Local arts festivals give us little reason to be festive

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The Independent Online
SO, the Brighton Festival is over. And I missed it. I was not one of 150,000 visitors enjoying the second largest street theatre bonanza in the country. But was I sad to have let this one-off opportunity to see original art slip from my diary? No, not really.

Indeed the sad fact is that I'll probably be able to catch most of the 800 events "highlighted" at Brighton during another festival somewhere else in the country this year. For despite the programmes, the lovely posters and all the flags flying along the Pavilions minarets, the Brighton Festival isn't all that special. It's simply part of the circuit.

Let's have a look at the so-called special events in the programme. Take Neil Bartlett oratorio, the Seven Sacraments. After Brighton, it's moving to Southwark Cathedral, south London. The ceramics of Shoji Hamada on show at the Ditchling Museum? Off to the Ashmolean in Oxford, then Bonhams in London. As for every single stand-up, street show, busker and fire eating juggler on Brighton pier: their next stop is the Edinburgh Fringe (August). Then the Manchester Festival (October) and then if the audiences can bear it, The Pick of the Edinburgh Fringe in London's West End (November).

Even elements of the Brighton Festival that could be termed truly local were something of a cop-out. The combined show of Eric Gill's sculpture, Edward Johnston's calligraphy and Ethel Mairet's weaving, all of whom lived in nearby Ditchling, is on display at - funnily enough - nearby Ditchling. The programme organisers didn't even bother putting the triumvirate into a special show for the festival. This is a permanent exhibition. And the fabulous show from local loony Aristo and Dali collector, the late Edward James? Sadly this just looked like coincidence, since the exhibition opened before the festival did.

Summer cultural fests were not always this disappointingly homogeneous. In earlier days, when each town had its own producing theatre and a permanent repertory company, one could bowl around the country and see truly regional stuff. Now, most regional theatres simply play host to a legion of travelling shows engineered to hit town at festival time.

There are a few exceptions; every season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough, Alan Ayckbourn writes and directs new shows using a proper resident company. But in towns where there is no resident artistic visionary, it's got a trifle lazy. Festival organisers appear to be simply ringing up the same impresarios and booking the same acts.

In fact, festivals across the country could save money and time on their programmes and simply produce the same literature on each of their "special" acts.

Stand-up comedy is the worst offender. Lee Evans, Ben Elton, Sean Hughes. A bespoke show for each festival? Don't make me laugh. The festival season has been stretched so far that in the end, these performers don't actually need a home turf at all. They're merely global entertainers in a global festival.

Sure, Sean Hughes speaks winningly about the Blarney Stone, leprechauns and all things Oirish. In reality he probably only touches down in the Emerald Isle when there is a festival crowd he can pick up on.

And then there's P J Harvey, singing at Edinburgh this year. An excited preview in The Scotsman tells us gushingly that not only is this young Polly's first appearance in Scotland for three years, but that all her other stops in 1998 are at "major European festivals". Of course they are. Would P J Harvey risk a venue out of festival-time?

It's not that I want to appear grumpy about gifted entertainers giving everyone a chance to see their shows. The trouble is that regional festivals have started to look worryingly like town centres, all of which boast the same shops. For Burtons, read Lee Evans. For Miss Selfridge, Jo Brand, and for Marks & Spencer, take any combination of any "improv" group involving Neil Mullarkey and Josie Lawrence. It's so dull it's anything but festive.

Even Slava the Russian clown, and his spectacular Snow Show, which wowed the Edinburgh Fringe, began to look just a bit unspecial when exactly the same poster for exactly the same show was seen six months later outside the Old Vic in Waterloo.

There are some honorable exceptions. Not every festival is so unoriginal. You can't replicate a festival of chamber music in Wren churches anywhere outside London, because you can't transport Wren churches around the country. Glyndebourne has many imitators but no real competitors.

And year after year, the Edinburgh International Festival, which really has got pulling power, seems to trot our a truly original programme. One suspects its artistic integrity simply wouldn't allow it to include a show that has already done all the rounds elsewhere. So you know when you see Rimsky-Korsakov's The Invisible City of Kitesh performed by the Kirov Opera at Edinburgh that you are at a real one-off.

Am I being snobbish? Not really, it's just there is much to be said for the excitement of making a pilgrimage to a special event. Of course, festivals are there for locals as much as anyone else; and it is jolly convenient to enjoy the spoils of something like the Fringe on your doorstep. But organisers should beware of booking quite so many duplicates. It might be cheaper at the outset, but in the long run boredom will set in.

Festivals should be peculiar to their location: bespoke events drawing visitors from across the country to experience things that can happen nowhere else. If the highlights of the Edinburgh Fringe are also the highlights of Manchester, London and Brighton, then why bother going?