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Edinburgh benefits from gloom

Guardian Culture 1st September 2009

Tickets sales for this year's Edinburgh festival fringe have hit a new record, after a surge in the number of people spending holidays at home and looking for an escape from the gloom of the recession.

The Fringe Society said more than 1.85m tickets were sold for this year's event, an increase of 9% on the previous record, set in 2007, and 21% higher than for last year's disastrous event, which was hit by problems with its box office.

The scale of the improvement surprised fringe organisers. Many producers and residents had feared the significant upheaval by tram works cutting through the city centre and a dispute by refuse workers that left rubbish piled on kerbsides in the run-up to this year's festival would frighten off some visitors.

Kath Mainland, the event's new chief executive, said: "As this year's festival draws to a close, we can look back on a month of exceptional ticket sales and one of the best festivals in my 20 years in and around Edinburgh."

Many of the city's top venues reported steep increases in audience numbers. The Gilded Balloon said its sales rose by 15% from last year, boosted in part by staging large events such as the comedian Bill Bailey at the 3,000-seat Playhouse, one of Edinburgh's largest theatres.

Karen Koren, the venue's director, said many more local residents had bought tickets this year. Edinburgh's confidence has been hit by the collapse of Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS last year. "My feeling is that the credit crunch, people not going away and the weather – although it hasn't been great, has been a lot better than last year – has all helped," she said.

The Stand comedy club, which put on critically received theatre for the first time, said its audiences had grown by 20%. Tommy Sheppard, the venue's director, said: "It's been a record-breaking year despite the fact we've had to operate behind an iron curtain imposed by the city's tram builders."

This year's fringe, which featured a slightly larger number of shows compared with last year, with 2,098 productions, also featured a far larger number of recession-busting cut-price shows and cheap deals to draw in audiences. The number of shows on the so-called "free fringe" jumped from 350 last year to 465 this year, and they were held at a larger number of venues. While some shows were selling all their tickets for £5, the Underbelly comedy venue cut its prices for two nights a week.

Mainland said: "From the fringe's point of view, this is absolutely fantastic. We needed to re-establish confidence."

The increasing size of the fringe has been criticised, however, by Mike Russell, the Scottish arts and culture minister. He said last month that it had become "unmanageable" and too expensive for some producers. His comments came as the Fringe Society, the event's ruling body, announced a review of its own organisation and structure – the final review after last year's box office fiasco. Its constitution was written 40 years ago, when the fringe was much smaller.

Mainland said the minister's comments were "dangerous". The fringe's core ethos was to provide an open stage for any performers who wanted to come.

"We're an open arts festival – it is what it is. And it will be as big as it wants to be," she said. "The fringe is totally dynamic. It's quite light on its feet and if people really didn't think it was the place to bring their shows, then they wouldn't. But that has not yet happened."

She said she suspected that many British visitors were taking holidays in the UK partly for environmental reasons, as well as the recession. The fringe's strong year was also shared by theatres in the West End of London.

The economic downturn had also led many artists and performers to produce more exciting and stimulating work. "If there are world-changing events taking place, then people who make art want to make art about that," she said.

"But there's also people just thinking 'let's just be cheered up' and 'let's go out and see something which will make us laugh'," she added. "There's a feeling of 'let's put two fingers up and have some fun'."

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