviewers.

Conversely, to cater for a Festivalgoing population of tens, even hundreds of thousands of people seeking guidance among over 2000 shows, the Festival freesheets and latterly web sites have become more and more influential… filling the vacuum, as it were.  But do they fill it?  They often rely on eager students or “civilians” to provide copy, but lack any real sense of identity or weight in themselves.  The effect has been to buck the overall trend in online arts coverage: just as the sector in general begins to shake down with an increasing awareness of which sites are more reliable and authoritative, Edinburgh review coverage is not so much a labyrinth as a great big tangle.  Any show that can’t extract a five-star review, or at least a couple of fours, from this plethora of competing voices (because it’s just the star ratings that get plastered on posters, not – heavens forfend – actual words), really isn’t trying.

Falling away

Yet the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe did more business this year than ever.  At the end of the season, the Fringe Society reported 7% more tickets sold overall this year than in the previous record year of 2007.  (A not very discreet veil is drawn across 2008, when the Fringe’s new ticketing software collapsed, causing hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost business by their own estimate.)  When I arrived in the city this year, three days before the official beginning of the Fringe, I was astounded by crowds such as I had never seen so early in the season.

Indeed.  Here’s an interesting thing: ticket sales were up 7% over the entire Fringe season, but at the end of the first of the three weeks they had been up by a massive 42%... yes, even on that 2007 record.  One venue complex alone (albeit the biggest), the Pleasance, reported having taken over £750,000 in box office by that point.  In other words, that healthy overall picture breaks down into a phenomenal start to the season, followed by a massive falling away of business.  One experienced producer told me that he would normally rate the four weekends of the Fringe as follows in terms of business: 3, 4, 2, 1 in descending order.  This year, he said, it was 1,2,3,4.


There is, I think, a logical explanation.  In this year of recession, Edinburgh had fewer visitors from overseas; more of its business was domestic, and in particular from Scots who had decided to holiday at home this year (that horrible neologism, “staycationers”).  But the United Kingdom’s calendars are not all that united.  The Fringe runs for the three weeks immediately prior to the late August Bank Holiday (which, confusingly, is a holiday in England & Wales only, not in Scotland).  This year, that holiday fell on the last day on which it could, August 31st.  However, the term calendar of Scottish schools runs along different lines.  They would normally begin the new school year in the middle of the third week of the Fringe, but this year the late Bank Holiday and consequently the late Fringe dates meant that Scottish children were back at school – and Scottish parents also back to their term-time routines – in Fringe Week 2.  The principal market in this unusual Fringe year, as in The Hunting Of The Snark, softly and silently vanished away.

They took with them much of the morale in the performing and producing community.  Shows which would in normal years have sold out presented those onstage with disconcerting, disheartening, “gappy” audiences.  Fringe performers, crews, publicists… even journalists… always grow exhausted and eager to leave towards the end, but this year it was an exhaustion born not of frenzy but of lassitude.

The moral is…

All of which is simply to say that when I see reports of West End business being up in early summer, I have serious doubts as to whether that trend will be sustained.  We shall see.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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