Plenty room for optimism as Edinburgh Festival Fringe reaches a crossroads - Brian Ferguson
The arrival of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s programme is as good a time as any to weigh up the fortunes of Scotland’s biggest, most high-profile and intensely debated event.
Ploughing through the 2023 edition, and poring over the key numbers at the heart of the Fringe, it would appear to be in rude health, three years on from that bleak summer three years ago when Edinburgh faced up to the prospect of August without any of its cultural events.
Any first-time visitors would be forgiven for wondering what on earth is going on in the city given that more than 3000 shows will be staged across 248 venues, most within walking distance of Waverley Station. And although more than half of the programme is drawn from across the UK, there are 64 overseas countries represented.
But, once again, there is an unshakeable feeling that the Fringe has reached something of a crossroads.
It certainly doesn’t look like it in print, or across the bulging programmes announced by its key players, but the overall scale of the festival is significantly down on its record-breaking year in 2019.
That year saw 3841 shows staged – around 21 per cent more than this year – while there were 75 more venues in the 2019 line-up.
The scale of this year’s programme has also dipped slightly on last year, when 3171 shows made it into the printed programme.
There will be mixed views on all of this, inevitably. There have been calls for the Fringe to scale back for as long as I can recall, yet its annual growth seemed unstoppable as venues unearthed and opened new spaces.
It should not be forgotten that the 2019 Fringe, which broke the three million audience barrier, attracted a huge amount of controversy at the time over the levels of congestion and disruption in the city, with the festival staged in the wake of Edinburgh being named a global overtourism hotspot.
Within months, the Fringe Society had pledged to overhaul how the event was promoted, be more sensitive to the pressures of overtourism, and respond better to the climate crisis.
But by the spring of 2020, the society was fighting for survival after the Covid-enforced cancellation of that year’s event.
It has been predicting almost ever since that a full recovery of the Fringe would take around five years, while at the same time stressing that it was not a priority to return to the scale of 2019.
That view is not matched by some of the leading venues, who did not seem to notice that the Fringe was increasingly dividing public opinion in Edinburgh before the pandemic.
Fiding affordable accommodation appears to have become much harder since before the pandemic.
The stark reality is that the post-Covid scale of the event and the resurgence in demand to be in Edinburgh in August has undoubtedly played a huge part in the soaring prices performers and companies have been confronted by.
And yet the very fact 3013 shows have been confirmed for this year is a huge vote of confidence in an event which has not had its troubles to seek in recent years.
With new developments like the St James Quarter booming, international visitors returning in huge numbers and the waterfront tram link finally opening, there is plenty for Fringe folk to be optimistic about. They just have the tricky task of persuading people to come to their shows.