Building work spoils Fringe’s 70th celebrations

Work at Bristo Square will not be completed by the time the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe starts in August. Photograph: Ian Georgeson
Work at Bristo Square will not be completed by the time the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe starts in August. Photograph: Ian Georgeson
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One of Edinburgh’s main public spaces will be unexpectedly out of bounds during the 70th anniversary Fringe this summer – after delays to a multi-million-pound building project.

Edinburgh University’s £33 million overhaul of the McEwan Hall and Bristo Square was supposed to be finished in time to allow dozens of Fringe shows to be staged there this summer after two years of disruption.

However, promoters have been forced to draw up alternative plans after being told that neither would be available this summer, which marks the 70th anniversary of both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe.

Although graduation ceremonies are to go ahead in McEwan Hall as planned in July, the university has confirmed work outside the building will still be ongoing in August and the project – which was originally due for completion in December 2016 – will not be finished until this September.

Underbelly, one of the so-called “Big Four” Fringe venues, started using Bristo Square for its famous upside-down purple cow-shaped venue, the Udderbelly, in 2006. The promoters expanded into the 1,000-capacity McEwan Hall, one of the biggest-ever Fringe venues, in 2010.

However, both were ruled out of bounds for the 2015 and 2016 Fringe seasons due to the most significant development in the history of the hall, which was built between 1888 and 1897 thanks to a donation from the brewer William McEwan, and a complete overhaul of Bristo Square.

A new glass-covered circular entrance pavilion is being created in the middle of the newly landscaped Bristo Square as part of the development, which was first announced by the university four years ago.

Underbelly announced in January 2015 that it was relocating the purple cow venue to George Square for two festivals, but had an agreement to return to both the McEwan Hall and Bristo Square in 2017. It will be at George Square again this year.

Underbelly director Charlie Wood, above, said: “To be fair to the university, they have very much kept us up to date on the progress of the project.

“They told us last year that they didn’t expect the project to be finished in time for this year’s Fringe, but we’re completely expecting to be back in Bristo Square and the McEwan Hall next year.

“These works are really important for the McEwan Hall and Bristo Square. They will be for the good of the Fringe. It is a shame that they won’t be available for the 70th anniversary, but they were for the 65th and they will be for the 75th.”

A delay to the university project will also be a major blow to the Fringe during the 70th anniversary after a controversial ban on shows being staged in St Andrew Square in the New Town. Other venues surrounding Bristo Square, including the Gilded Balloon and the Pleasance Dome, also face the prospect of a building site on their doorsteps.

A spokeswoman for the university said: “We’re delighted that this year’s graduation ceremonies will take place in the McEwan Hall, following its redevelopment.

“Work is still ongoing to landscape the surrounding area, so Bristo Square and McEwan Hall will not be available to host Festival events this summer.

“The hall will re-open fully in September and we are committed to using this superb facility for the widest possible range of engagements, for core university activities as well as for cultural, business and community engagement.”