The pros and cons of a London rival for Edinburgh's August festival stretch as far away as the Olympics
Fringes head to head?
For three weeks in August, Edinburgh is home to cutting edge, wall-to-wall and round-the-clock theatre and comedy. The most popular arts festival in the world, in one of the world's most beautiful cities - it is quite a double act. So it's not surprising that many cities have tried to copy the formula. But to set up a festival fringe from scratch, and hold it at exactly the same time of the year? Surely that is an act of folly. But it is exactly what Greg Tallent, the founder of the London Festival Fringe, has planned for next August.
Some commentators have already cast this as an act of theatrical warfare. That may be an exaggeration but, yes, initially, Tallent's idea seems more than a little foolish. The reputation of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been built up over 60 years. Having travelled up to the Scottish capital for the past decade to cover the extravaganza, I've found it to be the most exhausting, exciting and enlightening week of my year.
I've seen some of the best new theatre and comedy over that period - and a naked 22-year-old woman pretending to be an old witch in a damp cellar. I've seen some of today's best comedians cut their teeth at 2am late shows, and come out barely alive. They would agree, I imagine, that it was the making of them. So the notion of trying to emulate this in a sprawling metropolis of eight million inhabitants, rather than a tight-knit city of fewer than 500,000, is difficult to comprehend. Part of Edinburgh's charm lies in racing from one of the 2,000 shows in its 265 venues to another mere streets away. Unless the LFF is centred on a specific area of London, which, from the venues suggested by the organisers, seems not to be on the cards, that crucial festival atmosphere that Edinburgh fosters will be diluted the moment a Tube map is unfurled.
But the LFF isn't the action of a theatre promoter spoiling for a fight. It does, actually, make some kind of sense. Edinburgh is becoming hugely expensive for artists to perform at, and scarily costly for anyone at all who wants to stay there in August. I heard stories of people staying in Glasgow this year because there was no affordable accommodation - and that's an hour's train journey away. So if comedians and actors - many of whom live in London - could avoid all the financial implications of leaving for Scotland for a month and simply do their gigs and go home, then some might well choose to do a show in the English capital.
The forthcoming London Olympics in 2012 are also a consideration. If Tallent can get the London Festival Fringe up and running, in some form, by the time the Games come around, it could be a fantastic artistic offshoot for the many visitors who, perhaps, haven't got tickets for the men's 100 metres final and want to keep the party atmosphere going. But it does seem a little odd to pitch the London Festival Fringe at exactly the same time as its Edinburgh counterpart. It is important that the organisers of Edinburgh not be complacent, and perhaps some competition would focus their minds. But the Scottish festival is important because it's so inclusive - everyone from agents to producers to critics is there. So to try to go head-to-head with it is slightly unfair for the artists and punters at a time when funding is at a premium.
Tallent has said - rightly - that August is the natural month for this new project because it's when London has most visitors. And admittedly, no one can or should stop people setting up arts festivals in interesting cities. It worked for the Manchester International Festival, which has been responsible for Damon Albarn's critically acclaimed show Monkey: Journey to the West and Rufus Wainwright's first opera. But that takes place for three weeks in July and has a specific and deliberately limited scope - all the work is new and commissioned by the organisers themselves.
Tallent, without doubt, should be applauded for having the vision and ambition to replicate Edinburgh in London. The Scottish capital certainly can't have a monopoly on arts festivals. Perhaps, too, it's just the many arts commentators in British broadsheet newspapers who are casting the London Festival Fringe as some sort of competition to Edinburgh - rather than a fun-packed three weeks that can naturally run alongside it in a sunny English summer.
But, as ever, the success of the London Fringe Festival will be down to the artists playing it and the audiences visiting it. For now, at least, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is still the biggest pull in the world for theatre and comedy lovers.