The Spirit of the Fringe is dead, dying or thriving

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

Scots comedienne Janey Godley has been telling me and has blogged that she feels this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is different. That the spark has gone. That it has lost some of its character.

I told her it felt that way every year. Malcolm Hardee, the legendary godfather of alternative comedy and a Fringe legend, told me fifteen years ago that he felt the “supermarkets” of the big-time agents and comedy promoters had taken over from the ramshackle “corner shop” shows which he ran and which epitomised the spirit of the Fringe.
But, in the last few days, I have come round to agreeing with Janey Godley. The old Fringe is dying or is already dead. The big venues are now overly-large operations charging serious prices for mostly slick shows. The new McEwan Hall venue’s 2,000-seater is staging Cameron Mackintosh’s West End and Broadway hit Five Guys Named Moe in a production where The Scotsman rightly guessed the lighting rig alone cost more than most normal Fringe shows. It is straight West End transfer in a limited run. A Fringe show it ain’t.

The true spirit of the Fringe has transferred to the two competing Free festivals and to the Five Pound Fringe.

Bob Slayer’s gobsmackingly anarchic Punk Rock Chat Show (which had nothing to do with punk, rock or chat the evening I saw it but did involve a banana, nudity and an orifice) is the pure unadulterated spirit of the true Fringe and, with Lewis Schaffer now taking the erratically-billed 5.30pm performance of his improvised Free Until Famous show out of the venue and literally onto the streets, come rain or shine, we are living in a two-tiered Fringe world.

Punters can’t take the increasing financial risk of paying professional-level prices in the big venues on shows that might be rubbish. They sensibly lessen their financial risk by booking for shows by Names they have already watched on TV.

The spirit of the Fringe in which people accidentally discover new talent and rising stars in grim, sweaty rooms has now transferred to a second, lower tier of the Fringe.

It’s not all bad news, though.

Janey Godley herself straddles both Fringes, drawing big audiences in one of the Big Four venues on the reputation of her often highly improvised live shows despite not being one of the young Oxbridge males so beloved of BBC3 and Channel 4.

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