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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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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