Keith Bruce

OF the extended family of our Herald Angel awards – the last of which for this year will be presented at the home of our partners, Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, tomorrow – the smallest, most mischievous one predictably often causes the most difficulty for the panel of critics who determine the recipients each week.

Alongside the Angels, which recognise excellence in any sphere of Festivals-related artistic endeavour, there is the Archangel, which has rewarded repeated achievement along those lines since well before sustainability became a popular concept. The newest of the family, the Cherub, is a straightforward, if rarely simple, matter of deciding which of the young people from Edinburgh schools – a record eight establishments participating this year – that were briefed by our writers on the dark art of reviewing a show, turned in the best piece of work after attending an event at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Then there is the gremlin, the Little Devil, as beautifully crafted as its gilded stablemates, to a design by the late Allan Ross, and made for us by his step-son Oliver Conway. The coal-black fallen-over angel has been around since the awards were conceived 25 years ago, as recognition of any commitment to the ethos of “the show must go on”. Awarding it can sometimes test the boundaries of good taste. So while a company of young actors who found they were barred from staging their all-woman Waiting for Godot by the estate of Samuel Beckett, and promptly devised and produced an entirely new show in the few days before their Fringe opening, was an ideal winner back in 1998, we were perhaps pushing the envelope a little when we gave a Little Devil to Traverse founder Jim Haynes for bouncing back to being a regular Fringe presence after he’d had a heart attack.

In some current circumstances, however, the Little Devil can risk seeming a little too light-hearted. The Trisha Brown Dance Company ignoring the dreadful weather to perform out of doors at Jupiter Artland was something we were happy to celebrate this year; a veteran dancer who continued with a Fringe show using film projection of his partner, who has been denied a visa to join the party in Edinburgh by the Home Office, could be too construed as rather too serious a matter for our wry, if never frivolous, a prize.

We have fewer Devils than Angels to decide on each week but the opportunity to reward commitment to making the show go on is unlikely to diminish as we look to the future of the Edinburgh Festivals. It is not only the impending uncertainty of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union that poses an obvious threat to the future of Scotland’s biggest cultural event – restrictions on people coming to the UK were already an issue before the referendum was held – but anxiety over the direction of global geo-politics and the current worldwide instability make looking to the founding principles of the Festival in 1947 an ever-instructive necessity.

The War Requiem by Benjamin Britten, which will be conducted by Daniel Harding at the Usher Hall this evening, was premiered in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in May 1962 but it shares the same ethos of post-conflict resolution as the Festival and tonight’s performance, with the Festival Chorus and NYCOS National Girls Choir joining the Orchestre de Paris, has the stipulated soloists of a German baritone, British tenor and Russian soprano that the composer envisaged. It comes towards the end of a Festival music programme that has included orchestras from California and China, opera companies from Germany and an expanded international theatre and dance programme that spanned the globe.

The same international reach is always a feature of the Fringe, where companies now regularly arrive under the banner of their national cultural organisation, from Canada to Korea. That is one facet of the development of the Fringe that challenges its come-all-ye foundation of giving everyone an opportunity to invent – and sometimes hastily reinvent – their artistic practice in front of curious punters.

Just as those packages of national representation are obviously curated, in the same way that Made in Scotland is a showcase for performers assembled on the judgement of panels of experts in this country, so the big four promoters on the Fringe – Assembly, Underbelly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon – are in the business of presenting a programme that is a distinctive, balanced mix of theatre, comedy and music that each believes will appeal to its audience. Those promoters have long-established relationships with artists and producers that have evolved over time, and which annually shape the bill of fare that they present.

It has been noticeable in Edinburgh this year that the dominance of these super-venues has, if anything, intensified, and the gap between them and the next tier of producers is even more marked as buildings that once housed alternative promotions (Adam House and Central Halls at Tollcross for example) fall into their orbit. At the same time, however, it will be a surprise if any of them report a big increase in ticket sales, rather than a healthy maintenance of the status quo. That is still a good result – it is easy to lose money bringing a show to the Fringe, but many people do very well out of it – and given the background political and economic noise in wobbly Britain, it might be thought a remarkable one.

But what the critics who descend on Edinburgh each year like best is finding the undiscovered gem in an out-of-the-way venue that speaks of real exploration of the Fringe brochure off the beaten track. In that context the fact that 13 of the 17 nominees for this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards, newly sponsored by the Dave television channel, are performing at the same venue (The Pleasance) is not a good look. That venue will be really miffed if it fails to land either the main award or best newcomer when Stephen Fry announces the winners today.

Fry’s International Festival run of his Greek Myths monologues, joining shows like Sir Ian McKellen’s reminiscences at 80 years old, and at least a few of the theatre offerings in the You Are Here section of the EIF programme curated by Kate McGrath of Fuel – a production company that has previously won Herald Angels at the Fringe – raises the question of the direction director Fergus Linehan is pursuing at the Festival. Without doubt, and also looking towards Leith Theatre’s season of pop and rock music, he has stolen some of the Fringe’s clothes, and presumably, and quite deliberately, the audience that wears them. Only the most snooty proselytiser for “high art” would dispute his right – and indeed commercial common-sense – to do so, but that also chips away at the essence of the Fringe having the welcome mat out to all-comers with a desire to set out their stall alongside established stars. Linehan even annexed that word “welcome” on his yellow street banners.

And just how welcoming is Scotland’s capital city, given much of the huffing and puffing about city centre overcrowding and the huge increase in short term property rentals and astronomical hotel rates? The short answer is, of course, “very”. The vast majority of Edinburgers love the Festival and defend its mayhem enthusiastically. They also support it as ticket-buyers to a crucial degree, and the economic benefit to businesses of all kinds is enormous. But the buck-passing between the Scottish Government and the local authority on questions of planning and the exploitation of the flat rental market in the internet era should not be allowed to continue. The inflation in charges for a bed in the city for a few weeks in recent years is indefensible, and regulation long overdue. Any politician who cannot see the link between that and the number of homeless people on the capital’s streets has been distracted by the jugglers and escapologists.

As the city centre is increasingly a traffic-free zone for those street entertainers, however, it also becomes a much more pleasant place to be at Festival-time. It is still busy, but the crowds of people have more space, and are in less danger. And Edinburgh’s buses, and the new trams, are a fine and inexpensive of getting about. Taxis? Not so much – but their drivers won’t mind me giving them something else to have a grumble about.