The past two summers without a full Edinburgh fringe have “felt weird” for Kwong Chan and his improvisational comedy troupe in Norwich, but they are overjoyed to come back and soak up the same atmosphere as in 2019. This is Chan’s fifth visit to gain inspiration and see something he has “never seen before” – the only challenge is trying to choose between the festival’s enormous, eclectic range of shows.
“Everyone’s happy, it’s a high energy, positive environment. It’s great to be back, I won’t lie,” he said, adding that he is struggling to choose between over 3,000 shows. “It feels like there’s more going on than usual. More billboards, more to choose from.”
However, although he usually attends with 30 members of his group, he said this year numbers are down to 10 due to anxieties about Covid and the cost-of-living crisis, not least because accommodation was notably more expensive this year.
As the Edinburgh fringe officially kicked on 5 August, Bristo and George Square, two of the main festival sites, were already thronging with revellers enjoying the sunshine in the festival’s outdoor bars by early afternoon, as well as scores of performers handing out flyers to promote their shows.
Venues are reporting that a last-minute surge in ticket sales is bringing them close to or exceeding 2019 levels, which was the biggest ever fringe. Ticketing had been lagging behind, but venues were hoping that a post-pandemic trend towards last-minute bookings would see them reach 2019 levels.
Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance, said that he had seen “a fantastic bump in sales” over the past week. “The huge spike in sales is exactly what we needed to show there is confidence in this amazing event and these amazing artists,” he said.
Underbelly, one of the top venues, said it was up by 27% on 2019, while Laughing Horse said a “big surge” of ticket sales on the day of performance was bringing the venue up to 2019 levels. Assembly said it was still running about 10% behind but that it was “picking up the pace” each day, and Greenside was 4.6% down but expecting to surpass 2019.
Attenders who spoke to the Guardian shared their delight that the fringe had returned with the same buzz and atmosphere as prior to the pandemic.
Jimmy McGraw, 70, from Glasgow, has been attending the fringe since 1974 and said although it has become “disappointingly commercial” since his early spontaneous encounters with street performers, he would never stop coming because of its “magnetism”. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” he said.
He was excited for “magic, circus, puppets” and said he was also travelling from his home town daily to entertain punters with free improv comedy to recapture “the spirit of the fringe” and offer an antidote to how “everything is ticketed, organised”, including a register for street performers. “I’ve come through here to make someone’s day.”
Barbara Jemphrey, a regular fringe-goer since attending university in Edinburgh seven years earlier, was bringing her partner Peter Raine from Belfast to “show him what it’s about”.
“I’m excited for the atmosphere and the buzz of it, we’re just soaking it up,” she said adding that she had found it a very different experience last year, although she had appreciated the absence of crowds.
The pair were relieved to have free accommodation with Jemphrey’s sister, who lives in the city, because it’s “disgusting what friends are paying”.
Susan Matthew, a local Edinburgh resident whose daughter is working on the fringe, said that she was “excited” for the fringe to have returned. She acknowledged that “it’s a small city and there are infrastructural issues”, but that it “means a huge amount to the city” and is a “big part of Edinburgh’s identity”.
However, many residents who live close to the main venue sites do not feel so warmly about the fringe.
Elspeth Wills, a longstanding resident and organising member of the old town community council, said 2019 had been a “nightmare year” for noise, crowds and antisocial behaviour. She worries this will be repeated as she has seen “awful lot of talk but not much action on the ground”.
Wills would like to see a more systematised way of recording and responding to residents’ concerns, as well as a more geographically distributed festival. “I’d like to see the festival benefit the whole of the city and not insisting that everything has got to happen in the centre.”