At the Book Festival last week, Scottish artist and writer John Byrne (Tutti Frutti, Slab Boys Trilogy) commented on the lack of independent theatre companies currently producing in Scotland. He compared us to Ireland, whose theatre scene flourishes with different companies making different work, and called for change (a quick Google search of independent theatre companies in each country gives double the number of links direct to Irish companies than to Scottish). And so it was that Byrne recommended to his packed auditorium, Fishamble’s Silent, a new Irish play about a homeless man ‘who once had splendid things, but he has lost it all’, that was one of the first new works to win a Fringe First this year.
The Scotsman Fringe First awards were set up in 1973 to encourage the production and showcasing of new writing at the festival. Since then, they have become a prestigious award and carry heavy weight for the future success of some smaller companies. So far, fifteen out of approximately two thousand shows have been awarded so far, with the final round to be announced later this week.
The TEAM’s production Mission Drift won their fourth consecutive (and deserved) Fringe First along with a Herald Angel award. Dominic Hill’s final production as Artistic Director of the Traverse, Futureproof, also won a First, as did the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Wheel. Their site-specific piece, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has been awarded a Herald Angel too.
Simon Callow, thespian extraordinaire has been given both a First and a Herald Archangel award for Tuesdays at Tescos, which has received mixed reviews from critics; tvb giving it an acclaimed five bomb review, and the Guardian, a mere two. Whether you agree with either – the conflict lies more in the script than anything else – Callow’s performance is (as always) highly commendable.
Nutshell’s Allotment, and Escalator East to Edinburgh’s The Oh Fuck Moment and 2401 Objects have all been awarded Fringe Firsts and these, among others, are the companies that will benefit most from the accolade with (hopefully) more press attention and rising audience numbers, which will support future applications for funding and so help their development.
Edinburgh’s arts subsidies concentrate on festivals – which is a good thing – but means we’re lacking strong year round theatre. It’s encouraging to see the Traverse and NTS winning such awards, but it’s not surprising, and I suspect there are pieces of writing equally relevant and exciting that are overlooked. If people use names of companies or big stars as a mark of quality assurance, we risk not exploring smaller independent companies and promoting their work. We are a country with a reputation for producing splendid things. Should we risk losing it all by favouring the mainstream?