Theatre: Staging a protest

In my salad days, when I was green in judgement (as Cleopatra, with whom I am oft compared, once remarked), I once acted in a show in Edinburgh. Blame it on my (misspent) youth. The salient point here is not my erstwhile career but the location and the timing of the production in question. This August event took place in April, ie out of Festival time.

It was a revelation. Gone was the ghastliness of po-faced mimes fighting their way out of non-existent glass boxes on every street corner, the marauding hoardes of student actors besieging you with enough leaflets to wallpaper a major housing development, and a thoroughly indecent number of solo shows about the death of Sylvia Plath. Instead, there was the entrancing spectacle of a beautiful city quietly going about its business, of which theatre was just a part. In fact, it was so lovely that I forswore the entire Festival.

Now, in case you mistake me for a curmudgeonly old git too sniffy to relax into the flow and flurry of the world's largest arts jamboree, I should point out that after a dignified absence, I returned to the Festival and found it 12 times more enjoyable than I had remembered. This was probably because I was not doing the Fringe Thing.

This isn't snobbery. There's nothing wrong with performing on the Fringe. Well, actually, there is. You have to stay in frighteningly up-close-and- personal proximity with the assembled cast and crew of your theatre company, squeezed into a rented flat in circumstances that, despite many a cleaning rota, descend rapidly into worse-than-usual squalor. Then there's all the publicity you have to do unless you're dead famous or the lucky recipient of a Fringe First. Many a young actor finds himself standing on the shoulders of company members at 2am indulging in illicit flyposting.

Worst of all is the average number of people watching a performance. It's three. That's right, three. Okay, that figure was being bandied about 10 years ago, but the already outlandishly-sized festival has grown larger since then. I know the whole point about Edinburgh is that it's open to anyone able to afford the venue hire, but what are the chances of pulling in the crowds when it grows larger by the year?

And longer. For the last few years the Fringe has prolongued the three- week event with a start-up week. This year, the Official Festival has moved to mid-August. In its infinite wisdom, the Fringe has gone all huffy, refused to accompany it into September, and started even earlier, making for almost five weeks of festival-going. This thins the audiences still further, and divorces what should be complementary events. The Fringe's uppity oh-so-radical "we don't want or need you" stance is divisive and absurd. Smartly, places like the Traverse have ignored it to start later.

Everywhere else it's as if theatre shuts up shop over August. Few are foolhardy enough to open something new in the month where everyone's on holiday or outside of an evening.

But what's this? There are signs of life at the Roundhouse. Yes, this 152-year-old former engine shed in Chalk Farm is playing host to live theatre again as it famously did in the Sixties and Seventies with the National Theatre's touring production of Oh What A Lovely War (above).

`Oh What A Lovely War', The Roundhouse, NW1 (0171-452 3000) from 6 Aug

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