Reflections on the Edinburgh Fringe that almost was - Liam Rudden

As another August fades, it’s time to reflect on ‘the Fringe that almost was’, as one big show producer described it to me as we watched his audience arrive.

Friday, 27th August 2021, 4:45 pm
Edinburgh Fringe

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I’ve loved the Fringe since making my stage debut there in 1983 and I’ve been involved ever since; 38 years as an actor, director, producer, reviewer and Entertainment Editor. Usually, it’s the highlight of my year yet I’ve frequently looked on in despair at aspects of what it’s become; the exciting melting pot of creativity now so often over-shadowed by commercial demands.

2021 was always going to be different, venues funded by government and council to ‘get shows on’ rather than the normal organic migration of passionate creatives to the Capital come August.

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This year we stepped into the unknown, Covid restrictions still in place as the Fringe diehards valiantly strove to make something, anything happen.

As pictures of sparsely populated open-air spaces emerged on social media in the first weeks it was obvious the weather gods hadn’t got the memo that Edinburgh was relying on these alfresco venues and, yes, the rain came.

That didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a few hardy Fringe-goers armed with umbrellas but while the energy of ‘Edinburgh’ was still there, as I’ve said before, it was different, not better, not worse, just different.

At some indoor venues, queues snaked around the block to get in just like the old days. Indeed, it was hard to see any difference between 2021 and 2019, other than the face masks worn by many. That confused me; outdoor performances sparsely populated with distancing, indoor performances with 100 people sitting cheek by jowl. Discuss.

‘Distancing’ saw some companies demand individual’s attending their show buy two tickets, bubble-buying bringing a whole new meaning to 2 for 1 offers. Not a good look for the so called ‘people’s festival’, especially when shows weren’t selling out.

If there was a degree of desperation on display, 2021 was also in many ways a refreshing trip back to the earlier days of the event with young, often local companies shining in a more tightly focused spotlight.

Naturally, the usual element of risk remained when choosing what to see, in that respect I suppose normal service was resumed. I received abuse on social media earlier this month when questioning the quality of some Fringe fair; obscenities hurled by accounts with a handful of followers and biogs that read like therapy sessions, questioned my loyalty to the ‘arts’ - a pretentious word best avoided.

But then, it's not my job to blindly champion every would be entertainer but to call out the dross for readers who want the Fringe to be the best it can be and who have come to trust my judgement when it comes to parting with their hard earned cash.

Which is also why I was delighted to read new Chair of the Fringe Board, Benny Higgins, state ‘less is more’ and that ‘the Fringe should focus on quality’.

Hopefully, the under-rehearsed, thrown together productions that have deterred audiences taking risks in the past will be a thing of the past as 2022 rolls around and the 75th Fringe will be one everyone in the Capital, and not just those with a vested interest, can embrace wholeheartedly.

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