Edinburgh Festival Fringe: All the signs are pointing to a full-scale return – Brian Ferguson

After a week dominated by announcements about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it felt like a good time to take stock of the recovery of the event and the city’s wider cultural celebration ahead of one of the most important seasons in its history.

Wednesday, 13th April 2022, 12:30 pm
George Square is one of the most popular venues for shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: William-Burdett-Coutts
George Square is one of the most popular venues for shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: William-Burdett-Coutts

More than 500 shows were announced by different venues and the Fringe Society over several bewildering days, taking the overall tally for this year to nearly 800, spread across 103 venues.

Comparisons are inevitable.

Earlier this month, the Edinburgh International Festival announced a 75th anniversary programme which will see 87 events staged across 14 venues.

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Shona McCarthy is chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

But the true scale of the return of the Fringe, which also dates back to 1947, is not likely to become clear until July, when its own programme is published.

By the time the Fringe drew to a close last year, 528 in-person shows had been staged.

The question for many Fringe-watchers is whether this year’s event will bear a closer resemblance to the record-breaking 2019 incarnation than the one which re-emerged tentatively in 2021. All my instincts point towards the former.

The Fringe Society has had a love-hate affair in modern times with the key numbers at the heart of the event.

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They are not the be all and end all, but they do provide a crucial context for how the event is seen in Edinburgh and around the world.

As the Fringe entered a new era in 1999 with a new director, Paul Gudgin, he was overseeing an event boasting 1,309 shows across 167 venues.

By 2009, when the Fringe Society’s first chief executive, Kath Mainland, was in charge, it had expanded to 2,098 shows in 265 venues.

The last pre-pandemic Fringe saw the chief executive Shona McCarthy unveil a programme encompassing 3,841 shows in 323 venues.

The more telling figures for many are the overall audience size, which topped one million in 2003, reached two million in 2014 and broke the three million barrier in 2019.

There will be an inevitable focus on how many shows and venues will end up in the programme, with further announcements expected in early May and June ahead of an official launch in July.

While it would be a surprise if this year’s numbers return to 2019’s levels, the early signs are that it will feel very much feel like the last full-scale one.

Major venues are returning with similar levels of programming, across a Fringe landscape which does not appear to be either radically different or scaled back. The biggest uncertainty may be where audiences are going to come from.

One of the main downsides of the Fringe in the modern era is that it has increasingly focused on Edinburgh University’s heartland and the Old Town. While tourism numbers also increasing year-on-year to major attractions in the same area, growing pains were increasingly being felt in the city centre.

Anyone who has attempted to travel through Edinburgh city centre recently, particularly on public transport, may well wonder how it will cope with the return of a large-scale festival season, given the amount of construction work ongoing. It’s probably my biggest concern.

But after two years of Covid restrictions impacting on the city centre, the benefits the festivals will undoubtedly bring to the city may well be worth the disruption for many.