Top UK theatre PR claims year out should be used to ensure 'too big' Edinburgh Fringe continues with the consent of local population

FROM Pet Shop Boys to Joan Rivers and the global smash hit musical Six, Kevin Wilson is the man the stars and top London producers turn to when bringing a show to the Fringe.

Publicist Kevin Wilson
Publicist Kevin Wilson

From his office in London the award-winning theatre PR has been watching developments in Edinburgh with interest. A familiar face around the Capital every August, over the years he has brought some of the biggest shows to the city and occasionally, the most controversial.

The news of the cancellation of the Fringe and other Edinburgh festivals earlier this month, came as no surprise to him, he reveals. While many never envisaged the chaos that would be caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the signs were already there for those willing to see them he insists.

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"I was deeply saddened but not surprised - it was definitely the right decision from a public health point of view. Cancellation was a grim reality check for everyone due to take part, but the uncertainty over social distancing make the Fringe model a total non-starter.”

Neil Tennant pops in to see Seriously Pet Shop Boys

He adds, “Cancellation saw the final creative dominoes falling into place following a global shut down in the arts. I witnessed it start first hand in New York where I was working when Broadway’s unprecedented shutdown at 5pm on 12 March occurred just 90 minutes before the Broadway press night of my hit 2018 Edinburgh Fringe show, Six, The Musical."

He continues, “I then saw the West End and mass national theatres shutdown close seven more of my London shows and major national tours including the tour of SIX, which sold out its entire run at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre just weeks ago and it is already booked to return next May."

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Like many industry insiders, Wilson was aware that the Fringe was likely to be pulled long before the official announcement. He explains, “Some producers delayed registering a percentage of their shows because they saw the way the wind was blowing.”

Wilson first came to work at the Fringe in 1999, recalling his first impressions of the event, which was then much smaller than it is today, he says, “My mind was completely blown - so much creativity, energy and goodwill in one place. I had a handful of shows that I was representing but there were 900 other shows all shouting, ‘Look at me.’ But even then people were complaining there were too many productions to get reviewed by serious critics and find an audience each day.”

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Controversial play Corpus Christi

One of the plays Wilson represented that year would become one of the most controversial productions to ever play the Fringe. Tagged ‘The Gay Jesus Play’, Corpus Christi, written by award-winning playwright Terence McNally, who sadly died last week from complications due to Covid-19, ensured its PR was kept on his toes.

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“It literally was a baptism of fire,” he recalls. “The play had already caused controversy in New York after death threats to the company. It was getting its European premiere at the Bedlam Theatre and was such a high profile national arts event that every national newspaper critic was attending the first preview - but the biggest drama was before the show, on the street outside.

“Wearing a crown of thorns, firebrand preacher Pastor Jack Glass led an 80-strong picket on opening night. He confronted Coronation Street star Stephen Billington, who was playing Judas, in front of the assembled television cameras and hurled a bag of money at him with the words, 'There’s your 30 pieces of silver, you Judas.' When the coins were counted, there were found to be only 29.

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“Thanks to the efforts of Glass and other protesters, the show, became an unmitigated triumph, selling out at every single performance and when liberal Edinburgh Bishop Holloway attended the show, it lead to a headline voted Best Fringe Headline of All Time: Gay Jesus Made Me Cry Says Pot Smoking Bishop.”

If that was Wilson’s first hit Fringe show, it certainly wasn’t his last, but it was in 2008 that he represented the comedy legend who remains top of his list to this day - the late, great Joan Rivers.

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“It was 2008 and Joan was treating Edinburgh to the World Premiere of Joan Rivers - Work in Progress by a Life in Progress. She played to more than 8,000 people, added extra performances and received ecstatic reviews. Joan, 75, was accompanied around the streets of Edinburgh by a documentary film crew for the film Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work - A Year in the Life of a Legend, and embraced the Fringe spirit. It seemed to give her a new youthful energy,” he remembers fondly.

Another success for the PR was the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in 2001.

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“The full Broadway production and star Kevin Cahoon stormed it in a former church, now Assembly Roxy,” he says. "It was a full on rock concert every night, I thought the walls would come crashing down and local residents tried to get the council to close the show down.”

He adds, “I have brought the Pet Shop Boys to the Fringe - twice. First to see an Australian show, Seriously. Pet Shop Boys Reinterpreted in 2007, then last year with their own sell-out production of Musik.”

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Over the years, Wilson has seen many changes as the Fringe transformed into the commercial leviathan it has become. The break enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic, he believes, presents the Capital with an opportunity to address its relationship with the Fringe and decide what the city expects from it going forward.

“Without any regulation the Fringe has become an all-consuming monster, rather like the blood-sucking alien plant in the musical Little Shop of Horrors, whose demands of ‘Feed me’ sees it grows so big it devours the city of Cleveland in the US.”

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The inference is that the Fringe could, or indeed is, swallowing Edinburgh in the same manner. Bluntly, Wilson agrees, “The Fringe has grown too big. Everyone knows it. If you were to propose a new festival in any UK city with almost 4,000 shows a day over four weeks in venues as small as a living room, you would not get permission on so many levels - health, safety, public order, environmental impact.

“It’s time for it to be said loud and clear: There are just too many shows, too many performers, not enough ticket buyers. There is no-one in a position to say enough is enough - the Fringe Society has a Quango-ish role in overseeing and advising but no power to cap its size.

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"The venues appear happiest opening more new sites each year and the University are happy to coin in a massive income from venue hire and the bars, but what role should the city council be playing in the future of the Fringe? Perhaps this enforced shutdown will give time for some level headed thinking.”

He continues, “Venues and the Fringe Society should listen to locals, bigger is not necessarily better. Calls to curb the impact of the Fringe on the lives of ordinary residents have been growing louder in recent years and while the Fringe brings a lot of excitement, culture and tourist pounds to Scotland, it has to be with the consent of the local population... Edinburgh will feel very quiet this summer.”