The programme for the 57th annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe, launched yesterday in the Scottish capital, contains more venues than ever before - despite the fact that three of the event's leading venues were destroyed six months ago in one of the worst fires in the city's history (See News, 16 Jan 2003).

This year the world's largest arts festival, running from 3 to 25 August 2003, will be played out across 207 venues, 24 more than last year. The Gilded Balloon - legendary for its comedy premieres at the festival - will stage most of its offerings at Teviot Row House. The venue was destroyed, along with ten other buildings, during the fire that burned for three days in December 2002.

The 2003 Festival features 70 new venues, such as The Pod, a 400-seater that will be specially erected on Festival Square during the three weeks in August. As has become traditional at the Fringe, a number of unusual spaces are also being employed. Dance powerhouse Materiali Resistenti will perform under 16,000 litres of cascading water; Semper Fi will perform Ladies and Gents in a public toilet; comedian Alfie Joey will entertain four audience members every afternoon, one in the front seat and three in the back of his Ford Escort, while the comedy show No Room on Top will take place on a double-decker bus; the world premiere of Toast will be performed on a stepladder; and the troupe 5065 will present their offerings in a lift.

Theatrically, other highlights of the 2003 programme will include: The Straits, the long-awaited second play by Gregory Burke, author of 2001's multi-award winning Gagarin Way; a revival of Bob Kingdom's Dylan Thomas - Return Journey, directed by Sir Anthony Hopkins on the 50th anniversary of the Welsh poet's death; Mental, a new play about insanity and genius, starring comedienne Jo Brand; the premiere of Nine Parts of Desire, about oppressed women and exiles, by Iraqi-American Heather Raffo; an all-star revival of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men; a celebrity gala performance of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues; and new shows from David Harrower, Grid Iron, Derevo, The Riot Group and others.

At the 2003 Fringe, there will be a total of 21,594 performances of 1,541 different shows involving 12,940 performers from 668 companies in 183 venues. A third of all the shows presented this year are world premieres, with another 4% European and 7% UK premieres. Theatre, including musicals, comprises 41% of the entire programme, making it the most popular art form of all.

More than half a million people plan their August holidays each year around a trip to Edinburgh. Though commonly seen as one single festival, the event is in reality several different festivals - the main ones being the original Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, the Military Tattoo, the Jazz Festival, the Film Festival and the Book Festival - of which the Fringe is, by far, the largest.

The Edinburgh International Festival, parent to the Fringe, runs this year from 10 to 23 August. It includes new work from playwright David Greig and controversial Spanish director Calixton Bieto as well as a high-profile production of Chekhov's The Seagull, starring Fiona Shaw and Iain Glen (See News, 14 Apr 2003).

Tickets go on sale Monday 16 June 2003 and can be booked on 0131 226 0000. To access the full 2003 Edinburgh Fringe programme - as well as online booking - visit the festival website.

- by Terri Paddock