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arts edinburgh festival

free festival fringe

Slouching around Edinburgh in the rain and it has been pretty thin Festival for politics. You’d have thought that the implosion of Gordon Brown would be a gift to satirists, and Barack Obama is a fascinating media construct waiting to be deconstructed. There’s a nationalist government in Edinburgh for Heaven’s saek. But the shows seem stuck in the past.

‘Tony of Arabia’ (Pleasance Dome) is a sequel to lasts year’s hit “Tony – the Blair Musical’ . We now find our hero trying to make a new life in the Middle East, complete with whining Cherie. It’s well performed and amiable, but a little passe. Like Tony.

But the Fringe has itself become highly political even if the shows aren’t. Since the great Schism, when the big venues like the Pleasance and Underbelly set up their ‘own’ comedy festival, there has been war among the clowns. The ‘authentic’ Fringe, led by Tommy Sheppard’s undeniably excellent Stand comedy club, has been staging running battles against the Dark Side – the plutocrats with their PR budgets and fancy ticket prices. Comedians are being asked which side they’re on, and some, like estimable Stewart Lee, are boycotting the Pleasance/Gilded/Assembly Underbelly.

Others have given up altogether and gone free. now, doing a show at the Edinburgh Festival for nothing might seem like complete madness, when most with debts running to high four figures. One comedian, Doug Stanhope, is highlighting the problem by staging a one person show, for one night, with one ticket costing £7,249.00 which is the average amount comedians lose at the Fringe every year. I may give it a miss this year

Instead I spent a damp Wednesday afternoon seeing what the free fringe festival was like at one venue. “Where’s Yak” is a two woman show about the fantasy lives of Wimpy burger-flippers, and the performances really had star quality, though let down by some weak material and noisy airconditining “Hurricane Katrina” turned out to be a leggy stand-up with a multiple-personality routine who was quite funny. She even brought her mum. Dean Scurry, a scurrilous Dublin comic, was a hoot – though the audience were almost a funny as he was. I think the audiences feel more involved because the shows are free.

You do pay, of course, since a bucket is waved in your face as you leave. They ask for a fiver and people seem to give two or three quid, on average, which sounds poor, but makes commercial sense for the performers. They don’t pay for the venues and therefore don’t end up with huge debts And even with fifty quid a show, they can eat.

I think this could be the future. It’s certainly truer to the original idea of the Edinburgh Fringe. Whether the army of festival reviewers will agree though is another question. They get their tickets for nothing from the big venue promoters. But at free shows, well, you just can’t walk out without donating something, can you?

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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