Fringe enjoys sharp rise in sell-outs on first weekend

VENUE bosses at the 2008 Edinburgh Festival Fringe reported strong ticket sales this opening weekend, with the number of sell-out shows well up on last year.

Anthony Alderson, the director of the Pleasance, which is fielding 230 shows, said he had 25 sell-out performances over the weekend compared with 12 in 2007. Several big venues also reported healthy business.

But Mr Alderson and other directors warned it is too early to predict where sales will go. They speculated that the public may have grabbed cheaper preview tickets and giveaways in the Fringe's first days, looking for bargains in the credit crunch.

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"Maybe people aren't going on holiday, but they have a little bit of money to spend," Mr Alderson said. About 65 per cent of Fringe sales are to people with an Edinburgh postcode.

There is some concern that Edinburgh accommodation bookings are down – and that Olympics coverage could keep people at home.

But there will be relief that the failures in the Fringe's ticketing system do not seem to have dented audiences, at least at the big venues, which have their own sales system. However, there remained reports of festival-goers struggling to contact the box office via phone lines and difficulties taking up two-for-one ticket offers.

William Burdett-Coutts, the director of the Assembly, said: "We have had the best opening weekend we have had for a few years. I suspect that in a recession, it's likely that the public are attracted to the cheap tickets."

In other anecdotal evidence of healthy sales, comedian Stephen K Amos said he and two friends had sold out their shows surprisingly fast. And the if.comedy awards producer, Nica Burns, said sales of award shows at the end of the Fringe were up by about 10 per cent.

After the "unfortunate problems", she said, "we have to get the message out to people that they can buy tickets." Any post-mortem should wait until after the festival, she said.

The Fringe director, Jon Morgan, claimed the box office problems had now been solved.

"It's over, because it's now working and we are selling tickets on all channels. The queues are long, but they are always long. It's no different from last year," he said.

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With the Fringe under way in earnest yesterday, the patched-up box office system will face new tests.

No laughing matter when comedy causes a split

THE producer of the Fringe's top comedy awards has called on the founders of the controversial Edinburgh Comedy Festival to choose a new and more inclusive name.

The festival was launched for the first time this year by the Fringe's four biggest venues, who wrapped about 250 comedy acts into a new brochure. But it was met with an angry backlash, accused of being a money-making device that could break-up the Fringe.

The if.comedy awards producer, Nica Burns, an influential Fringe veteran, urged the founders to find a "visionary new name" – like Just for Laughs, the name of the giant Montreal comedy festival.

It would mean young performers could aspire to join the festival, not feel excluded. "In Edinburgh, everyone does their own thing; everybody can be under comedy in the Fringe brochure. They won't all be in the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. That's not what we do here, everyone is included," she said.

The Assembly, the Pleasance, the Gilded Balloon and the Underbelly jointly set up the comedy festival to promote and get sponsorship for the shows.

Ms Burns said it was a great idea that could grow, but added: "You don't want it born in division. Comedy has been here 40 years."

The Assembly director, William Burdett-Coutts, disagreed. "It's what it says on the tin. We are in Edinburgh, it's about comedy and it's a festival."

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About 350 comedy shows qualify for the if.comedy awards, seen as a ticket to fame for the winner.