PICKING out a highlight from the Edinburgh Festival is tough enough in any year.
But this year it’s a challenge to narrow it down from the best of a vintage crop – even with a week of the International Festival still to go.
From big-money spectaculars, like Leaving Planet Earth at Ratho and Bianco at Fountainbridge, to pop-up venues like Hunt & Darton Cafe, it’s been a month full of memorable experiences at a festival where so much has clicked into place.
There has been an inescapable feel-good factor around the city and, in the space of two years, George Street has become a real rival for the south side, helping spread the benefit of the Festivals.
The experimental shake-up that has allowed year-round businesses to spill out on to the street has not only allowed them to capitalise on shows in their area but also to help transform the whole atmosphere.
The spread of other venues like Forest Fringe off Leith Walk, Paterson’s Land at Holyrood and Summerhall – whose ticket sales have grown almost 300 per cent – offered much-needed breathing space.
That crucial X-factor element of the weather played a blinder, of course: I can’t remember a festival without a big storm, not to mention the usual daily downpours. The book festival site in particular was transformed. Even at 10pm on a midweek night the bars were buzzing, as when I had a quick pit-stop last Wednesday, at a time when the festivals are supposed to be winding down.
In fact, few venues or promoters have reported any great slowdown in the last week of the Fringe, reversing the trend of recent years when a big drop-off was reported after the end of the school holidays.
This also been the year when the Edinburgh Art Festival has come of age – thanks to a winning combination of major exhibitions like Peter Doig, Man Ray and Coming Into Fashion, and headline-grabbing commissions.
Crucially, the International Festival is now playing its part: its Leonardo da Vinci and Nam June Paik exhibitions are a far cry from the days of noses being turned up at the idea of exhibitions being part of the event.
As for the Fringe, the experience of sitting through The Scotsman’s awards ceremony on Friday had me counting my lucky stars for catching hugely powerful shows like The Events and Ciara, Blythe Duff’s tour-de-force, both at the Traverse, but kicking myself at missing out on a roll-call of others.
There have been gripes this year, though mainly of a political nature, over the International Festival’s refusal to embrace the independence debate, while the Book Festival’s guests have been creating all manner of controversy – and priceless publicity for the event into the bargain.
Most concerns have been around the Fringe, and whether acts have been priced out of appearing. That was still the theme of much of the debate at the Fringe AGM last week.
Interestingly, although Stand Comedy Club founder Tommy Sheppard used the occasion to urge a rethink on the financial model many acts are confronted with, he also pointed out where the Fringe stood, exactly five years ago.
At that time, the event’s box office had failed completely, its director was forced to quit after a dramatic drop in ticket sales and it was plunged into a full-scale financial crisis, from which it has only recently managed to fully recover.
People don’t recall now how horrendous the weather was that year – or that the event clashed with the Beijing Olympics. But the mood was perhaps summed up when the organisers of the main comedy awards couldn’t find anyone to award their Spirit of the Fringe panel prize to – and recommended it be put behind the bar.
On Saturday, I watched on as a disbelieving Adrienne Truscott – making her stand-up debut in a pop-up free venue next to the Captain’s Bar on South College Street – picked up that very award from Steve Coogan. The New York cabaret act’s daring and now hugely-acclaimed show, which tackles rape-joke culture, might not have made it on to the stage had she not been put in touch with Bob Slayer, an eccentric promoter battling to find a new financial model that works for his acts.
No wonder they were basking in the glory of a feel-good story fit for this or any other year.