Edinburgh Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Friday 3rd September:

Hold it! Hold it! Hold it! Before you go, one small but crucial stat. I don’t know how The Stage managed to get hold of this when no-one else seems to have the numbers, but it looks like there are fringe-wide figures for ticket sales after all. And, crucially, they separate in-person and online.

So, it’s 381,192 tickets for 528 in-person productions, compared to 3,012,490 in 3,841 productions in 2019. This means the fringe is 12.6% the size of 2019 if we’re going on ticket sales, or 13.7% in terms of number of in-person registrations. We were expecting both figures to be hammered, so there’s little surprise there. The important figure, however, is sales per production. That’s 722 per production in 2021, slightly down from 784 per production in 2019.

But but but but but but but but – almost all productions in 2021 didn’t run the full festival, which in 2019 most did. A lot of them ran for half the festival. We don’t appear to have the number of performances, but I think we can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, that sales per performance were a lot higher. This might be offset by a lot of the venues being big ones (30 sales per performance in a 35-seater is much better news than 30 in a 350-seater), but with every performances I saw being way over half occupancy, I’ll still wager those numbers are good.

Online sales, for what it’s worth, are 14,500 for 414 shows on the Fringe Player platform, averaging 35 per production. Obviously there’s no equivalent numbers to compare this to from 2019. Not all shows were on the fringe player platform, other platforms may skew the figures, but if we assume this was representative, this suggests that online is a much cheaper option, but gets much less reach. If you’re serious about getting an audience, it seems in-person remains the way to go.

There’s a lot of nuance around these figures that I’ve already discussed, but I think we can safely stick with the earlier conclusion that these are as excellent as a fringe under these circumstances could be.

And with that, I really am signing off. Thanks to everyone who over the month. Join me next May when we do it all over again, starting with Brighton.

Thursday 2nd September:

And that’s it, folks. This brings us to the end of coverage of the Edinburgh Fringe that nearly never was. We aren’t quite finished with fringes, because Greater Manchester Fringe is running in September instead of July this year (tied in, I understand, to the reopening plans of most of their venues). This had 60-ish registrations, so their recovery is comparable to that of Brighton or Buxton, as far as this city-wide fringe can be compared to the big three.

The summary of Edinburgh 2021 is as follows:

  • Edinburgh Fringe has gone ahead at a fraction of its normal size, mainly due to some very late decisions from the Scottish government on what would and wouldn’t be allowed. Supporters say this late decision was a necessary move by an administration taking the threat of the virus seriously, whilst other people say it was an act of hypocrisy by a bunch of clueless cretins with ridiculous double-standards such as more relaxed rules for pubs even though they knew perfectly well the risk of transmission is far greater, and if you think they’re any more supportive of performing arts than the other bunch of clueless cretins over the border you’ve got another thing coming. As you can see, I’m sitting on the fence here.
  • As a result, the feel of this Edinburgh Fringe is very different from a normal year. Within the core area of George Square and Bristo Square, is does feel a bit more like a festival. Outside of a core hub, it doesn’t feel like there’s a fringe on – even on the Royal Mile.
  • The fact that the Fringe only went ahead as a fraction of its normal size hasn’t stopped the nimbys coming out in force. Most notorious this month has been the Cockburn Association, who so obviously are against the fringe for the reason that they don’t like it therefore no-one else should. Their objections are textbook nimbyism, where they raise issues they would never have given two hoots were they not trying to make the fringe bad. The most outlandish claim was that the Fringe was putting Edinburgh’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under threat. UNESCO eventually said that wasn’t true, but the fact this rubbish was repeated often enough to prompt them to intervene is shocking.
  • The good news is that, for the few acts that did go ahead amidst all the uncertainty, ticket sales have been excellent. Audience numbers have been massacred, but with the number of acts massacred even more, the sales per performance have improved. A lot of acts who shied away from taking part must be wishing they had now. Myself included.
  • One notable absence this year has been second-tier venues. Nothing from C Venues, Greenside or Sweet, and the only presence of Zoo being a four-way collaboration with a temporary joint venue. This means that The Space has risen in prominence this year, taking a lot of acts that otherwise would have gone to the second tier. Big question now over what The Space does next. (See 24th August for possibilities.)
  • Online theatre has also managed a reasonable presence, in spite of early scepticism over registration fees being off-putting. In fact, so far the online medium has persisted longer than most people expected, as in-person shows are returning across the board. I wasn’t seriously expecting this to become a permanent feature of fringes, but having surprised us this far, maybe it can surprise us further.
  • The web-only booking system has proven troublesome are all sorts of logistical reasons, and the lack of a paper programme has compounded this. Although the paper programmes are one of the Festival |Fringe Society’s most expensive operations, it looks like fringe land is not yet ready to go fully paperless just yet. (That said, paperless ticketing seems to have worked – that is something that I expect to remain in place.)
  • Shona McCarthy has stated for the first time on the record that Edinburgh Fringe is no longer judging its success by size. It’s been quietly backing away from bigger is better for a few years, but this is the first time it’s been made official.

All in all, the Edinburgh Fringe is in a strong position to begin a proper recovery next year. But do not underestimate the mountain they have to claim. It’s one thing for Brighton and Buxton to build on half-size fringes, but Edinburgh is more like tenth-size. There are aspirations to rebuild in a sustainable way without it being clear how that will be achieved, but perhaps the easiest way to do it is if demand never returns to the levels it was in the 2010s.

Edinburgh Fringe’s mission this year was to survive, and they have succeeded. The job of rebuilding the fringe, however, has only just started.

Wednesday 1st September:

We now have the stats of ticket sales – or some of them, anyway. Edinburgh Fringe has chosen not to release sales figures like it usually does. The reason given by Shona McCarthy is that she wishes to “stop defining success by scale”. A cynical interpretation is that Edinburgh Fringe is really holding back the figures because they’re not good, but I think this is unlikely because 1) all the anecdotal evidence was that the figures were as good as could be for a fringe this size; and 2) under Shona McCarthy the Festival Fringe Society has been quietly stepping away from “bigger is better” for a few years now. However, it does make it harder to assess how this have gone based on proper stats.

Some of the individual venues have nonetheless released their own figures, which Chortle has summed up, but I’ve not managed to work out out anything beyond what I knew already. The two big sticking points are: most of the stats do not separate sales for online and in-person; and the prevalence of large high-capacity venues (even after social distancing) against lots of small spaces in 2019. Between them, it makes a like-for-like comparison difficult. As such, I don’t think we can on anything better than percentage occupancy, where we still only have the 78% reported by The Space. I still think the Big Four’s performance was similar based on my observations, but if anyone can draw some better conclusions from number-crunching, I’d be happy to hear it.

It might be helpful, however, to stick to first principles and consider why these stats matter. For a fringe to grow – and whatever the FFS society may say, they’re desperate to grow past their 2021 size – ticket sales per act need to be high enough to make people think it’s worthwhile the following year. I think there can be little doubt that sales around the three-quarters mark will do the job. The other questions is whether the venues think it’s worthwhile to expand. Again, three-quarters occupancy should be encouraging, but the venues get to see all the data and there might be something out of view that’s more off-putting. Regardless, the big unknown factor is public funding. It’s one thing putting together a stop-gap fringe to prevent a total collapse, but another thing to support a fringe at anything near its normal size. Will they get the backing they need to expand? If not, how far dare they go without?

Those questions, folks, are unlikely to be answered until next year.

One other bit of breaking news: after all the hints that Brighton Fringe might decide to stick with its enforced three-week postponement for good – they’ve decided to stick with May after all. Bit surprised, seeing as everyone who’d expressed an opinion on this seems to back the change, but I was a little sceptical about this – I’m not convinced blazing hot weather at the seaside is good for ticket sales. No reason given as yet, but I expect I’ll find out the thinking in due course.

What that means for Edinburgh is that they keep their status as only viable fringe for student productions. May clashes with most students’ exams, but June is better, and with even a large student cast sharing expenses getting prohibitively expensive, that might have might Brighton a tempting alternative. Whether that would have been good or bad for Edinburgh Fringe is another question, but now that’s a hypothetical debate. What is does mean is that I can go back to covering fringe season over four months – four fringes in three months got somewhat back-breaking.

Tuesday 31st August:

So it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Who has made my pick of the fringe? Here it goes. With all categories ordered in the sequence I saw them:

Pick of the Fringe:

Zumba 2021shook_capGold
Sintara Raw
Under Milk Wood: Semi-Skimmed
Shook
Northanger Abbey
Skank (based on Vault 2020)

Online Pick of the Fringe:

Mustard
Fow
The Little Glass Slipper performed by the Queen of France and her friends
Mimi’s Suitcase

Honourable mention:

Myra’s Story
The Event
Madhouse
Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man who used to hit her)
Fear of Roses
Brave Face
On Your Bike

Observant readers will notice that everything in-person I have reviewed here gets honourable mention or higher. This is intentional: anyone who have braved the odds to come to the Edinburgh Fringe this year has my eternal respect. It wasn’t automatic though: there was one pretty major performance I saw that I didn’t review because I thought it fell way short of expectations – everyone on this list gets the honour of doing better than this unspecified major performance. (I also didn’t review a music event, a tour, and a magic show but only because they were too far removed from theatre for me to make a meaningful assessment.)

Don’t go away just yet though. I have been tipped off of a piece of news coming tomorrow that could be significant for Edinburgh.

Monday 30th August:

And that’s it, the last day. Time to wind up coverage. We’re possibly waiting for news on fringe-wide ticket sales (we currently only have word from The Space) and we may also get some news from Brighton Fringe this week that might affect Edinburgh – in a good way, in my opinion.

But before then, let’s complete the online theatre reviews with a second and last batch:

Till Love Do Us Part: There are two halves to this play. The first half starts with a new couple saying goodnight on the start of a very successful first date. By the next scene, they’ve already moved in together, and for the next half-hour it’s practically a checklist of a relationship progressing like a dream: engagement, marriage, deciding to have kids together. Sadly, the conception ends in a miscarriage (the worst kind: the one where a scan predicts a doomed foetus will continue to grow but miscarry at a later time), but surely Jen and Simon’s love can survive this, right? Wrong.

The second half is what the play is really about. Nature is cruel and nature has decided a second conception isn’t going to be anywhere near as easy as the first. Jen’s desire to become a mother becomes an obsession. News of friends having their children without any effort only depresses her. Jen and Simon now only have sex for the purposes on conception. Until, finally, this puts a bigger strain on their lives than the original miscarriage.

It’s an informative play, but I wouldn’t have given half of it over the exposition. Whilst the time-frame over the length of the relationship is a temptingly tidy one, by the time we reached to meat of the story I was getting needlessly bored. Off-hand I’d have given a maximum of 10 minutes to bring us up to speed on life before. That I think would have given a tighter play; there may be further opportunities to explore to ups and downs in this fateful period. What this does achieve, however, is drawing attention to an issue that seems to attract little attention. It does that well, so credit for that.

Cash Point Meet: An Irish play that takes a look at the world of Sex Work it titled after one particular strand. A “Cash Point Meet” actually is a thing (look it up if you don’t believe me) involving men who, for some reason, find it a real turn on to be humiliated by a pair of women who take his money off him at a cash point. When Emma and Sinead are unexpectedly offered the chance to do this via a weird request on Tinder, it proves too tempting: all the money you get from sex work without actually having to do the sex bit. However, it turns out it’s not as easy as one imagines to separate this unexpectedly lucrative line of work from the rest of their lives. Like it or not, they are in it with all the other sex workers when it comes to their own safety.

The most obvious weakness of the play is a slow-moving plot. I would have cut the first 20 minutes completely – the exposition of two close friends on the breadline with no boyfriends could easily have been covered in the rest of the play. The play also digresses into issues such as mental health and Dublin’s notorious housing market that drag the pace down further. Nevertheless, once the play gets into the nuances of the complex situation around the sex work trade things get interesting. At the forefront, commentary on controversial the sex work laws on Ireland, with writer Niamh Murphy arguing the case that making paying for sex illegal for the punter only making life more dangerous for the sex workers. With one friend wanting out and the other friend wanting to campaign for her fellow workers, that’s where I think the real story lies.

The Little Glass Slipper as Performed by the Queen of France and Her Friends: And now, another unexpected gem. This was one of the stranger concepts: Marie Antionette, famous for being wife of Louis XVI and saying “let them eat cake” (which she probably never actually said), is putting on a play for the cream of Parisian aristocracy. She has cast herself into the most glamorous role of Cinderella, or, seeing as this is France, Cendrillon.At first glance, Marie comes across as the world first hipster. The kind who think it’s cool to spend an obscene amount of wealth of looking poor because looking poor is trendy. The kind you’d want to punch if you met them.

But tonight is the night the Bastille is being stormed, and as news reaches the Queen and friends must decide whether to flee to safety or stick with their sovereign, we see what she’s really like: in this play, she is defined by her naivety. She has no idea why this event is a big deal to France, and doesn’t seem to have any idea of the danger she’s in. She does, however, sense that so many people hate her, when all she does is to be liked by everyone. She is woefully out of touch – but it’s hard to see what chance she had to know any better.

It is not without its flaws. The role of Prince Charming is hastily taken up by a revolutionary intend on killing her are claiming the price on her head. He ends up pitying her – but the explanation for why he agrees to help the show go on is vague at best. But I am still hopeful that this can come to Edinburgh fringe for real. Some changes will have to be made – it is hard to see how the play as it stands could be performed on the smaller stages at the fringe – but this has a lot going for it. This is a beautiful portrayal with equal measures of comedy and tragedy – I hope the Miles Sisters can make the journey from America.

Sunday 29th August – Shook:

Before we go into the last in-person review, one bit of breaking news. We have our first report of ticket sales from The Space. They are reporting 64,000 ticket sales, down from 120,000 in 2019, but with the programme merely at 65 shown down from 445, that’s a lot more to go round. Seat occupancy is reported as 78%, which is in line with my observations across the fringe. I can see many would-be acts wishing they’d taken the plunge.

So let’s close with on the The Space’s most high-profile shows: Shook. Big coup for New Celts Productions to get performing rights for this, because this is a very recent winner of a major playwriting competition (Papatango). Samuel Bailey’s play is set in a prison where three young offenders are either fathers now or due to become fathers soon. Cain and Ryan begin the play with masculine bravado. As anyone who’s a man or has hung around with men knows, at least 60% of masculine bravado is bullshit, but in a prison that figure is more like 90%. Jonjo is a third quieter inmate, who looks like he needs help more than he needs prison, but when you hear what he was pushed into doing you see why he’s in prison. Can Grace give them one last chance to appreciate life as fathers.

Most drama set in prison are harrowing, either through the brutality of the inmates or the brutality of the people who locked them up, so it is refreshing to see a play that offers hope for a change. Cain, a traveller who spends time in and out of the nick makes a good point: the politicians who pledge to be tough on criminals like him hate him for who he is rather than what he’s done. Grace succeeds in getting Jonjo out of his shell where everyone else failed. Even Ryan – who comes across at the beginning as a bully at best and a misogynistic bully at worst – calms down for a while. Against the odds, Grace bring hope for almost everybody. Almost.

But how does this production fare? A lot to live up to with the fully professional premiere not that long ago. However, this young company does an excellent job of it, with the London setting successfully transplanted to Scotland. The only real limitations was the fringe environment such as the small stage, but they handle this. One thing that particularly impressed me is how much was achieved when actors aren’t speaking. In one moment where Grace is listening to Cain’s bullshit, Ryan – still in his masculine bravado phase – is sprawled out trying to dominate the room, whilst Jojno is cradling the doll of a baby even though he doesn’t need to.

The only shortcoming is one perhaps unavoidable to fringe conditions. It is normal for full-length plays to be shortened to fit in the programme – and most of them time, if you don’t know better, you can succeed in making it look like this is how it was written all along. This time, however, it would appear that something major about Ryan’s backstory was cut. When he snaps, there’s very little to tell us why, other than an unclear grudge against the person he lashed out at. But with the only thing I have to fault out of their hands, everything else is positive. The best was to get performing rights to a play written so recently is to persaude the writer you know what you’re doing. I hope Samuel Bailey and Papatango were proud out this.

Saturday 28th August – On Your Bike:

Now for a rare foray into musicals. I was drawn to this one by a very promising preview at The Space’s press launch. On Your Bike is a musical about one of the most recent additions to life: the takeaway delivery cyclist. The good news is that delivering takeaways by bicycle is much more environmentally friendly than driving everywhere by car. The bad news is that this often goes hand-in-hand with another not-so-welcome recent arrival: the casualisation of labour, where zero-hour contracts and/or so-called self-employed status are used as workarounds to evade employment protections that apply to everyone else.

The showcase song, however, has nothing to do with cycling or takeaways. “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” as a song on a first date where everything is going right. Can this promising standard apply to the rest of the songs. Yes they do. Writing songs for musicals is tricky – if either the words or the music doesn’t work out, it falls flat. The music in these songs, however, is consistently good and consistently catchy. The lyrics are also impressive. Even people who have no trouble letting the words flow in regular prose can struggle when setting it to music, but the words are crafted exceedingly well here. In the opening we learn Gemma is doing this because she’s had 77 consecutive rejection letters using every platitude know to man (increasing to 78 by the time the song finishes), and her living arrangements is even more precarious than her job than her job. Aidan is a little more secure with his arrangement, fitting his art around these irregular hours, but that too is going to come under pressure.

The story, however, isn’t quite as strong as the music. The brilliantly catchy “Where do we get to the bit where it all goes wrong?” loses its edge a little when you notice the two people getting together don’t really seem to have anything in common. No soon has Aidan started his whirlwind romance with a social media marketing-obsessed middle manager, she’s already badgering him to quit his art aspirations and join her in faceless middle management, which makes we wonder what they saw in each other in the first place. The play starts off making some intelligent comment about the culture around casual labour, where maximum flexibility to stakeholders is pushed at the expense of any real security or dignity, but too many of the resolutions are contrived. Yes, there are are ethical questions around animal welfare and takeaways, but a takeaway manger have a change of heart and converting to a vegan falafel restaurant after reading one leaflet from an animal rights group? Come on.

Despite these limitations, this is a good start from a student ensemble for what I think is the most difficult form of writing. Songwriting gets a lot more complicated when you are supporting a story, story-telling gets a lot more complicated when you’re mixing in music and lyrics. The ensemble of four give a strong performance, and the musical standard remains high from start to finish. Four year ago the same society came up with Six, and we know how that’s going. Good job from their successors in keeping the flag flying.

Friday 27th August:

A break from the reviews now to look at the end-of-fringe news. By now, I think everyone is confident that the Edinburgh Fringe has done enough to put itself on a firm footing to recover. Now they have launched a Save the Fringe campaign aiming to raise £7.5 million. As anyone’s who’s manage to successfully book a ticket through the fringe website how, the donations page has been asking for support for 2022 which they are now eyeing up as their relaunch year, coinciding with their 75th anniversary. This campaign, however, is a long-term one one aiming to raise money over 3-5 years, according to The Stage. At present, we don’t have details of what the Edinburgh Fringe plans to do with this £7.5m that it couldn’t do without, but we do have a list of seven principles they aspire to.

However, I think there is another factor that needs to be considered. When I previously wrote about 7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe when the situation looked the bleakest, I considered scenarios from “phoenix from the ashes” to “meltdown”. The danger of the meltdown scenario is now receding, but instead we should now consider a scenario at the opposite extreme: the Fringe recovers too well, and all the problems of a large fringe that came to a head in 2019 come back. It might even go beyond 2019 and hit breaking point. Edinburgh Fringe stopped cheerleading year-on-year growth a few years back, but with the festival open to all, they can’t stop the same people doing it all over again.

So does these seven principles address this? Debatable. The most relevant principle is number 2, which says: “Break down barriers to participation in the Fringe”. Money isn’t the only barrier, but it’s by the far the biggest one, and there’s no escaping the fact that the bigger the fringe gets, the more it costs to do it. However, whilst no-one would object to the principles, the devil is in the detail, or rather the lack of it: there is so far no information on exactly how the Edinburgh Fringe intends to break down barriers.

This ties into the wider issue of the great reset. Every man and his dog is currently taking about this year being the great fringe reset. Everybody agrees that the fringe is too expensive and needs to be kinder, and most people agree that the fringe got too big, but few people are proposing a solution, and amongst those who have, there’s next to no consensus. The only thing everybody can seem to agree on is that other people who are responsible for making the fringe too big. If 2019 mustn’t be repeated, who shouldn’t go? Never themselves, that’s for sure.

My current feeling is that whilst the aspiration to make the fringe a better place might be there, the drive isn’t. Few people are coming up with ideas, fewer still are prepared to compromise for the greater good. If the fringe does reform, it’s more likely to be market forces. It does look a lot of freelancers who have left the arts won’t be coming back, and with all fringes so dependent on freelancing, that could reduce uptake a lot. This is also the year that alternative festivals rose in prominence, and potentially will start taking people who would otherwise have gone for Edinburgh or bust. Edinburgh’s problem has been supply and demand – it looks like the cut in demand may be permanent.

There is will time for the Festival Fringe society, venues, arts industry and public bodies to get their heads together and make a plan, but at the moment there seems little will to even attempt to do this. If a recovered Edinburgh Fringe has fewer barriers and is more sustainable, it may not to because of the efforts to reform, but in spite of the lack of effort. If you want to to prove me wrong -well, that’s in your hands.

Thursday 26th August – Brave Face:

It truly pains me to say this, but although Brave Face is a story with huge potential and so much to say, it fails the “What’s going on?” test. The message that writer/performer Everleigh Brenner gives at the end of the play is that there are many women who have suffered sexual violence who put on a brave face, and few if any of the people there would disagree with that. But the play sets out to say more than that. Her character em becomes, in her words “a woman the world fears” are resort of some extreme measure. Clearly a powerful statement is being made here, but I’m completely lost as to what statement was being made.

Based on what I can piece together (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the play but I don’t know how else to summarise this): Em was raped seven years ago, and wants revenge. But with proven rapists hard to identify, Em has widened her net to exact her vengeance on adulterers, philanderers, misogynists and lecherous wankers in general. After she sees her fuck-buddy cop off with another woman, something prompts her to take action, although it’s not clear whether the trigger was that incident or a video shown after of what appears to be an attack – is this a flashback to an earlier event or something that’s just happened? Either way, she starts blackmailing the other men she’s been having affairs with and attacking some of her pick-ups with anaesthetic she took from her dental job. Her number one target, however, is a touring DJ, although it’s not clear whether his crime is being her rapist or simply liking photos of hot women on Instagram. She meets him, intending to lure him to bed for an unclear ulterior motive. And she succeeds, but not before he behaves like a gentleman and she discovers she has feelings for him (and if he is indeed her rapist that confuses me further). But in bed he doesn’t understand stop and she retaliates in the most extreme way possible.

I think I can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, I have missed something vital that’s supposed to explain what’s happening and why. I don’t have many rules for playwriting, but one of the ones I swear by is that the more out of the ordinary a character behaves, the harder you have to work to show what made him or her do this. I’m not interested in her multi-partnered sex life – there is no normal way to respond to rape – but the revenge she dishes out is as far removed from normal as can be. I’m pretty sure Brenner has a very good idea for why Em is doing this, but I don’t, and when I discussed this with another member of the audience, she floated another theory. It was a good one that never crossed my mind, I admit, but when a play is intended to sent a message loud and clear, the last thing you want is multiple interpretations of what the play was actually about.

The thing is, apart from that, I think this play has all the ingredients of a great one. Even without fully understanding Em’s motivations, Brenner gives a articulate, confident and often emotive performance. I was also particularly impressed by the technical achievement. This kind of multimedia approach usually falls foul of one of two things: either not really adding to the story, or getting out of their depth. Neither applies here This is a story heavily interlaced with the online world, where real life blends with everything from diary organisers to social media containing all sorts of casual bigotry and nastiness. And performer and tech blend seamlessly.

So here’s what I would do next. This play is currently 40 minutes along, but fringe productions typically run 60. 20 minutes should be more than enough to flesh out any unclear plot points, but more importantly, go into the depth that’s needed to explain why she’s done what she’s done. Brenner understands Em better than anyone else,so there’s little else I can suggest on who to do it, other than the obvious principle of “show, don’t tell”. And that’s it. That, I reckon, is all that’s needed to get this play to have its full reach and live to its full potential. And this has bags of potential. Don’t sell it short.

Wednesday 25th August – Fear of Roses:

This play is described as a pulp thriller, but at first glance it looks more of a play about character relationships and office politics. Nicollette works as PA for Tabby aka Tabitha, expected to be imminently promoted with Tabitha expected to be promoted along with her. Tabby is a rising star, and in a victory for gender equality proves that women are just as good as men at going to strip joints on managers’ nights out and discussing it inappropriately at work the next day. That aside, the opening is actually quite interesting. At first, it looks like the two are old friends, but as time goes on hints are dropped that Tabby is actually quite self-obsessed. In particular, Nicollette has been forced to take on a night shift to make ends meet, and Tabby is wilfully oblivious to the circumstances of her supposed old friend.

However, the balance of power is about to shift noticeably. It turns out Tabby’s career path to date has not been entirely above board, and this has attracted the attention of Keely who’s come to visit. It is never specified exactly what skeletons are in Tabby’s cupboard, but it is enough to make her agree to a sum of half a million in 48 hours. And the only way she can get that amount of money in that short a length of a time is to rob her own bank overnight. If only there was a soft target in security – wait a mo …

The plot continues at a satisfying pace as more secrets are revealed and more things turn out to not be what they seem, but this play does suffer a little from a few plot points that don’t quite stack up. Nothing is serious and it doesn’t get to the point where the entire premise ceases to make sense, but there still a few questions that bugged me afterwards. In particular, why was blackmailing Keeley so unrelenting on a 48-hour deadline once it was clear Tabby couldn’t deliver the goods in time? Surely it’s better to get the money late than not at all. There is a twist at the end which I won’t spoil. but if you’re going to do that you need to make sure the story continues to stack up in light of what’s been revealed.

In spite of this, however, it’s a decent comedy-thriller that covers bases of social comment and character relations. This show has been overshadowed somewhat by their other production, Press, which seems to be going down very well, but as long as you can resist the temptation to nit-pick too hard you shouldn’t be disappointed with this.

Tuesday 24th August, 9.45 p.m. – Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with a man that use to hit her)

I must apologise that I cannot cover this next play with my normal impartiality. If I was part of a reviewing publication I would ask someone else to do this, but as sole reviewer of chrisontheatre I don’t have this option. The thing that attracted me to this play was the subject of long-term trauma – in the case of Patricia, the aftermath of a violent relationship. She has long rehearsed the words she intend to she if she ever sees the bastard again – but when the bastard shows up out of the blue, she instead resorts to small talk, and when he suggests going out to dinner for the evening, she forgets how to say no.

Why would anyone agree to do that? If you’re hoping there’s somehow some sort of of remorse on the part of her ex, forget it. There’s barely any time between falling head over heels with the bad-boy man of her dreams, and the violence that follows. This is based on playwright Martha Watson Allpress’s own personal experience, but it falls into a depressingly predictable pattern: from the outset exact ideas about how a woman should behave down to choice of drinks; resorting to the fist at the first sign of disagreement; and ludicrous amounts of paranoia and jealousy over matters as trivial as dancing with a gay best friend. That’s not to say the play doesn’t bring new insights – it is recounted here how the tension in anticipation of being hit becomes almost as bad as the violence itself. At one point, a gut-wrenching phone call is played as Patricia finally tells her mother what’s been going on all this time, begging her not to cry.

However, there was one thing in this that didn’t ring true – to me. This is where I need to tread carefully. There’s few things I hate more than reviewers or whoever using someone else’s traumatic experience and making it all about themselves, so I will say this on a need-to-know basis only. My interest was long-term trauma is a personal one. You don’t need to know what – if you want to know I’ve talked about it extensively elsewhere – but before you ask: not an abusive relationship; not anything nearly as bad as Patricia’s story. Even so, it took me eight years before I was comfortable going into all the details of what happened to me. One year after the event, I was still making excuses for my gaslighters.

So here’s what doesn’t ring true for me. Patricia narrates a very convincing and harrowing account of two years’ abuse in a composed and articulate manner. But if I was in no such state to recount my experience one year after the event, I just can’t believe it would be any easier for someone who’s been though much much worse. The Patricia speaking to us is a fully recovered strong Patricia who now sees the scumbag for every despicable thing he is – but the Patricia talking to her ex, or even anybody else when going into her story, is a very different Patricia. The first Patricia struck me as someone who would have no trouble telling her ex to go fuck himself.

The message at the end, however, is an important one: there is no typical battered partner. If it was me, I would consider doing most of Patricia’s story in third person – there is enough artistic license to do this. The other option would be to write this in the mind of post-trauma Patricia; that would be a much harder thing to do if she’s reluctant to go into the worst of what happened, even though she must. But similar things have been done, and they’re very effective when done right.

Reality trumps character assessment, of course – if anyone is ready to talk about every detail of a violent relationship within a year of the event, please say so. I would love to proven wrong here. I guess, in the end, I was looking for something I can personally can relate to: that you can get on with your life and be resilient, but still shut down when made to recount a traumatic memory – the two are not exclusive. If that wasn’t the point of this personal story, fair enough. What I hope we can agree on is the fallacy of the phrase “But it was a long time ago.”

Tuesday 24th August, 5.00 p.m.:

We are currently in what’s going to be a very Space-heavy section of reviews, so now’s a good time to look at this venue. The Space has had an interesting year, and is now at a crossroads.

Historically, the Space has differed from other venues is that it runs entirely on first-come-first-served. In practice, this gives almost everybody a place to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe even if no other venue will have you. One easy criticism to make is that this makes The Space home for all the acts that aren’t good enough to be taken by anyone else, but that’s not entirely fair. Whilst it’s true to say The Space has more than its fair share of godawful plays, no venue is immune from this and The Space has also hosted some very successful plays. I am strongly of the view that it is better to allow an untested artist to try and fail than to prevent an untested artist from trying and succeeding, and The Space performs this important job.

This year, however, it’s been a bit difference. With the near-total absence of second-tier venues, The Space have taken on a lot of acts that would otherwise have gone to Zoo, Sweet or Greenside. But the other development is that The Space has pushed an online platform more strongly than any Edinburgh Venue. They ran an online programme last August when most venues shut down completely, and carried on running this after Edinburgh time finished. The third season was done for Brighton Fringe, which Space had never had any association with before. They are still running an online programme this time, which is less newsworthy as most venues are running some sort of online platform, but they have been one of the key drivers with this rise of online fringe.

So, what happens next? I honestly don’t know, but let’s sketch out four scenarios, any of which might exist in combinations:

  • Back to before: We still don’t know the long-term future of “online fringe”. Certain a lot of online fans acquired over 2020 have said how good it is to be back to the real thing. Should interest fade, the Space could return to its original role of entry-level tier.
  • Online platform persists: One of the arguments in favour of keeping an online fringe platform is that it gives artists the chance to get things out there in an environment where people take a punt on unknowns, but without the expense associated with coming to Edinburgh. It might run parallel with the fringes, it might also be moves to its own festival (maybe winter) as some people have suggested. Either way, I think it’s a safe bet that if there’s an online fringe of any standing, The Space will want to be part of it.
  • Moving up the league: If The Space have taken acts who would normally go elsewhere, it may hang on to them. If they are really lucky, the good reputation of these more experienced acts will up the reputation as the place where the good stuff is, which in turn attract other notable acts. The snag? That might spell the end of The Space as an open-access venue. I’ve seen this happen to other venues that forgot their ideal to provide a space to perform the moment everybody wanted to go there.
  • Less focus on Edinburgh: Is Edinburgh Fringe the right fringe for entry-level acts anyway? You can certainly get started a lot more cheaply at fringes other than Edinburgh. Who knows, now that The Space has been part of Brighton Fringe’s online programme, they might decide it also suits them to be part of their in-person programme. Sweet has shown the running at two fringes can work, so might The Space go for three?

As always, we’ll see.

Tuesday 24th August, 4.00 pm. – Madhouse:

So let’s restart review coverage with a play from Nottingham New Theatre, which begins with a wild student party. This opening might trigger some critics to dismiss the play as “studenty”, but that’s unfair – we’re only saying this with a middle-aged “harumph” because we never got invited to those sort of parties. The following day, the household of six (officially five but one of them has girlfriend who perpetually hangs around). The big news is that two of the housemates had a one-night stand, and she’s making a wry observation that a one-night stand is like a kebab – you know from experience it’s a bad idea, but it feel like a good idea at the time, but before you’ve finished you’re already remembering why it’s such a bad idea, and the shame the following morning …

Madhouse takes on multiple disparate story threads into the household. The boyfriend of said live-in girlfriend discovered last night his interest my not be exclusively women, the studious medic who’s the first in her family to be to university has a boyfriend no-one seems and appears to resort to some extreme measures to keep up appearances = and the aforementioned one-night stand might be more serious that either party will admit to. However, building up and resolving such a complex six-way character plot is not an easy thing to do in 40 minutes, and it seems to me the mistake this play falls foul of is forcing implausible plot developments to meet the requirements of the story.

There are two things I would advise doing to work on this. Firstly, think about the motivation for why characters do and say things, and whenever you’re facing questions of “why would he do that?” or “what didn’t she just to this instead?”, try to address this and provide an explanation – this may even add to the plot. The other thing is a harder thing to do, but is sometimes necessary: if a plot point really cannot be made plausible, it is sometimes better to let it go and think of something different. The thing I had in mind is the social media influencer ripping up another housemates coursework in the expectation that a third housemate will be blamed for it – sadly there’s too many unanswered questions to make this believable. But remember that everybody has to start somewhere. There is a play to be made from this multi-threaded plot, just don’t be afraid to throw things away.

Tuesday 24th August, 9.45 a.m.:

Today I intend to start embarking on the reviews. As it’s my last day, that’s what I may be doing on the way home.

Before I begin, however, one small bit of new. You know that obviously bullshit claim that the Edinburgh Fringe is threatening the city’s world heritage status? You know, the one that was textbook nimbyism, where you come up with a long list of spurious arguments to support your position that the thing you don’t like is bad? Well, it’s now officially bullshit. Unesco officials have literally said themselves there’s no talk of delisting Edinburgh. Normally you would expect a body such as that to stay out of petty local arguments – the fact that they’ve intervenes suggests they’ve got really pissed off over being used as a pawn in this one.

Will be interesting to see how the Cockburn Association react to this. Will they ignore it, cherry-pick quotes to pretend it backs up their case, or so a U-turn and suddenly argue that what Unesco officials say doesn’t matter. Or, you never know, maybe they’ll have an unexpected attack of dignity and concede they were wrong on this matter.

Right, I’ve given them far more attention than they deserve (i.e. none). Review coming next.

Monday 23rd August, 10.30 p.m.:

I managed a four-show day today. I think that’s the first time I’ve achieved this since 2019.

I sign off tonight with a little extra news on fringe business.

  • I was chatting to another reviewer earlier who’s been here throughout week 1 and is now back for week 3. She’s has more chance than me to observe patronage, and she thinks the fringe has got busier. (Small caveat, there’s a chance that there as a surge in the first weekend that died down before week, but the most likely scenario now is steady growth over the fringe.)
  • One less unexpected thing: reviewers have been surprised to find when they’re talking to each other how often they saw the same things. This isn’t a new experience to Brighton Fringe reviewers when there’s a more manageable list and you often get to compare notes, but it’s a new experience for Edinburgh where the chance of two people seeing the same thing was previously slim.
  • I was at a show that asked for show of hands for visitors from England and Scotland, and they were about equal (plus smaller numbers further afield). Unfortunately, there was no info on how many Scottish visitors were from Edinburgh or elsewhere in Scotland, but whatever the breakdown, it looks like the Fringe has managed to keep a fair number of hardcore visitors who won’t give up easily. Given that the expectations at one point were for an almost entirely local audience, it’s a step in the right direction.

Just to add one word of caution though: don’t take consensus as gospel. Consensus has been wrong before. One year it was widely reported that there was a rise in shows not running the whole festival, but when someone finally did the number crunching, that turned out to not be true. I’m still hedging my bets on what I said below, but I won’t be offended if you insist on waiting for the proper stats.

Monday 23rd August, 5.00 p.m.:

The latest news of audience turnout keeps getting better. So far I’ve only observed weekend figures; today, however, I’ve seen how Monday – the weakest day for business – stacks up. Well, Gilded Balloon’s spaces (all 1 of them) are already sold out. What’s more, even the entry-level shows at The Space are seem to be not far off sell-outs. I suspect a lot of acts who decided against going are now wishing they had. Heck, I’d have done it if I’d known it would be like this.

Board full of "sold out" at Gilded BalloonBut let’s ignore the sensationalism and think about what this actually means. All this tells us is how tickets sales per show are faring. Another way to look at this is that shows and ticket sales have both taken nose-dives from 2019 – it’s just that sales nose-dived less and worked the ratio in its favour. Nevertheless, sales per performance is viewed as an important metric, because this tell performers whether taking part in future years is worthwhile. It also indicates venues whether it’s worth expanding. I’m increasingly confident that the official figures, when we get them, will be excellent. Firm call. Some may argue that these figures will be misleading with the prevalence of high-capacity spaces (even with social distancing), but the alternative metric of % occupancy also looks good. Most people consider occupancy between a fifth and a third to be average – we are surely way over that.

However, the important caveat to this is whether old precedents actually work here. Is tickets per performance actually a meaningful metric. Brighton and Buxton have been running at about 50% of 2019 levels; Edinburgh, however, is more like 5%. (The number of registrations might be a bigger fraction, but with very few show on full runs the effect is more pronounced on performances per day.) Can we really infer anything for a festival that’s a twentieth of its former self? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that.

Perhaps the closest we can get to an objective measure of whether this is a good result is what the venues think is good. We’ll have to wait until we hear from then, but I’m predicting they’ll be happy with this. Neat sell-out across the board is just about the best possible outcome, and if this best possible outcome isn’t good enough, one would think the venues wouldn’t have gone ahead in the first place. The only question is whether this would have been worthwhile with support from public funds. That won’t last forever, so how viable will the venues be without.

In summary: this outcome is good. But we’ll have to see if it’s good enough.

Monday 23rd August, 10.00 a.m. – The Event:

I’ve been getting some queries on what how I’m doing my assessment of the size of the fringe and what this actually means. I will be posting an explanation shortly because there’s a lot of caveats and a long list of conclusions we can and can’t draw from this. But before that, let’s get on with a review. This is another review that’s impossible to do without a spoiler, because the definitive event happens in the first minute, so if you already have a ticket, I’d advise you to read the rest of this review with your eyes closed. Everyone else, you can keep your eyes open.

Whatever you make of The Event, this has got to be the front-runner for most meta show on the Edinburgh Fringe. Originally performed twelve years ago, David Calvitto starts on stage and talks about himself in third person as “the man”. What’s more, he is giving a running commentary on what the audience – referred to throughout this play as “the strangers” – are perceiving at this time: this character is a man, middle aged, likely to be in reasonably good health, and judging by the quality of clothes presumably reasonably affluent. Beyond that, one cannot at this stage ascertain much about his background or motives. The man then proceeds to commentate about how he is able to make similar cursory judgements about the strangers.

You might be wondering at this point if the entire play is going to be like this. It is – we know this because the man mentions the audience is thinking this exact question and gives the answer. And it gets even more meta after that covering the backstage, techies, lighting cues, rehearsal process, checking your watch, what’s going on outside, and even a nod to the reviewers. And I am happy to indulge in this for a moment and in fitting convention of third person, the reviewer think that the man overestimates the influence of people like himself, and furthermore would wish to assure the man that the words the man hopes to read does not necessarily correlate with the numerical volume of strangers at future events?

But can you sustain this for an hour without repetition, digression of hesitation (scripted hesitations excepted)? I’d say that, at most, about half of this monologue managed to relate to a fringe theatre performance in some way. The rest of it related to society in general – still in the absurdist third-person observational style that defines this play but very unrelated to the original theme. Now, 2009 pre-dates my theatre blog and my memory of fringe theatre back then isn’t great; here in 2021, however, commentary about society in general is done to death by hundreds of grass-roots performers showing off their worthiness. This is a shame, because what starts off as one of the most different performances on the fringe closes as one of the most sameish.

Is there a way this concept can be sustained for a full hour? Maybe something more could have been made of the prop appearance and lighting cue other than a commentary that this happened. But I am only guess here, and perhaps this is a limitation of the idea we have to live with. But it was a wonderfully bold idea. That was the last performance I saw, but worth seeing as something very different if you get the chance.

Sunday 22nd August, 7.30 p.m.:

Whilst I deliberate on what I’ve seen so far, it’s time for first impressions on Edinburgh Fringe patronage. My early impressions, based on two shows so far: it looks about the same as last time. Two caveats though. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, I am comparing Sunday patronage today with Friday and Saturday in week 1. If we make an adjustment this might push weekend 3 higher, but that’s an unreliable extrapolation. Secondly, I have not yet scouted out Bristo Square and George Square, which is the busiest hub. I’ll keep you informed as more data comes in.

And on a different subject, it’s time – for the last time this fringe – to look at what’s coming. And there’s just one on my list. Starting tomorrow, Northanger Abbey returns for two days only. Puppetry duo Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne are more into Gothic Horror these days, but this gentle Austen adaptation was the hit that shot them to fringe stardom. Monday and Tuesday at 3.00 p.m., Underbelly George Square (that’s there they normally have the upside down cow).

Still running to the end of the fringe on my list of picks are sort-of female Peep Show Skank, cimena shooting play Screen 9 (which has been getting more great reviews coming in and is set to be one of the biggest success stories of this fringe), silly vampire-slaying/rave mashup Police Cops: Badass Be Thy Name, hybrid magic + character comedy Could It Be Magic and surprisingly twisted stand-up from Dahpna Baram. All of those run to the end of the fringe.

Sunday 22nd August, 2.00 p.m.:

One side-effect of ticketing woes is that it is now unlikely I’m going be able to check out venues I’ve not already been to. Looks like it’s going to be just Pleasance, Assembly and Space. So I may as well bring forward a post about middle-tier venues that I’d intended to tie in to a visit but now probably won’t happen.

It’s a huge oversimplification, but there’s roughly three-plus-two levels of venues at Edinburgh. There’s the “Big Four” (Pleasance, Assembly, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon) which takes most of the commercially successful events and has the highest cash flows. There’s a looser second tier, which as of 2019 roughly comprised of Sweet, Zoo, Grenside and C Venues, which still curate their programmes but without such a high commercial bar. Then there’s the “open tier” of The Space, which is open to pretty much anybody (don’t look down on The Space for being the bottom tier, more on this later). There’s also the specialist venues such as Summerhall and Traverse with more specialist curated programmes, and the Free Fringe which is a another dimension completely. I could go on, but it’s the three main tiers of interest right now.

Why of interest? Because one thing that has barely registered is that the middle tier is almost completely absent this year. No Sweet, C Venues or Greenside. If it was just Sweet Venues, that could be shrugged off as Sweet being needed more in Brighton right now. C Venues could similarly be shrugged off as the ongoing woes over allegations of bad employment conditions. But I can’t think of any excuses for Greenside’s absence as well. The only presence from this middle tier is Zoo Venues, but only as one of four partners jointly running Multi Story. That barely counts.

Based on my observations and my spies, it appears that the Big Four and Space have carved up the middle tier between them, with the big four taking the more commercially lucrative ones and The Space taking the rest. In the short term, I’ve no objections to this arrangement – this situation was getting desperate, they had to do whatever it takes to save Fringe 2021. But I worry about the medium- and long-term implications. There’s no guarantee that this middle tier will be back for 2021 – it also doesn’t help that there’s apparently grumblings over preferential treatment of the Big Four with the Scottish Government bailout.

I’m not comfortable with a two-tier fringe becoming permanent. There are ongoing worries over the Big Four plus Summerhall setting the programme of a “proper” fringe with other venues’ programmes being written off as second rate, but so far the middle tier have had enough successes to stop this happening. Without the middle tier, would there be anything to stop the Big Four monopolising the fringe? Maybe, but nothing we can be sure of. Until now, the focus has been on whether the Edinburgh Fringe could be saved at all. We should now start thinking about what kind of Edinburgh Fringe we are saving.

Sunday 22nd August, 12.15 p.m.:

And the first bit of news I have is that ticketing is still proving to be an absolute fucking nightmare. I had hoped that the widespread complaint from weekend 1 when shows purported to be available threw error messages at arbitrary moments when attempt to book might have been alleviated now that capacity restrictions have been relaxed and more tickets had been released. One might also have hoped that the Festival Fringe Society might have noticed how many people were grumbling and done something about it. Nope. Still the same fucking nightmare.

Sorry for taking this rant to sweary levels, but Edinburgh Fringe should have seen this one coming. Who the hell thought it was acceptable to consider randomly-occuring error messages as an acceptable way of notifying customers of a sell-out? But after an hour of my favourite game of “guess which sodding shows will actually sell me tickets when I ask for them”, I’ve done it. Three-show day ahead of me, and whilst it’s not the same as my traditional pursuit of four or five shows on day 1, it’s not bad going. Let’s see if any of these can undo my levels of annoyance.

Sunday 22nd August, 10.30 a.m.:

And I’m on my way back. Just passed Dunbar.

This time round, the thing I’m going to be most interested in is how the second half of Edinburgh Fringe compares to the opening. Will the impressive turnout of the first weekend hold out, or was this just a short-lived reopening-fuelled spree? In Brighton Fringe’s case, it was more the former than the latter, but how will Edinburgh do? It’s going to be difficult to do a like-for-like comparison this time – last time I was around on Friday and Saturday nights, this time it’s the less busy Sunday and Monday – but I will do my best to take this into account.

Anyone who’s been around the whole time: feel free to give me your verdicts.

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