Edinburgh Diary: Bottoms up, as the naked racist takes to the bottle


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The Independent Culture

The Assembly Rooms on George Street has reopened after a £9.3m refurbishment and experienced Fringe hands are delighted to welcome the old lady back.

The historic New Town venue, owned by Edinburgh city council, was much missed when it was being renovated during last year's festival. It's now under the management of Tommy Sheppard, owner of The Stand comedy club in the city, and is to be run as a year-round venue. Its refurbished performance spaces, new bars and boutique shops are already a hit. A Jamie Oliver restaurant is in what used to be a private bar for performers and critics, and the "star bar" has moved to a Spiegeltent outside the venue during the Fringe.


When the Assembly Rooms was closed last year, Bill Burdett-Coutts decamped the venue to the university campus in the Old Town to establish Assembly George Square. The two are now rivals and Burdett-Coutts is said to have complained about Tommy Sheppard calling the Assembly Rooms the, er, Assembly Rooms. As Sheppard pithily points out, the building has been there since 1787 and he sees no reason to rename it now.


Stewart Lee, full-time comedy genius and part-time controversialist, is at it again. The stand-up, who is performing his latest show at Assembly Rooms, has said the "big four" venues – Assembly George Square, Underbelly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon – have tainted the Fringe by their commercialism. He has a point, but arts lovers must surely take issue with his suggestion that the Fringe threatens to be "a Chipping Norton of the arts". The Oxfordshire town is home to The Theatre, Chipping Norton, an accomplished multi-arts venue that's home to by far and away the UK's best non-commercial panto each year. I think he owes them a fundraiser.


Another Fringe, another year with no sign of the tram system that, some estimate, may cost more than £1bn by the time it's operational, although when that might be is anybody's guess. It's a farce, but no local playwright has yet taken the challenge of writing one. Perhaps for anybody in the city the subject is too close to tragedy.


You see some sights in this beautiful city, and surely one of the most striking at Fringe 2012 is comic and actor Phil Nichol in the buff in The Intervention – a play about an alcoholic being confronted by his family – at the Assembly Rooms. Nichol has previous in this department, as he got naked in his award-winning, ahem, stand-up show The Naked Racist in 2006. Jan Ravens, who plays Nichol's mother in The Intervention, is taking it in her stride. "I'm acting horrified," she said, "but as a woman of the world and a mother of three sons it would take more than Phil's willy to shock me. Water off a duck's back, darling!"

That's the spirit.