Natasha Tripney: Gender, housing and a birthday party – farewell to the fringe

The Stage / Natasha Tripney

The topography of Edinburgh Festival Fringe shifts every year. Venues close, others spring up in their place. The streets subtly rearrange themselves. In recent years, following the closure and change of ownership of the Assembly Rooms (now home to the Digital Festival), the soul of the festival resides almost wholly in the Old Town.

It’s not overstating things to say that Summerhall – Edinburgh’s former School of Veterinary Studies that now operates as a year-round creative hub and arts centre – has effectively rewired the fringe. Its lecture theatres, dissection rooms and courtyards have become home to some of the most exciting work at the festival. This is where you’ll find Paines Plough’s pop-up theatre, the Roundabout, and the Northern Stage and Big in Belgium programmes, alongside a huge range of work by both emerging and established companies. This year’s line-up includes Tim Crouch’s distilled version of Adler and Gibb as well as new shows from Inspector Sands, RashDash, Kieran Hurley, Hannah Nicklin and Sh!t Theatre. The prominence of Summerhall is reflected in the distribution of Fringe Firsts and Total Theatre Award nominations, and in many ways it’s a really energising place to spend time.

On the other hand, the Traverse Theatre has had a comparatively lacklustre season – if you can say that about a programme that included Daniel Kitson and Mark Thomas at the top of their respective games, as well as a cracking new play from the Gate Theatre in the shape of Diary of a Madman. The main house show, Milk, was a bit of a let-down and while there was a lot of strong work, there was little in the way of that elusive fringe buzz.

There were other subtle changes to the Edinburgh Fringe machine this year. Gilded Balloon experimented with a ‘pay what you can’ model at its new space, the Counting House, formerly a Free Fringe venue. Audiences were able to pay to secure a ticket for shows at the venue. However, they can also take a chance by turning up and securing free entry on the door if there is room available. This was a model pioneered by Bob Slayer and the Heroes venues and it’s an interesting step for one of the big four venue operators to adopt it.

Every year, certain themes float to the surface of the fringe. This often means that shows end up in conversation with one another in interesting ways. It’s a great way of taking the pulse of the population (or a certain, festival-going slice of it at least).

One of the main themes this year is gender. So much of the work is either explicitly interrogating the way in which people express their gender identity, or more generally exploring the roles we play (and the clothes we wear) as men and women. It’s there in Seiriol Davies’ glorious biographical chamber musical How to Win Against History, inspired by the life of Henry Paget, the Fifth Marquis of Anglesey, and in Milk Presents’ poetic retelling of the story of Joan of Arc starring award-winning drag king Lucy Jane Parkinson (who’s giving one of the standout performances of the fringe). It’s also present in Irish drag queen Panti Bliss’ energising show at the Traverse, Stacey Gregg’s eloquent play Scorch and RashDash’s intelligently messy Two Man Show. There’s a plea for polyphony in so much of this work, an exploration of queerness and an insistence on visibility.

Similarly, a number of pieces address the housing crisis. Lung’s documentary theatre piece E15 (which is now at Summerhall after debuting at the Gilded Balloon last year) uses agit-prop and verbatim techniques to tell the story of the campaigning mothers of Newham, Rachael Clerke’s Cuncrete (another drag show) is all about ownership and the built world, the towers that fill our cities and the men who made them. But it’s Sh!t Theatre’s Letters to Windsor House that deals with the subject in the most head-on way. Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit’s potent and personal piece, inspired by the former tenants of the ex-local authority flat that they lived in together, really digs deep into the social and emotional consequences of sinking most of your income into rent while still being priced out of the city in which you live. It’s an existence of precariousness and transience that has an impact on the communities people live in and the friendships they forge. As an insidious and under-discussed part of the problem, it could well be, at least in part, the reason why venues such as Summerhall, with its strong sense of community, are thriving.

Anxieties about instability have underscored many shows this year. Now that the milestones of previous generations have been swept off the table for so many young people, what stories do we tell about our lives instead and how do we tell them (language and its limitations was another recurring theme this year) – what are the alternative narratives?

Speaking of alternatives, this Forest Fringe – the artist-led alternative festival founded by Deborah Pearson and Andy Field – marked its 10-year anniversary. Since 2007, Forest Fringe has been a space for experimentation that sits apart from the main fringe festival. Each year it programmes a season of performances, installations, and live art, and all its shows are free. Its move in 2013 to the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, imposed on it when the building where it had made its home came under new ownership, has come to feel like an inspired decision. A visit to the Forest is like a release. It’s an escape from the stresses and pressures of the festival, from the noise. It’s a soothing, supportive environment in a way that feels incredibly valuable. It’s also, many would argue, a bit cliquey and impenetrable. Edinburgh Fringe is a different thing from what it was 10 years ago. One wonders, had Summerhall existed then, whether the impetus to create something like the Forest would have been as strong.

It does feel – in the air at least – like this has been a more satisfying fringe than last year, the general quality of work a notch higher (it’s rained a lot less than usual too – I’ve only been properly drenched this year once, which in Edinburgh is definitely a win). There have been a handful of real gems. James Rowland’s storytelling show Team Viking was a total joy. How to Win Against History, Bea Roberts’ Infinity Pool, and Bronks’ Us/Them are all exceptional, if very different, pieces. As the fringe nears its end, bringing with it the inevitable realisation that for all the work you’ve seen, there are still going to be some that slip through the net, you can’t help but start thinking about what shape the fringe will take next year, what will have shifted.