Brian Ferguson: Referendum fails to inspire Fringe

ANY concerns that there would be nothing of significance left to report from the launch of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year were swept away when its final tally of shows emerged.

There has been intrigue over the extent to which the referendum would be reflected in this year's line-up. Picture: PA

With all of the major venues having launched their programmes in advance for the first time, I was not the only one expressing concern in advance that there would be little left to talk about.

While it would have been a surprise had the number of shows gone down this year, no-one had anticipated the extent to which the Fringe would mushroom in the space of 12 months – its biggest ever expansion. The 11 per cent increase in the number of shows looks even more impressive when you dig into the numbers behind it – an extra 26 venues this year, with an additional 322 productions and events to choose from.

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It also remains to be seen how much the hosting of the Commonwealth Games and the independence referendum, will overshadow the Fringe – along with the capital’s other festivals. While there seems little doubt there will be unprecedented attention on Scotland over the summer, it is not certain this will translate to increased ticket sales.

For now, there has been more intrigue over the extent to which the impending referendum would be reflected in the line-up. It is certainly a mixed picture. An explosion of Fringe shows inspired by the referendum had been predicted in some quarters, but that has most definitely not happened.

Tommy Sheppard, one of the more prominent cultural voices supporting the independence cause, is the only promoter to embrace the issue, with nine full productions across his three sites.

It still seems hard to believe that the “big four” long-time venue promoters, who command hundreds of thousands of ticket sales each year, will have just two shows between them in the programme.

That Assembly Theatre and the Pleasance, two long-time champions of new British theatre, have nothing at all in their line-ups on the independence debate is pretty telling. I had also anticipated a lot more from two of Edinburgh’s leading year-round venues – the Traverse and Summerhall – than one production each on the issue.

Thankfully, less-high-profile promoters like Sweet, who have three productions touching on the issue, and C Venues, which will have one, will be boosting the overall tally, along with the Free Fringe and Free Festival, who boast seven shows between them.

There are conflicting theories about why there is a relative dearth of shows tackling the potential break-up of Britain. The risk of performers and companies coming under attack and of putting on a show that may be hopelessly out of date within weeks are reasons I have heard.

Regardless of these, what does it say about the theatrical world in Britain if the world’s biggest arts festival can barely muster a dozen shows about the potential break-up of the country?