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Michael Coveney: Edinburgh audiences shaken and stirred

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No full-blown controversy so far this year, but then I've not seen the girl-on-girl all-action Titus Andronicus at the suitably named Bedlam venue, nor the art lecture solo at Assembly called Nakedy Nudes, nor Meal Ticket at Underbelly Cowgate in which six cheesed-off hospitality workers spill the beans on badly behaved celebs.

Even producer Nica Burns, director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, has only ruffled a few feathers today by suggesting that audiences were being short-changed at free shows because those bottom rung comics had too little material to pad out a full hour's show.

On the other hand, some fairly big money names - David Baddiel, Jenny Eclair, Alexei Sayle, Sarah Millican, Omid Djalili and Alan Davies - are returning to their small venue roots, while unlucky Marcus Brigstoke, whose chest hair is one of this year's most unwelcome billboard sights - has pulled an Achilles tendon and will be trying to be funny on crutches.

Mark Ravenhill
© Dan Wooller
There are a few ripples emanating from Mark Ravenhill's suggestion that newcomers to the Fringe should shun public subsidy in order to be more truthful and radical - something he sort of said in his Surprise Theatre lecture at the Royal Court recently - but then he can afford to say that, with all his German royalties flooding in.

And I've heard that William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly Festival, attacked the press at his launch party for them, which is much more like it: more declarations of war are exactly what we need, and it's no doubt the reason why each Assembly show is prefaced by an invitation to the audience to turn off their phones - and submit their own reviews. Let two-fingered battle commence.

Some theatres are built for audiences to behave badly in. The larger Traverse space, for instance, is very hard to leave once you've gone in, as a middle-aged punter discovered half way through Blythe Duff's riveting delivery of David Harrower's monodrama Ciara.

The poor chap had to stumble through a row of tightly packed customers and exit up the too steep staircase - which squeaks and groans too loudly - totally disrupting the show for at least a minute. Unfortunately, Duff allowed herself to be distracted, too, came out of character, improvised a weak response and then got completely lost, calling the stage manager by name to give her a prompt.

For press and industry insiders, there are two new facilities this year: a much improved relocation of the Assembly Festival bar just off Bristo Square; and, in the Square itself, the rebuilt Abattoir (home of the Underbelly mob), which now has a beautiful upper floor with sofas and a fountain and a high, transparent roof. It's a smoker-friendly area, too.

Assembly Rooms supremo Tommy Sheppard desperately wants to move the Fringe festival hub away from the university buildings of Bristo Square and George Square and back to George Street in the New Town, but I suspect he has a very tough fight on his hands; this is his second year in charge, and he told me last year that he has just three to make the whole thing work.

It's important, therefore, that his centre-piece production, that of Omid Djalili in The Shawshank Redemption, really does the business, and most critics will be delivering their verdicts in the next day or so. Sheppard also runs the Stand Comedy Club where you are more likely to find tomorrow's stars than at, say, the Gilded Balloon.

Mind you, I haven't penetrated the GB yet and will do so later today, fingers crossed that my tickets have been sorted. The result of PR overkill and over-duplication - London offices and producers having to vet simple ticket applications, and coordination breaking down all over the place - is that you often end up having to blag your way in even when you've registered the request weeks ago.

The Traverse and the Pleasance are exemplary exceptions. Everywhere else, so far at least, is fairly chaotic, though no doubt this, too, is down to the stupendous proliferation of free sheet bloggers and occasional critics of all sorts.

Mark Thomas, one of the very few genuinely radical comedians, has advised Fringe-goers that a bag of chips does not constitute one of their daily five. Fresh fruit and salads are favourite, but you do need your daily carbs for energy levels: baked potatoes and saveloys remain a useful staple.

There was a time when you could pick up a freshly made ham or cheese and pickle roll or sandwich at any pub or bar between gigs. Not so easy nowadays, though the Brass Monkey, suspended in Drummond Street between the Pleasance Courtyard and Bristo Square, has a great selection of them, with nary a bulging bap or a wretched wrap in sight.