David Lister: The Week in Arts

The end of the Edinburgh Fringe is nigh
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The Independent Online

As the snow fell over Easter, the summer cultural highlights seemed a long way away. Perhaps that is why the arts world largely ignored an announcement pertaining to the Edinburgh Festival. But the statement from the four top Fringe venues that they would be joining forces this year to start the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, playing 250 comedy shows, was rather important. For a start, the new jamboree will, according to its organisers, be the largest comedy festival in the world. More importantly, it dramatically changes the texture of the Fringe, and means the end of the Fringe as we know it.

The bosses of the four venues concerned, the Assembly Rooms, Pleasance, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon, look bewildered when one suggests such a thing. Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance Theatre, says: "It is certainly not our intention to break away from the Fringe. I think the Edinburgh Comedy Festival has already existed in all but name among comedians. This is about doing what we have to do commercially to make sure we can carry on."

Mr Hartley T A Kemp, head of C Venues on the Fringe, is not convinced. He told The Stage: "We are concerned that the creation of a comedy festival within the Fringe could lead to confusion for artists and audience. Meanwhile, non-comedy will be relegated at those venues behind the sheer weight of a combined stand-up programme."

Non-comedy. It's a telling way of putting it. Unquestionably, the Fringe in recent years has become a stand-up comedy zone. It's getting hard to remember that it was the Fringe that witnessed Tom Stoppard's debut, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and kick-started the careers of great theatre directors such as Deborah Warner.

It was and is also, of course, the home to many other art forms, from performance art to dance to circus. It is and should be a hotch potch of experimentation, glorious discovery and inglorious failure. It should also have its fair share of stand-up comedy, something I particularly look forward to on my August visits to Edinburgh. But there's a difference between fair share and takeover.

The growing dominance of the big four venues has brought just a touch too much hard-headed professionalism to the Fringe. The downside of that hard-headed professionalism has been the steady increase in ticket prices. The joy of the Fringe is seeing four or five shows a day. That's possible at £7 or so a ticket. It's a lot less possible at the £15 or £20 that the big four now tend to charge for their stand-up.

That is why I am suspicious of the new Edinburgh Comedy Festival. It sounds to me, with its promises of big marketing initiatives, like an excuse to raise prices still further and relegate non-comedy material to the small halls in the small hours. It sounds a little like the end of the Fringe.

When Frank Dunlop ran the Edinburgh Official Festival, he got a lot of headlines with an all-out attack on the Fringe. He labelled it "a three-ring circus", anarchic, unregulated and unfocused. He was right. Only he was wrong to think of it as an insult. Artistic anarchy should be found on the Fringe. It wasn't meant to be the Comedy Store writ large. Nor was it intended to be the public try-out for new TV comedy shows that it has undoubtedly become. It should be a wealth of art forms and artists vying for attention. And it should be affordable.

The Edinburgh Comedy Festival is going to happen. But I prefer the old three-ring circus, several shows a night, and the chance of discovering a Tom Stoppard.

Ready ... aim ... break a leg

My best wishes to that fine actor Nicholas Le Prevost, pictured, who stars as Vanya in Sir Peter Hall's production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Mr Le Prevost is currently unable to take the stage as he broke his leg during a recent performance at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. The accident occurred when Vanya was aiming a bullet at his adversary and love rival, Dr Astrov. Mr Le Prevost fell as he was firing the gun, failed to rise again, and the curtain was swiftly lowered.

Sir Peter was actually in the audience that night, and for a moment was impressed with what he thought was a clever addition to his direction.

Students of the play will know that Vanya fails to injure the doctor. He can't even shoot straight, another failure to add to his already low self-esteem. What would Chekhov have made of him not only missing his aim, but falling and breaking his leg as well? I suspect that the old boy, while wishing Mr Le Prevost a speedy recovery, would not have resisted a wry smile.

* My heart went out to the cast of God of Carnage at the first night in the West End on Tuesday. There was a power cut halfway through, and the curtain went down while the theatre's owner, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, stood at the front of the auditorium to assure the audience that he hadn't "short-changed the meter".

The actors admirably agreed to carry on in the half light, and they were splendid. But the producers did, I feel, make one mistake. When the show resumed, it did not resume at the point that it had stopped, but two or three minutes earlier. Bad move. First, that spoils the continuity of the plot; second, it patronises the audience by saying they probably can't remember what had been happening; and third, it means the audience is concentrating on whether the actors say the lines the same as they did 15 minutes ago. Next time there's a power cut, start where you stopped, please.