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Boss Blog: Theatre's Debt to Comedy

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It’s a common complaint amongst theatre fans that the Edinburgh Fringe has gone to the comedy dogs. And there are plenty of stats that would seem to back up this view.

Just six years ago, theatre ruled the roost as the largest festival genre, representing 37% of the overall Fringe programme. In 2011, it’s comedy that claims 37% of the programme, with theatre running a fairly distant second at 30%.

So in terms of domination, yes, it’s true, comedy is the victor. But it’s not that the Fringe is any less a breeding ground for drama than it was before. Comedy’s win is merely proportional to the rapid growth of the festival overall.

Theatre’s 37% of the programme in 2005 amounted to 666 shows of the 1,799 on offer that year. This year’s 30% amounts to 763 shows. That’s a perfectly respectable – some might even say impressive - 13% increase. So theatre is still growing in Edinburgh – it’s just that the rest of the Fringe, fuelled largely by comedy, is growing faster. (In fact, more than twice as fast.)

My personal experience of the Fringe is that it’s very easy indeed to take in nothing but theatre - and, if you select well, nothing but highly original and inspirational theatre at that. And when I’m not feeling so rigid with my scheduling, an occasional comedy interlude makes me enjoy more intellectually challenging theatre even more.

Besides, is there really such a massive division between the two? As Nica Burns pointed out at this week’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards launch, “Comedy and comedians are making a larger and larger contribution to our cultural life as a whole.”

My own trip to Edinburgh this year was delayed by the opening of Double Feature at the National Theatre, featuring a new play written by Tom Basden, a stand-up who won the Comedy Awards’ Best Newcomer prize in 2007. Basden also acts in both his own play and another in the NT season.

Other former Comedy Awards winners who have made and are continuing to make a splash in theatre include Daniel Kitson, whose storytelling pieces have always defied categorisation at the Fringe (and as a result, earned him a coveted annual berth at the Traverse). In October, Kitson will also be at the National, bringing his Fringe First-winning It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later to the Lyttelton, with extra dates already added in December.

Then, of course, there’s Australian madman Tim Minchin, who made his musical writing debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s hugely acclaimed adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, now transferring to the West End’s Cambridge Theatre.

And even at the Fringe itself, there’s plenty of crossover evidence. The schedule allows theatrically inclined comedians to multi-task, doing theatre during the day before delivering their stand-up schtick at night. The Comedians Theatre Company was founded here in 2005 to take advantage of this very situation – and it’s still going strong. Another Comedy Award alum, company co-founder Phil Nichol, has provided me with one of my five-star experiences at this year’s Fringe, the new one-man play Somewhere Beneath It All, A Small Fire Burns Still, written especially for him.

Nica’s own CV proves the point. She’s run the Comedy Awards (formerly the Perriers, now sponsored by Foster’s) since they were founded 31 years ago. She’s also just stepped down as president of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), and as boss of Nimax, is one of the West End’s biggest theatre owners and producers. If she can criss-cross the comedy and theatre divide, I don’t see why the rest of us can’t too.


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