Change coming to the Fringe as top comedians topple empty ratings and embrace free shows

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot holdMere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

YEATS doesn’t get enough respect as a commentator on comedy. But you could do worse than this, I think, as a broad description of what comedy has done to the Fringe over the years, by taking it to new commercial heights, and bringing in numbers to crunch and TV hours to view.

But this has come at a cost. And in recent years performers and punters alike have begun to count that cost.

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This year I genuinely feel we are standing at the turning of a tide. Next year’s Fringe will, I believe, look different, be different.

Not completely, of course. Some venues – the Gilded Balloon and The Pleasance for example – are locked in the Scrooge-like grip of Edinburgh University, an institution I 
feel has not been given 
enough credit for driving 
costs and prices up to the ridiculous level they have reached today.

But the breadth and the depth of the Free Fringes, the quality and creativity of the programming in venues like Just The Tonic and the birth of baby ventures like Bob Slayer’s Alternative Fringe bode well for next year.

This August, anyone who comes to Edinburgh in the hope of seeing someone famous would have done better to spend time in the Cowgate at Just The Tonic where last night I saw Set List (again – it is as addictive for the audience as it is for the performers) with a cast that included a sweetly terrified Jim Jefferies, Fred MacAulay, Craig Hill and Josie Long. Last week you might well have bumped into John Bishop who, by all accounts “stormed it”. Susan Calman, she says, became a whole different comic on the Set List stage. The Caves – mainly thanks to Set List – have become the new comedy hangout.

Here, until today, you can also see two of the greatest comics in Edinburgh this month. Eddie Pepitone and Will Franken. The Caves are also home to a young English sketch troupe, Casual Violence. Off beat, running, interwoven sketches linked by a marvellous chap on piano – dryer than a good martini and a perfect foil to the carnage on stage. Creative, strange and brilliantly performed stuff. Casual Violence is oddly more-ish. I look forward to seeing them next year.

Also at The Caves, until today, is Henning Wehn, who has most definitely gone up a gear, comedy wise. Of course we get the “German abroad” stuff – and jolly stuff it is too – but this year Henning gets his teeth into Scottish devolution. This is great stuff. Maybe it takes an outsider to wring the comedy neck of this topic with a ruthlessness that has the mainly Scottish room rocking with laughter. Wehn marches into and over the French, the comedy industry, the Olympics and much more. Now he plays with language and, as a UK taxpayer, gets to rip into tax dodging, pointless award giving and charity. Wehn is turning into one of our most pointedly funny social commentators. And he offers you the chance to win a holiday in Hamburg.

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Indeed another delight of this Fringe has been the international spread of comics this year. The Pleasance has been full of Germans in a high state of excitement to see their own Michael Mittermeier – a man who sells out stadium gigs in Germany – in an 80-seater portakabin (or “bunker” as he calls it). Such has become the pulling power of the Fringe that comics who are that big in their own countries come to dip their enormous toes in our little comedy loch. Trevor Noah – undoubtedly the classiest thing ever to happen to comedy – is a big star in South Africa and plays the Pleasance Upstairs, until tomorrow. Packed to capacity, of course.

While the comedy Fringe is ever expanding “upwards”, and attracting big names from overseas, it is also expanding outwards. This year I have seen more creative use of the comedy hour than before. More and more comedy performers are spilling into the “spoken word” section. Storytelling and philosophising are enriching the Fringe’s comedy quotient. I loved Adam Strauss’s lyrical telling of his adventures with psychotropic drugs in an attempt to find a cure for his OCD, and I am unlikely to forget Chris Dangerfield’s account of his travels as a Sex Tourist. John Robertson took his hour at The Hive and created a hilarious interactive game for the audience. The Dark Room now has Brendan Burns addicted and I doubt he will go home a happy Aussie unless he gets to the top level and escapes the room. At the Gilded Balloon, much in the style of Laurence Clark, Imaan has constructed a hidden camera show to get across (and he does) the trials and irritations (and occasional perk if you are a leg man) of being small. He is a funny, feisty Lebanese guy with a wit and a definite way with the ladies.

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Three things have marked this August for me as being different. Things that gave me pause for thought.

1) I went to see Daniel Kitson’s play at the Traverse. Sold out, of course. He is a comic genius. That has been a “given” here at the Fringe since he took the Perrier Award. I watched four people in the row in front of me play solitaire and Tetris on their mobiles throughout the play. I heard the man behind me texting. I watched over and over again, the ripple of wrists as people looked at their watches. And at the end the woman next to me turned and said, with a genuinely worried look – “Is that comic genius?” A straw poll elicited one word from the audience around us. Bored. Surely, to paraphrase Dr Johnson: “When one is bored of Daniel Kitson, one is bored of comedy…”

2) I saw Phill Jupitus in a glorious, friendly, funny hour at The Jam House. The latest venue on Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe. We loved it, he seemed to love it and he ended with a clarion call to comics, big comics, famous comics, to come back and do a free show. It is, says Jupitus, the only way forward. The only way to get the balance back. I am not arguing.

3) There is a movement, started by Guy Masterson (check the Theatre Section, he virtually invented it) to abolish the publication of stars on reviews in the press. It has had a massive response, almost all in favour of abolition. The advent (and it has affected Comedy more than anything else) of dozens of websites who send out “reviewers” and award “stars” has, he argues, made the stars virtually meaningless. I agree. So maybe next year – check Facebook – we will have reviews that are to be read and not simply to hang below a star count.

I would like this new Fringe I am seeing emerge. I would really like it. Reviews, not just stars, big names out there on an ever expanding Free Fringe… might I suggest that if the Big Boys are bringing up “work in progress” their tickets are price capped at £5. Oh, just as I was beginning to look forward to the end of this Fringe, I am really looking forward to the next.

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