IT has long been billed as the greatest show on the planet – as well as the biggest.
When the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is staged for the 70th time in August, a staggering 50,000 performances will unfold.
True to the post-war origins of the “open access” event, most of those taking to the stage will be unknowns.
But the thrill of taking part in the Fringe is also luring a host of big-name stars to enter the fray for the first time – or return to the scene of former glories.
Britain’s forthcoming EU referendum, the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the debate over whether the UK’s nuclear weapons should be based in Scotland, the plight of refugees and the perils of the modern dating game will all be inspiring shows.
Away from the usual array of big-name venues taking over the likes of George Square and St Andrew Square, a hairdressers salon, a burger bar, a cathedral’s lawn and a double-decker bus will all be pressed into action to host shows.
One Foot in the Grave favourite Richard Wilson, a Fringe veteran, will be reviving his much-loved Victor Meldrew character in his new one-man show, while his former co-star Angus Deayton will be back on the Fringe for the first time since the 1980s in a revival of the hit show Radio Active.
Other big-name comics in the line-up include Rory Bremner, who is among the acts performing at Gilded Balloon’s new venue at the National Museum of Scotland, impressionist Alistair McGowan, and US comic and actress Mary Lynn Rajskub, star of the cult crime drama 24.
Hollywood actress Annette O’Toole, who appeared in both Superman 3, as the superhero’s love interest, and as Clark Kent’s mother in the series Smallville, will appear in off-Broadway hit Hamlet in Bed.
Carol Ann Duffy, the UK’s current poet laureate, and the former Scottish Makar, Liz Lochhead, will both appear while musical highlights include former Scottish Album of the Year winner Kathryn Joseph, Starman, a tribute to the late rock icon David Bowie and Cafe Palestine, which will showcase performers from a refugee camp in Bethlehem.
However, the seeminingly unstoppable growth of the Fringe has been halted for the first time in its 70th year – 12 months after the city was warned about a growing challenge from rival events.
Organisers have revealed a surprise drop in the number of shows, performances and venues in the official programme, which will still boast more than 3000 shows for only the third time in its history.
The number of performances will breach the 50,000 mark for only the second time after last year’s record-breaking event, which saw ticket sales soar to nearly 2.3 million.
However, there will be around 200 fewer performances and 45 fewer productions in August’s line-up, despite the event – which is still officially the world’s biggest arts festival – reaching the landmark.
The decline is mirrored in a six per cent slide in the number of Fringe venues in the official programme, which have dropped from 313 to 294 after several years of steady growth.
Organisers of the festival, which will feature performers from 48 countries, said the drop in the number of shows was down to a number of temporary or “site-specific” venues not being used and a decision to give more than 100 dedicated events for Fringe participants their own programme for the first time.
The halting of the Fringe juggernaut overshadowed the first programme launch overseen by new chief executive Shona McCarthy, who was appointed in January to succeed long-running figurehead Kath Mainland.
She oversaw the dramatic expansion of the event, with the number of shows and performances soaring by around 60 per cent during a seven-year tenure and the two million ticket sales barrier being broken in 2014.
This year’s tally of 3269 shows is up around 75 per cent on the equivalent figure of 1867 which the festival notched up a decade ago. There are also 33 more venues this year than there were in 2006, when 28,000 performances were staged.
Ms McCarthy revealed the new figures just weeks after urging a rethink over proposed funding cuts for the city’s festivals, arts venues and cultural organisations and speaking out against a proposed bed tax to help shore up their impact in the next few years.
She has warned of the “devastating” impact of annual reductions in public funding and called for “serious thought and caution” when the city’s cultural events were in a position of strength.
Ms McCarthy said she had “no idea” whether the Fringe had reached a peak, insisting questions about its potential growth had been asked as far back as the 1950s.
She added: “As soon as you call a festival open access, you’re responding to the number of performers out there who want to perform and the number of venues who want to host them. It’s not that important to me and I don’t find it that interesting myself.
“We could be another 100 venues up next year, but what is more interesting is who is participating and who isn’t, what countries are here and whether there are any barriers to participation. It’s too early for me to say that’s definitely the case. It is peak Fringe this year? Who knows? Something radical could happen next year.”