Fringe comics ‘afraid’ to tell referendum jokes

Susan Calman, one of several comedians abused for making referendum gags. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Susan Calman, one of several comedians abused for making referendum gags. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE “bitter” tone of the Scottish independence debate and the prospect of performers suffering abuse is to blame for the dearth of Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows tackling the referendum issue this year, promoters and performers have claimed.

Two of the four major Fringe venues have nothing at all in their programme related to the debate at all while the other two have just one show each.

The Scotsman has been told that venues and performers have been put off by the level of abuse meted out to comedians such as Susan Calman, Eddie Izzard and Rory Bremner, and playwright Alan Bissett.

Stand-up comedians in particular are said to be wary of tackling issues over Scotland’s possible separation from England.

There are no comedy shows tackling the independence debate in the Assembly Theatre, Pleasance or Underbelly programmes. The Gilded Balloon has just one show on the issue.

Fringe-goers will instead have to seek out the handful of free shows in smaller venues which are promising to address the debate. The majority of these are being put on by promoter Tommy Sheppard, a prominent supporter of the Yes campaign, who has lined up nine shows.

These include Bissett’s play The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, and playwright David Greig’s lunchtime cabaret show All Back to Bowie’s.

Elsewhere, one of the few Fringe plays tackling the independence debate will be performed by an all-Russian cast – in Russian, with subtitles, at the New Town Theatre. Set in the Middle Ages, The Thistle is billed as “a passionate story that speaks to Scottish nationalism and pride”.

The Traverse, Edinburgh’s home of new theatre, has just one show related to the issue, Spoiling, which will focus on an independent Scotland’s first foreign minister’s run-ins with party colleagues.

Another major venue, Summerhall, has one theatre production directly related to the debate – a “work in progress” National Theatre of Scotland production, which will “juxtapose national myths against modern-day politics” and involves a Brooklyn-based theatre company, The Team.

Underbelly also has one theatre show, How to Achieve Redemption as a Scot Through the Medium of Braveheart. This will see Edinburgh-born performer Rachael Clerke discuss her “unease” about modern Scotland. She said: “I didn’t want to make something that was directly about the referendum, but rather that responded to place and time.”

One long-time Fringe promoter, who would not be named, said: “A lot of people are simply terrified of the debate and don’t want anything to do with it. There’s not much happening at all on the Fringe because most performers are veering away from the whole debate because it has become so bitter and venues are very reluctant.”

Another leading promoter said: “People looked at what happened to Susan Calman when she made a few jokes about the debate on the News Quiz radio programme. The abuse she suffered for that has had far-reaching consequences. That’s why so few comedians are doing Fringe shows on the issue.”

Keir McAllister, who has both an indyref-related play and a comedy show at the Assembly Rooms, agreed, and added: “I’ve heard some people say that it will only be after the referendum is held that they will be able to write about it. However, I do think it is important to provoke discussion and debate during the Fringe. People need to step up to the plate.”

English comedian Paul Edwards, who was born in Scunthorpe and is one of the few comics from south of the Border willing to tackle the debate, in his free show in Bannermans pub, said: “The debate does seem to have been polarising opinion more and more – I think a lot of English comedians will be scared to bring it up in Edinburgh this summer.”

William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly Theatre, said: “I really cannot recall any shows coming to us on the subject but I do think that there will be a lot of discussion on the issue.”