Michael Coveney: Edinburgh feels the pinch at Assembly

What's On Stage / Michael Coveney

Nica Burns thinks there might be a five per cent drop in fringe theatre ticket sales this year. Comedian Stewart Lee thinks the Edinburgh Comedy Festival — a banner for the “big four” of Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly — is too commercial.

And Tommy Sheppard, the former deputy secretary of the Scottish Labour Party who runs the splendidly refurbished, smart-looking Assembly Rooms in George Street, thinks that he might get his P45 if he doesn’t sell sixty per cent of his 1350 seats in four venues.

There’s an edginess and anxiety about the fringe this year that is reflected, I feel, in the overall conservatism and, let’s be frank, dullness of the fare on offer.

Folk say it’s all going off on the Free Fringe and at the new Summerhall venue. But the Traverse is disappointing this year and the weather has put a big dampener on the opening weekend.

There was hardly anyone clogging up the Royal Mile yesterday and even fewer to watch Andy Murray win his gold medal on the big screen outside the Usher Hall, though Cadbury’s were dispensing chocolate gold medals to hardy sports fans (I bagged two).

The Friday afternoon sunshine attracted a big crowd into the new outdoor bar at Assembly on George Street, but the place was deserted yesterday. And at mid-day there was no access to either the new Assembly itself or the press office of the international festival. The Assembly George Square club bar is another depressing desert.

Maybe it’s just a slow start. I hear great things of the South African season in George Square, and Mark Thomas is terrific at the Traverse. And Communicado’s Tam O’Shanter at the Assembly Hall on the Mound is already a popular favourite, though most “arty” Scottish types I speak to say they can’t stand the poetry of Robert Burns.

At the international headquarters in The Hub, there’s a wonderful little exhibition commemorating the part the Assembly Hall played in the thrust stage revolution that has given us the Sheffield Crucible, the Young Vic, the Chichester Festival Theatre, the Swan and now the new RSC theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.

It was at the second Edinburgh festival, in 1948, that Tyrone Guthrie mounted his famous revival of Aine Satire of the Thrie Estaites, a production that changed the life, as both producer of plays and designer of theatre spaces, of Iain Mackintosh, one of the exhibition’s co-curators.

It’s always disappointing to see how they cut the space in two these days, as if unable, or unwilling, to create the sort of epic classical theatre Guthrie, and later Prospect Theatre Company, perpetrated in this hallowed ecclesiastical and parliamentary precinct.

Assembly Hall is one of several Assembly Theatre venues run by William Burdett-Coutts, who ran the crazy bazaar of the Assembly Rooms in George Street for thirty years.

When the city closed down the Assembly Rooms for its £9.3m makeover, Burdett-Coutts took off with its name, making life slightly difficult for his successor, Tommy Sheppard, not to say confusing for the ticket-buying public.

He’s recreated his empire in George Square, a heaving outdoor emporium of bars and fast food outlets right next door to the Gilded Balloon’s and the Underbelly’s in Bristo Square. The smell of hamburgers hangs heavy in the festival air from noon to midnight.

There have been a few public spats over the “Assembly” name tag question, but Burdett-Coutts and Sheppard seem to be rubbing along together just fine. Sheppard is on a five year contract with the council who are planning to promote the venue as an all-year-round conference and banquet centre, as well as an entertainment facility. Jamie Oliver has an Italian restaurant in the room that used to be the memebers’ bar at festival time.

Sheppard still runs the Stand comedy venue, his baby of the last seventeen years, where his star names, flying in the face of “commercialisation” and not charging £30 a ticket, include Simon Munnery, Richard Herring, Daniel Kitson, Lucy Porter and Phil Jupitus.

“I’ve gone upscale at Assembly without sacrificing my principles,” says Sheppard and although he admits to feeling his way, you do feel there is already a change of atmosphere on the fringe, certainly in the more transparent way Sheppard contracts his artists and charges the public.

But the public may not notice this for some time. They don’t seem to mind forking out West End prices to see Michael McIntyre or Paul Merton. And there are still hundreds of plays you can see for virtually no cost at all. Even the Edinburgh Comedy awards are thrown open this year to the Free Fringe.

As in many newspapers and some magazines, the only money changing hands soon will be increasingly bigger bucks between advertisers and proprietors. Is this a brave new better world? Will Stewart Lee approve?