Michael Coveney: Edinburgh Fringe whinges, moans and memories

‘It’s all a terrible tumult, but a tumult never worth missing’

Critical appeal: The James Plays at EIF
Critical appeal: The James Plays at the Edinburgh International Festival
Some voices have been raised about the future of the Edinburgh Fringe. Lyn Gardner in the Guardian, the indefatigable mother hen of the offbeat and innovative, around whom so many younger critical chicks now seem to cluck, suggests that with the International programme coming forward next year to synchronise with the Fringe – which stepped out of line and jumped the gun, stupidly in my view, some years ago – critics will be going to the high-brow stuff instead of all the grunge, gripe and glee-singing.

She also pointed out that mainstream critics have pretty well given up on Edinburgh anyway. It was noticeable how there was a sudden influx of them for the James Plays, but not so much jostling on their part among the unpaid toilers, free sheet wallahs and student scribblers in the Traverse and the Pleasance. This is a big change, and it's happened gradually over a period of about 20 years, certainly since expense accounts withered and Fleet Street's finest forsook the vestibules of the Caledonian and the charms of the Roxburghe or the George. I can even remember a time when there was an annual black-tie dinner for the London arts editors, and the International press chief, Iain Crawford, ambled into opening nights in full Highland evening dress after playing a round of golf with Sean Connery.

It's almost orthodox to say, anyway, that Manchester's biennial festival has supplanted the Edinburgh shindig in importance, but I'm not sure that's true: this year's International programme, musical and theatrical, has been outstanding. Very rarely in going to Edinburgh for 40 years have I seen anything at all on the Fringe that compares with the best of the EIF, though we don't get so many great theatre companies as we used to, nothing like the Rustaveli or the Berliner Ensemble, for instance, rarely a top-drawer director like an Andrzej Wajda, a Peter Stein or a Luc Bondy. Avignon and Salzburg march on while Edinburgh stutters. Even Katie Mitchell's new production was at Salzburg this year.

One thing I have noticed this year is the steep decline in four and five-star reviews, and not before time. We really must all start to agree that a three-star review should signify something a bit special on the Fringe and this bleating of bloated hype does no-one any favours, least of all the critics and so-called critics themselves. I don't plead total immunity to the charge of over star-laden copy but, in an ideal world, stars really should be as much earned by the quality of the writing as by the quality of the show. And that makes pretty much everything more or less two-star.

"Brilliant" should be banned, along with "excellent," "impressive," "unmissable" and "gob-smacking"

Of course, we don't live in an ideal world, so to hell with it. I give in; Tom Sutcliffe doesn't. The former Independent writer – not the former Guardian music critic of the same name – wrote a column in the, well, the Guardian, about over-selling arts events with words like "brilliant," "perfect" and presumably "five-star." He's right. I'd much rather things were interesting instead of brilliant (though I'd settle for both). It's a question of language and bad writing. "Brilliant" should be banned, along with "excellent," "impressive," "unmissable" and "gob-smacking."

Fat chance of that happening, though, even in my copy. Who is going to go and see a show someone has described as "really rather interesting"? More tiresome than all this is the cry going up in some critical quarters about what a relief it is not to have to go to Edinburgh any more after schlepping around the place year in year out reporting on what now, it turns out, was not very much at all; well, we know that. The point about Edinburgh, and certainly the "open access" Fringe, is not its quality (or lack of it), or its "brilliance," but the phenomenon of its happening at all, the clamour of the crowds, the buzz of the craic, the meeting and making of friends, the late-night drinking, the odd surprise, the head-clearing expeditions to Arthur's Seat or Calton Hill and, yes, the hitting of deadlines at unearthly hours in time for the morning concert in the Queen's Hall.

If you're fed up of all that, then you probably never much enjoyed any of it anyway, though I see that Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times – the newspaper, incidentally, which organised comprehensive coverage of the Fringe long before any other – is blaming the press offices for being uncooperative. This is not my experience, though there have been the inevitable hiccups when the front-desk staff are untrained volunteers or students. Much more serious is the not-new philistinism of the 60-minute time limit on shows in busy venues and, I hear this year, fines imposed by the Gilded Balloon when that limit has been exceeded. Rates are already far too high, everyone loses money – except the producers in the big four venues – and still they come back for more. And so will I. It's all a terrible tumult, but a tumult never worth missing while you're still fit, own a good pair of walking shoes and remember to eat once a day.