UPDATE 26 Feb 2016: According to Chortle, it now appears it is the Gilded Balloon that is taking over the Counting House, using a pay-what-you-want model, not Just the Tonic as suggested below (sorry JTT!). That said, the same conclusions apply...

News has arrived at The Wee Review Towers (via the Grouchy Club podcast of blogger John Fleming and critic Kate Copstick) that changes are afoot at one of our favourite Fringe venues – The Counting House on West Nicolson Street.

Reportedly, this multi-storey mansion of free comedy has had a bundle of banknotes wafted under its nose and is about to cross the threshold into the bountiful world of the paid Fringe *shot of bankers lighting cigars with £50s*. The Laughing Horse @ The Counting House will be no more, Just The Tonic @ The Counting House (if the assumptions of our source are correct) will rise zombie-like from its grave.

It will mean that Joe and Joanna Punter can no longer sidle up to any show on a whim and chuck what they feel it’s worth in the bucket at the end. Nor will performers Billy and Belinda Bellylaugh get a free room to take a chance with their cross-dressing improv James Bond spoof on ukeleles. Looks like there’ll be tickets sold, and hire fees charged.

Just The Tonic (if it is they, and since they’ve recently taken over four Jongleurs, they’re obviously in an acquisitional mood) do operate a halfway house system: guarantee a seat by buying in advance, or take a chance, then pay-what-you-want. They also put on some of our favourite shows of last year (The Kagools, and the great sport that is Mark Silcox). Odds are it could be a good move for them, profitable for the venue, neutral in terms of comedy quality, and not too detrimental to others’ wallets. But some thoughts still occur:

1. Everyone’s getting a bit snatchy aren’t they? After last year’s Cowgateheadgate scrap, is this venue-snaffling going to become an annual feature? Why can’t everyone play nicely? There’s plenty of venues to go round. What about my local – the Bunch Of Roses in Restalrig? There’s very rarely more than two group brawls a week and I’m sure they’ll turn the jukebox down a notch.

2. Hanging out is half the fun of the Fringe. Milling around a venue, you might spot a performer here, a TV presenter there. Chat to strangers and they may have a show recommendation. That anticipation, that buzz is a crucial part of the Fringe experience. But not everyone has the wallet or the luvviness to deal with the Pleasance or George Square. The Counting House gives you that on a budget, and with a scruffier, anarchic edge. You don’t get “it’s her off the telly” moments with Nina Conti, you get the gobby brilliance of Janey Godley. You don’t get snooty Beeb types like Will Gompertz, you get grouchy old hacks like Fleming and Copstick. And the Fringe is much better for it. It would be a shame if that got lost.

3. The Fringe is a fragile ecosystem. It needs venues of different kinds, not just to support performers’ career ladders, but primarily, for enjoyment. The Big Four can host some of the slickest shows you’ll ever see, but the free venues now host the wildest and the funniest. Any tipping of the balance between the two risks killing the flow. Don’t kill the Fringe’s flow, man! Fleming says the Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show might be one casualty of the change. Challenging shows like Mel Moon’s very personal Sick Girl, arranged at the Counting House at the last minute last year, are others that might miss out too. These are the shows that need homes if the Fringe is going to be anything other than a bland corporate jolly.

It has been suggested, by another source close to the Fringe, that within a few years the free fringe model could be killed off altogether by the actions of cash-strapped Edinburgh Council to refill their coffers. That would have a devastating impact on the diversity and affordability of the world’s largest arts festival, hitting punters and niche performers rather than extracting the money from the real bastards of the piece – rapacious landlords. Let’s hope that Counting House going “non-free” isn’t the beginning of that process.