Auld Reekie and the fringe of the Fringe

Our theatre blogger offers her verdict on this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

If all the Fringe is a play, then Edinburgh is a stage set par excellence. Robert Louis Stevenson's "dream of masonry and rock" is as beguiling and romantic a backdrop you could hope to find, and the fact that theatre is seemingly blooming out of every crevice in that masonry only adds to the appeal of what is arguably the greatest show on earth. And if the scenography is courtesy of Auld Reekie itself, the metteur en scène must be the rain: a pluvial Prime Mover, which changes the scene from the sublime to the soggy, and directs and controls the flow of people in the city - we coalesce, we disperse. The fug and steam of the cooling cagoule fill the auditoria. And just as well something is, because the average audience size on the Fringe is just nine.

At two and a half thousand, the number of shows this year is nearly a fifth up on 2009. But unless punters multiply by the same logarithm, your average audience size is only going one way. Not helped by a theatrical Darwinism, where the super-venues get bigger and fatter at the expense of the one-woman-and-her-overdraft sound of one hand clapping majority.

Then there's the vexed issue of the household names, the so-called "parachutists", one of whom even parachuted into an improvised musical I was rather enjoying. Nicholas Parsons is urbanity itself, but his presence at Showstopper! was just that. (That said, the company created some delectable moments out of his chat - the Rocky Horror Show version of his two marriages rather sticks in the mind). The crump of celebs jumping on the bandwagon could be heard right across the city: Alan Cumming, who has conveniently come over all Caledonian, seemed to be on the cover of every local rag. " I have never felt more Scottish!" he whinnies. This, despite living in America, and taking US citizenship.

However, the deep-keeled Fringe is something of a self-righting machine: as soon as the organism senses it's too mainstream, it germinates Fringe fringes: Forest Fringe, Free Fringe, and this year, The Living Room. And there are a huge number of performers for whom a stage is a bourgeois luxury: a loo, or the back of a van will do. If you want the up and coming, and not the been and gone and got the TV show, these are your hunting grounds.

But the pursuit of this ignis fatuus can be wearying. Where to start? Iranian poetry or Russian clowns? On one production-laden afternoon, the very names of shows and companies seemed to forge a queasy objective correlative: Ad Infinitum, then The Dreadfuls, rounded off by Beautiful Burnout. It can seem like the craic is just elsewhere: it's in the nature of Edinburgh's pop-up venues that you can often hear what's going on around you, and during the Emma Thompson-endorsed Fair Trade I could hear Flawless, Chasing The Dream and their West End transfer. Other people, I fretted, were having more fun.

Every year a political anxiety flares and spreads, like a chant in a football stadium, across Edinburgh's productions. A few years ago it was Blair, but now sex trafficking is the issue that has sparked several shows and crossed into stand-up with Keith Farnam's How Much is that Woman in the Window? (How Tony might feel about being bracketed with sex trafficking as a societal ill can only be imagined). Fair Trade may have felt like dressed up agitprop, but there were other shows, lacking the imprimatur of an A-lister, which packed a greater punch: Roadkill, for example, bussed spectators to a tenement flat, and immersed them in the truly horrifying "business" of slave-rape.

2010 also saw the rise of the viral star: the performer who has achieved their rep and their access to the platforms of Edinburgh on the net. The brightest of these has to be scabrous teen joker Bo Burnham (60 million hits), but I followed my own star in the form of "You Tube Sensation" The Unexpected Items, on the strength of Gap Yah (2 million hits) who have a posh totty charm all their own. And the buzz about shows spreads like a contagion, too: blogs, tweets on the Fringe ("twinges") and the most reliable of these viral modes, word of mouth. My street tipster was right on the pulse with his recommendation Meow Meow: never mind the politics; it was cabaret and Glee Club escapism drawing the crowds.

I left Edinburgh as some Chinese acrobats were carefully preparing their own stage on Princes Street. A man dressed as a penguin wandered by. I reached the cover of Waverley as the heavens cracked open and the rain swept these visions away: another scene change in the greatest show on earth.

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The good, the bad and the ugly: behind the scenes of the Brexit broadcasts

Nothing feels more artificial than doing live television, and last weekend was even stranger than usual.

Nothing feels more artificial than doing live television. You sit there, isolated from the rest of the news, hair full of Elnett and face caked in something approaching yacht varnish. Then you’re expected to chat away with an anchor as if you were old mates under dazzling white lights, while seven crew members stand around watching you. Worse, everything has irony baked into it: TV now happens in the lively expectation that it will be instantly giffed, memed and stripped for parts on Twitter. It’s like eating a pre-chewed meal.

We live in such a media-literate culture that politics has the same sense of déjà vu. Its tropes are so familiar from TV programmes about politics that living through them in real-time 3D feels profoundly dissociative. You feel lost in the meta. I once asked a researcher what election night was like. “The only way in which it wasn’t like The Thick of It is that on The Thick of It no one runs around saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is just like The Thick of It!’”

Two days after the Brexit result, I went to College Green in Westminster to record a live version of BBC1’s Sunday Politics. The atmosphere on the muddy lawn, tramped by a thousand assistant producers, was suffused with overwrought importance and high absurdity. Spread out across the grass were tents – “Why don’t you sit in the news gazebo?” a producer told me – from which shell-shocked generals would occasionally emerge, ashen-faced, fresh from rallying the troops through an interview with Radio 5 Live. All it was missing were pillars of smoke, the whump of artillery and a man in a Hawaiian shirt with a cigar. Instead, we had a new shadow cabinet resignation every time we went off air for ten minutes.

That pandemonium compensated for referendum night, when all the channels were at their most sober. Inevitably, David Dimbleby was presiding over a stately galleon of a BBC show, on which things were so serious that Jeremy Vine wasn’t even allowed to dress up as a bendy banana. Over on ITV, Tom Bradby was doing his matinee idol thing (he always looks like someone playing a charming rotter in a detective drama)while Sky News had trapped Kay Burley at a series of parties where she couldn’t make anyone cry. It all reeked of gravitas.

Not so, the rest of the referendum telly. Take The Great Debate at Wembley, which BBC1 screened two nights before the vote. You know, the one that ended with Boris Johnson’s soulful invocation of “Independence Day” (never mind that many countries have an independence day and usually they’re celebrating independence from us). Between speeches from the main panel, led by Johnson and Ruth Davidson, the cameras flicked over to a second panel of people perched on those boy-band-doing-a-ballad high stools. For a moment, I thought that some form of panel Inception had occurred and there would be an infinite regression of panels, each marginally less famous than the last. In the best tradition of light entertainment, possibly the next one would have featured children who looked like Tim Farron and Priti Patel, offering faux-naive zingers.

The contest for the most surreal offering ended in a dead heat. The night before the vote, Channel 4 locked Jeremy Paxman in a room with an extraordinary collection of politicians and random Nineties celebrities. (Biggest surprise of the campaign: Peter Stringfellow is for Remain.) To put it in perspective, this was a show that Nigel Farage the attention vampire blew off. Poor old Paxman isn’t used to coping with luvvies. I thought he might throttle Sandie Shaw when he asked her about security and she started talking about “spiritism”. Someone with a cruel sense of humour should give Paxo a fluffy talk show. “TELL ME A BETTER SELF-DEPRECATING ANECDOTE FROM THE SET,” he’d thunder at Hugh Jackman. “AND BE QUICK ABOUT IT.”

The joint-weirdest bit of EU telly was ­Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on Channel 4’s The Last Leg, a show for which the pitch was surely “Top Gear but for sports”. He turned up in a white fur coat and a Bentley for the opening gag, confessed to feeling “seven and a half out of ten” about the EU and essayed a similarly nuanced answer about whether he’d rather have a knob for a nose or a nose for a knob. “You’re really stuck on this whole binary choice thing,” he said, gnomically. Then Russell Crowe turned up to exude his usual low-level petulant menace, crushing any possibility of fun.

Having watched a huge amount of television over the campaign, I have come to five conclusions: 1) our prosperity is assured if we can patent whatever David Dimbleby’s bladder is made out of; 2) no man has ever looked sadder in victory than Michael Gove on Friday morning; 3) Ruth Davidson, Sadiq Khan and Anna Soubry should get more TV bookings; 4) the Leave campaign had so many versions of the same middle-aged, bald, white man that I began to wonder if it was a trick, like three kids in a long coat; 5) Versailles on BBC2 – full of frocks and fireplaces and men with hair like Kate Middleton – is the only thing that kept me sane.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies