The 2009 Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, gets under way in the Scottish capital today (7 August 2009). The 63rd annual Fringe, which continues until 31 August, involves an estimated 18,901 performers from over 60 countries presenting 34,265 performances of a record-breaking 2,098 shows in 265 venues (See News, 10 Jun 2009).

”Staycation” boom
Whatever the meteorological predictions for Edinburgh (August is often notoriously wet), pre-festival reports indicate that the Fringe seems to be weathering other conditions well – namely, the recession, a debilitating box office system crash in 2008 and worries about swine flu.

The Fringe Society - whose chief executive Kath Mainland was appointed earlier this year after artistic director Jon Morgan resigned in the wake of the technology breakdown and a government enquiry (See News, 28 Aug 2008) – has witnessed strong advance ticket sales, with the festival apparently benefitting from both the “staycation” trend of cash-strapped Britons taking their summer holidays at home and looking for escapist entertainment via comedy and the arts.

Celebrity culture
Theatre makes up 28 percent of this year’s Fringe programme and features several high-profile names. Taking a break from judging others on reality TV, not least her new husband, Any Dream Will Do victor and Joseph star Lee Mead, Denise Van Outen makes her Edinburgh debut returning to the musical stage in a one-woman show called Blondes, written by Jackie Clune and running at the Udderbelly, in which Van Outen sings songs by blonde artists from Doris Day to Duffy, Mae West to Madonna.

Elsewhere, Alistair McGowan returns to the Fringe for the first time in ten years to appear in two shows, offering his range of celebrity impressions in The One and Many and a musical evening of Noel Coward ditties alongside Charlotte Page in Cocktails with Coward; Emmy-nominated American screen actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo (The Truth About Cats and Dogs, The West Wing) mounts her new one-woman show; and the likes of Clive James, Julian Clary, Christopher Biggins, Nicholas Parsons and cricketing legend Henry Blofeld also make appearances.

And the latest annual offering from the Comedians Theatre Company finds top stand-ups including Stephen K Amos, Marcus Brigstocke, Phil Nichol and Richard Thomson tackling RB Sheridan’s classic 1777 farce School for Scandal, along with Lionel Blair and La Clique’s Miss Behave.

New writing, global concerns
At the Traverse Theatre, Scotland’s main home of new writing, the festival programme includes work by British playwrights including Dennis Kelly (Orphans), Che Walker (Been So Long, opening this month at London’s Young Vic), David Greig (play with song Midsummer) and Simon Stephens (Sea Wall) as well as the latest theatre offerings from various other Fringe First winners including comedian Daniel Kitson (The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church), Stefan Golaszewski (Stefan Golaszewski Is a Widower), site-specific specialists Grid Iron (Barflies, adapted from Charles Bukowski’s stories of drunkenness and performed in a local bar), Hoipolloi (with Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest) and Belgian teen company Ontroerend Goed (Internal) as well as a “Life in Three Parts” conversation between Mark Ravenhill and Bette Bourne and newly commissioned “theatre for breakfast” plays, in which leading playwrights such as Greig, Stephens, Zinnie Harris and Rona Munro respond to current world events.

Beyond the Traverse, the current global recession occupies the minds of many other Fringe-makers with shows such as: Suckerville (Spitting Difference) viewed through the eyes of the 1929 crash; Black Swans (Goldsmiths Drama Society), set in a surreal post-recession Britain; and Steelopolis Tales (Wounded Satellite Productions) looking into the instant change when humans lose control of an unruly financial system.

Amongst the other topical issues tackled by theatre productions: the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the conflict in Afghanistan is a theme in several shows, from Palace of the End (Royal Exchange) to post-World War II play A Promised Land (Theatre Objektiv); the highly controversial policy of extraordinary rendition is examined in Rendition Monologues (Iceandfire Theatre); and personal accounts from several witnesses of the Mumbai terror attack are retold in A Personal War (Balancing Act Productions).

Musical matters
Musical fans should look out for a new staging of the controversial Jerry Springer – The Opera, two versions of Jonathan Larson’s Rent and Kander and Ebb’s The Rink and brand-new musicals such as Tony McHale’s Bloodbath starring Siobhan McCarthy, Ciara Janson and Blue’s Antony Costa, Wolfboy with Lee Latchford-Evans, Almost Like a Virgin (Festival Highlights) from Madonna impersonator Evelyne Brink, Barbershopera II (Pleasance Dome) from the Musical Theatre Award winners of 2008, Chomp: A Zombie Musical (Fusion) and The Great British Soap Opera (Take Note Theatre), as well as the second year of programming at the Fringe’s first dedicated musical venue at George Square.

At George Square, Whatsonstage.com is sponsoring a University Challenge musical theatre competition, with questions provided by our readers (See News, 17 Jul 2009), and a nightly cabaret series. We’re also sponsoring this year’s Musical Theatre Matters Awards, the Fringe’s only prize dedicated to the genre, to uncover the best new musical talent at the festival. (See News, 13 Jul 2009).

Anything, anywhere
The Fringe maintains its reputation for innovative “anything, anywhere” work as well thanks to the likes of: Another Heartbreaking But Ultimately Life-Affirming Show About Death, which sends its audience on a variety of Edinburgh-based challenges; David Leddy’s Susurrus, the audio-drama based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream which lends theatricality to the Botanical Gardens; Mikhail Tank’s Soul Photography, the first show presented through an online video streaming; and Foot-Washing for the Sole, in which Adrian Howell tenderly washes and massages the feet of the audience in a one-to-one conversational encounter.

Puppetry continues to be one of the fastest-growing elements in the Fringe programme with shows from One Eye Gone (Oxford Playhouse), Lilly Through the Dark (The River People), The Puppet-Show Man, Sammy J and the Forest of Dreams and Randy’s Postcards from Purgatory. And the big kids are back in town with a range of offerings for those who never want to grow up, including Almost 10 (Tangram Theatre), describing the quandaries of facing a double digit age, and All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (The American High School Theatre).

Other 2009 theatre highlights include: the stage premiere of Muriel Spark’s wartime novel The Girl of Slender Means starring Maureen Beattie and a revival of Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with Anna Francolini; the premiere of Hugh Whitemore’s Churchillian drama My Darling Clemmie; former Fringe First winners Red Shift Theatre’s new piece The Fall of Man; an adaptation of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry The World’s Wife performed by Linda Marlowe; Nun the Wiser, former showbiz agent and occasional Whatsonstage.com contributor Triona Adams’ true story about her year in a convent; a new adaptation of Scottish-set horror film The Wicker Man; and the premiere of Fringe veteran David Benson’s tenth solo show Doctor Whom? My Search for Samuel Johnson.

Stats & milestones
Of this year’s programme, 37 percent are world premieres and 11 percent are European premieres. Some 465 of the 2009 shows are absolutely free, compared to 350 in 2009.

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 (running this year from 14 August to 6 Sepember), the Edinburgh Fringe, the Military Tattoo, the Film Festival and the Book Festival - of which the Fringe is, by far, the largest, representing 75 percent of the overall festival market share and annually generated around £75 million for the local economy.

In recent years, comedy has overtaken theatre as the dominant offering at the Fringe, representing 25 percent of the programme in 2009. Last year, for the first time, four of the leading Fringe venues – Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly – joined forces to create a “festival-within-a-festival” at the Fringe, the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, which showcases their hundreds of stand-up contributions.

Of the Fringe’s “big four” venues, two are marking major birthdays this year: the Pleasance (mounting 225 shows across 30 performance spaces this year) turns 25, while the Underbelly (with 109 shows across 13 performance spaces in four venues, including the famous upside down purple cow, the Udderbelly, and new this year, the Hullabaloo in George Square, on the former site of the Spiegeltent) celebrates its tenth year.

To access the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe programme – including its wide range of comedy, music, dance, opera, children’s shows and other events - visit www.edfringe.com.


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log on to Whatsonstage.com/Edinburgh2009!