Garter Snakes? They have it easy compared with putting a show on in this place

It's official - the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is huge. Dust off any copy of the Guinness Book of Records, look up "Festivals: Enormous" and there she blows: 200 venues, 660 theatrical groups, 9,000 performers and a zillion shows: everything from Waiting for Godot in German to a semi-naked bloke doing acrobatics in a bath off the castle battlements. And who pays for this artistic outpouring? A mysterious government department? The punters? No. By and large it is the performers themselves. Like Garter Snakes struggling in their hundreds to mate with a single female in some grotesque wildlife documentary, here fringe performers struggle in droves to attract the attention of the press, the public, non English-speaking tourists - anyone who will enable them to recoup at least part of their investment. After two years performing at other summer festivals across the world, trying in effect desperately to avoid this place, I am back myself and let me tell you - those Garter Snakes have it easy.

This is not the first outing for my show All Classical Music Explained - oh, no. A significant part of the past two months has been spent on planes delivering my message first to South Africa, then to Canada. And after 22,000 miles of touring, on Thursday 8 August, I hit a steady 75 in a hired Vauxhall Astra and roar north: M1/M6, with a journey break in Lancaster, where as a first-year economics student I first trod the boards in some (truly dreadful) college sketch shows. A hundred and fifty miles later, Auld Reekie hoves into view, heralded by a big poster of Mark Thomas looking subversive under an even bigger sign announcing "Edinburgh Welcomes the Fringe Festival".

Funny thing: I realise that almost all the foreign festivals where I have appeared also call themselves "fringe" largely in deference to their Scottish ancestry without actually having any main festival of which they are on the fringe. Their desire is to conjure up a feeling of experimentation, of "otherness" that, apart from the occasional piece of wackiness, is gradually getting lost at Edinburgh in a sea of good PR and empire building.

The city is much as I remember it, with the exception of a few blocked- off streets here and there. Oh, and a brand-new Festival Theatre that seems to have sprung from nowhere on Nicholson Street - four levels, 2,500 seats and two cafes through whose glass frontages festival folk can break the tedium of High Art and actually observe some real Edinburgh life.

My own venue is downstairs in a converted night-club whose key advantage is that it is central. At the stroke of 10.30, however, it must, Cinderella- like, convert itself back into a night-club, which means that the facilities are basic - two speakers suspended from the rafters and four unfocusable lights pointing directly at my head. This theatre space is costing more than I have ever paid anywhere else in the world and, to top it all, there is a turnaround of just 15 minutes between shows, which, with my props and sound equipment, I know to be impossible. I have a growing feeling that Edinburgh is taking the piss.

Monday, 12 August The show is running well - almost sold out on one occasion, which is amazing, since I know of at least two acts who have cancelled because not one single soul turned up.

Today, two minutes after I start, a middle-aged couple hurry in and plonk themselves down on the end of a completely unoccupied bank of seats on my left. They are late and their position means that the audience - which had been carefully marshalled to sit in front and on my right - is now on three sides instead of just two. "Hello," I say as playfully as I can to one of them, "what's your name?" "I am the woman who booked you to appear on BBC Radio Scotland," she says. The audience groans. I smile and say: "I suppose that means 'Get on with it, you curly haired git'," but inside I hate her: having got in on a freebie, these professional latecomers now sit apart, visibly bored, depressing an audience who have paid seven quid to get in and are up for a good time.

Talk at the watering holes is all about venues, audiences and accommodation. Whereas a place to rest your head in many foreign events is either free or included in the deal - accommodation in Edinburgh is a nightmare. Hotels here get booked up a year in advance - who by? I can only assume by the locals. Where else can they be staying while they are renting out their homes to all of us? On the news today, it says Edinburgh and Glasgow are thinking of bidding jointly to host the Olympic Games in 2004. If they get it, I don't think there'll be a single Scottish family left at home this side of Dundee.

My own place is costing pounds 750 for the three weeks - and, having finished choking at the cost, which only a sell-out every night could possibly cover, I am now warming to my little retreat overlooking Hollyrood Palace. Seventy-eight twisting steps up to a fourth-floor peace that is only occasionally disturbed by the sound of bagpipes from distant Princes Street and the odd tannoy-blasted commentary from passing tour buses in the Royal Mile below. This is actually a wonderful perch - almost a listening post for the whole city.

This morning, at about four o'clock - just after the last pissed comedian and media-type had tottered home from another round of staring over one another's shoulders looking for someone more important to talk to at the Guilded Balloon and before the first student group had assembled in the High Street to present more thigh-slapping highlights from this year's production - I took the opportunity to open one of the big-framed windows and admire my view of the old town. And, in among the far-off brush- hitting-glue of the few score fly-posterers and muffled clicking of a couple of hundred critics typing their reviews, was the faint but unmistakable sound of a record-breaking 9,000 performers losing money.

Thomas Sutcliffe returns next month

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