Edinburgh Fringe has the last laugh as fans flock to free funny shows


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The Independent Online

This year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe has the highest number of free shows in its history, as performers and audiences seek to save money, without cutting back on laughs.

The festival, which began last weekend, will feature 607 free events among its 2,542 shows. The Free Fringe, a spin-off festival under the Fringe umbrella, which gives performers space rent-free, is also thriving. It has 40 per cent more shows than last year and has attracted performers who would normally choose to appear at the biggest venues.

According to senior figures at the festival, increased student debt has led to a reluctance among performers to commit large proportions of their profits to venues up-front, meaning smaller venues are thriving.

"The reason why it is booming is simple, smaller venues which are lent to artists free of charge – so that performers do not have to charge audiences – represent a better deal for the public and artist alike," said Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill.

"It's always the case that if you have good shows at zero pounds a ticket, and good shows that cost more, people will come to the free shows. Some performers find it more comfortable with us, whereas others have agents pushing them in different directions. But the audiences enjoy it more if the organisers' ethos is to see who turns up and have a good time."

The Free Fringe was founded in 1996 as a counterpoint to the high hire costs charged by the city's best-known venues during the festival. Performers are typically forced to guarantee 40 per cent of their box office takings to their venue of choice. With the Free Fringe, 29 venues, including central Edinburgh's The Voodoo Rooms, donate space free.

Performers are given minimal equipment, and ask punters to pay what they think the show is worth. Performers appearing with the Free Fringe this year include comedians Robin Ince, Norman Lovett, Tim Key and John Hegley. The Laughing Horse Free Festival also offers free performances.

"Part of the Fringe is very slick and very high profile but it costs a lot of money to perform there," said Edinburgh Comedy Awards founder Nica Burns. "I think the more reasonably-priced parts of the festival have grown as there are huge numbers of students coming out of college with massive debts. So how do they find the money to put up huge amounts of cash for a venue? On the downside, it's much harder to do anything complicated with minimal equipment."

Ince has been performing in the Free Fringe since 2008. "I think the growth of free performances is for a number of reasons," he said. "I remember coming to the festival several years ago with Stewart Lee and we wondered where all the middle-aged couples with the highly-annotated programmes had gone.

"Then it dawned on us that they'd been priced out of the market. So many of the shows are over £10 and that's a lot to pay if you're seeing five or six shows a day. I think £14.50 is a hell of a lot for 55 minutes of comedy. And it puts pressure on you as a performer. I'm not looking for a job on television, I'm just here to try out ideas, so the Free Fringe suits me perfectly."

Ince's solo show, Struggle for Existence, is at the Buffs Club. The comedian attempts to dissects topics from apes to anger, Charles Darwin to Schrödinger's cat, as well as "stuff found in cabinets".