This year’s Fringe has been a good one for The Wee Review. More reviews than ever before, more visitors than ever before, and some great new writers. By means of wrapping up our coverage, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts that occurred to me throughout August as I was wandering the Fringe, seeing shows, chatting with people, editing reviews and writing my own. They’re as jumbled and all-over-the-place as the Fringe itself, and not meant as definitive The Wee Review opinion…
It wasn’t as crazy this year.
Official figures for show numbers and tickets sales go up year-on-year, much like A-Level/Higher results, but the place felt more subdued than it sometimes did. Grassmarket and Cowgate were crowded and messy, but perhaps less frantic than normal. Flyerers seemed less obtrusive. Tourists seemed less ubiquitous. The buzz seemed quieter and less insistent. Having Bristo Square out of action changed the vibe in that part of town, but even elsewhere, everything seemed less excitable. I wonder if economic circumstances are continuing to bite audiences. Which brings me to…
Posh voices get more noticeable year by year.
I’m not having a go at the Henriettas and Charlies amongst us. Some of my best friends are posh. And ’twas ever the case that the Fringe skewed toward the monied classes. But, anecdotally, it is getting more so. Were I a comedy writer wanting to parody the rich, I could have done whole scripts based on single conversations overheard in Pleasance Dome. This trend is particularly worrying given it seems symptomatic of wider social issues. Cuts in arts funding, increases in student debt, unaffordable rents, low wages. What other type of person can now afford to take a month out to “do Edinburgh”, if anyone ever could? This is increasingly the future, if we don’t do something about it. Tommy Sheppard may have been pilloried for his Fringe AGM speech which suggested ways of getting the poor of Edinburgh more involved. His means might not be suitable, but the end is important. Which brings me to…
Who is talking inequality?
There were 3,300+ shows at the Fringe this year. No doubt some shows dealt with poverty, inequality and the grimness of life for ordinary people in Britain, but very few came to my attention. Comfort Slaves sounded like it tackled some of the issues. But among the 100 or so acts and performers I saw, there was little of it. Raz portrayed the “living for the weekend” futility of young adult existence, but I sensed that the middle-aged, middle-class audience members were sniggering at the stereotype without really appreciating the forces that produce it. In comedy, Don Biswas touched on it with his Dyspraxia and Politics, although the focus was on the machinations of the political class rather than society itself.
There was plenty of issues-based material as ever. Mental health was a major theme. Feminism was. But you don’t have the luxury of identifying these as “issues” if you haven’t got a job or can’t pay the rent; they’re just another nail in the coffin. Where feminism was talked about, it was usually from a middle-class perspective, not the pragmatic, working-class perspective Janey Godley put on it. No-one did a show, as far as I can tell, that rocked establishment foundations, that really skewered modern Britain’s institutionalised, self-perpetuating inequality, that made the rich’s ears burn, at the time a show like that is most needed. Where are the angry young men/women and kitchen sink dramas of the 21st century?
Ah, London. Glorious London. Wellspring of our wealth and beauty and culture and all that is wonderful about our country (see above). Edinburgh welcomes visitors from around the world, and I’m glad it does. Yet only Londoners (some Londoners, not all) have the arrogance to treat the place as “theirs” for August, as London on Tour. Several PRs approached me to do reviews “while you are up in Edinburgh”. “UP in Edinburgh”?!?!? Read our Twitter page, you muppets – “SCOTLAND’S online arts and culture magazine”. We’re here all year. You’re paid to do your job, I’m not paid for mine. If you want your failing show reviewing, the least you can do is do your research before you ring me up. What ignorance! What discourtesy! By contrast, overseas producers almost always acknowledged they were on someone else’s turf.
Performers can be as bad. No New York comedian would come here and expect us to understand references to districts of New York. Yet several London comics delivered material which relied on us knowing the relative merits of London locations. Mould your material to your audience, especially if you’re here for a month. Anything else reeks of laziness and disrespect. As for the show I saw at one venue’s launch which appeared to be West End luvvies, doing a show about being West End luvvies, with in-jokes about other West End luvvies, and drew laughs from the West End press luvvies in the audience, why not just keep it all down there, eh and spare us?
Free v Paid
I say this every year: the most interesting stuff is on the Free Fringe. Of my Picks of the Fringe (see below) four of the six were free. Obviously, the infrastructure of the Fringe is always in flux, and who knows what will happen next year after this year’s Cowgatehead debacle, but right now it’s where I most enjoy spending my time.
You do see performers seemingly trapped on the wrong side of the divide though. It was a shame to see Elaine Malcolmson‘s morbid musings wasted one lunchtime in a near empty Stand 4, when they could have gone down so well on an evening in the free White Horse, as the similarly downbeat Eleanor Tiernan did. Similarly, Loren O’Brien fruitlessly performed her weird sketch routine to a bemused bunch of tourists and an older couple late night at Pleasance That, when it could have gone down a storm with the weirdos at Banshee Labyrinth. On the other end of the equation, you see the likes of Kieran Hodgson and Spencer Jones packing out free rooms to the brim with winning shows that could succeed anywhere. It’s a joy to see them on the free fringe. I hope the economics stacked up for them, and that they find a way to pursue their comedy with continued artistic freedom. Big Comedy is going to want a piece of shows like theirs though.
Whatever the contractual and career considerations going on behind closed doors between performers, producers and venues, from the audience it’s obvious to see which rooms are working out and which aren’t. Between the big names at the big venues on one hand and the perma-free amateurs at the other, there’s a grey area that no-one seems to have definitively figured out yet. It’s still a wild frontier, territory which will continue to be fought over and negotiated.
It was very considerate of Cowgatehead to make our London visitors feel at home by charging £5 a pint. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder of where all the money goes in this Fringe. Another thing that’s said every year but bears repeating until it changes: landlords, hotels, bar owners, restaurants – these are the real beneficiaries of the Fringe. We’re privileging those who own stuff over those who do stuff. The Fringe represents society’s ills in microcosm. Someone with some clout needs to do some Robin Hooding soon to set it straight. Otherwise it’s just hard-up comedians and wannabe thesps paying rich Edinburghers to sod off to Tuscany for August.
As editor, I almost issued an edict to The Wee Review writers banning certain phrases this Fringe – “must see”, “one to watch”, “not to be missed” were all going to be on the prohibited list. I decided against it in the end, though no-one used them anyway I’m pleased to say. But next year, even though I’ve used it before now, I’m thinking of banning “relatable”.
First off, it’s an ugly word. Second up, it now crops up in all sorts of publications with little thought as to its usage. What does it mean, really? It is never used in its original sense of “something that is able to be told”, i.e. the show could be “related” back to friends afterwards. It’s used to signify that the subject matter has some personal relevance to the reviewer themselves. So, if I see a play about a grumpy Yorkshireman, that is “relatable”, if I see one about the plight of orphan girls in India, it isn’t “relatable”. What does that teach us about the quality of the show? Nothing. The word has no place in objective reviewing. I’m not the only person who thinks this.
I saw Sara Hirsch do a spoken word show about a relationship she had during last year’s Fringe. Clearly to some of the audience – other Edinburgh performers – it was very “relatable”. To me, it wasn’t. Hirsch’s is exactly the kind of show that would be described as “relatable” in reviews, in that it deals with some everyday issues that some people face. Don’t most shows do that?
“In Scotland – they call this summer!”
Die! Die! Die! When will jokes about Scottish weather go the way of mother-in-law gags? It’s over, I tell you. It’s not funny any more. Plus, as it happens, we’ve actually had quite a nice August. But still the same old jokes came trotting out. See also: fried Mars bars, lack of salad. Next year, any comedian that does a weather/food gag is losing a star per gag, and if they end up with -5 stars, so be it.
To end on a less angry note, here were my six Picks of the Fringe:
Kieran Hodgson: Lance
Spencer Jones Presents: The Herbert in Proper Job
George Egg: Anarchist Cook
President Obonjo Stole My Identity
And here is a link to all our Fringe coverage.
If you’re here in Scotland, stick with us throughout the year. Or if you are a once a year type – we don’t hate Londoners really! – please come back and join us in 2016.