Opinion: Edinburgh Fringe audiences need to venture beyond the city centre
The 2014 programme, with more and more venues in the north of the city, could shake things up
This article is from 2014.
About 15 years ago, Mark Thomson staged a Fringe show called A Madman Sings to the Moon. It starred Tony Cownie as a loner who laid siege to a café. By the end of the festival, the production had won a Herald Angel and Cownie had won the Stage Award for Best Actor. It was the show I recommended to anyone looking for a hot tip, but there was a hitch. Try as I might, I found it impossible to persuade anyone to take the 20-minute bus journey out to the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh to see it.
The awards must have been gratifying, but the show didn't get the audiences it deserved – a matter resolved only when Thomson revived it at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum five years later.
The story illustrates the parochial nature of Fringe audiences. If a show isn't within a ten-minute walk of a charmed city-centre circle, it may as well not exist. It's no consolation to know the very first Fringe of 1947 included a performance in Dunfermline Abbey and that Richard Demarco once rebranded Dundee Rep as a Fringe venue (that was a bit daft, but I did see a fantastic Lithuanian show there). Today, the return of Forest Fringe to Out of the Blue, a full five-minute taxi ride down Leith Walk, seems like an act of wilful obscurity.
It means that what any other city would regard as the smallest of changes always threatens to throw the festival spinning-top off balance. This year, though, the changes could be for the better.
It was looking touch-and-go when news broke a few months ago of the sale of St Stephen's Church in Stockbridge. For the past two years, this had been the home of Newcastle's Northern Stage with a programme that had provided the theatrical base note to the New Town. As the nearby Assembly Rooms had only just reopened after an 18-month refurbishment, this was not welcome news for those trying to shift the Fringe's centre of gravity away from the university area in the south.
But two things have happened that paint a more promising picture. The first is the extension of Tommy Sheppard's Assembly Rooms venture not only into a pedestrian area on George Street but also into St Andrew Square, where the Famous Spiegeltent will take up residence. This effectively establishes a front line that links the Stand Comedy Club (a stone's throw from the new tram terminus) to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Charlotte Square, taking in venues such as Hill Street and the New Town Theatre on the way.
The second is the rebirth of Northern Stage in the King's Hall on far away South Clerk Street. Only a couple of years ago, this would have looked reckless but now, since the flourishing of Summerhall just around the corner, it seems inspired. Anyone with a taste for new writing, international drama and the theatrical avant garde will find it hard to stay away. It’s not Musselburgh, but it shows the Fringe still has the capacity to reinvent itself in energising ways.
Mark Fisher is a freelance theatre critic, former editor of The List and author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide. Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Fri 1–Mon 25 Aug.