x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Summer in Edinburgh is always a cultural treat

I love the bustle, the madness, the street acts jostling on every corner, the tatty and not so tatty venues that house the 2,098 shows that make up this year's Fringe.

Walking down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh last Saturday, I encountered 20 young people dressed in green Velcro and pretending to be ducks, a huddle of dead vampires and a bride in white satin carrying a bunch of lilies. The fact that the bride was real while everyone else was advertising some form of theatrical event is one of the many reasons I adore the Edinburgh Festival.

It is, of course, not just one festival: when people talk about Edinburgh they are talking about the official, international, centrally organised event, its unruly cousin the Fringe, which is open to all comers, and then other satellite events such as the literature and art festivals. Together they create a unique atmosphere. I love the bustle, the madness, the street acts jostling on every corner, the tatty and not so tatty venues that house the 2,098 shows that make up this year's Fringe. I relish the fact that you can see theatre, dance, comedy, music and quite a lot of other events that don't really have a genre, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. I enjoy seeing the companies from around the world who light up the International Festival.

In this passion, I am not alone. Despite the recession, advance bookings for this year's Fringe rose by 21 per cent, with 395,000 tickets sold in advance. The International Festival has held more or less steady, reporting only a one per cent decline in advance bookings. And although it is too early to know exactly how things will turn out, the city in August is abuzz with excitement. It is, unfortunately, not looking its best. The festival opened at the end of a rubbish strike which had seen black bin bags piled high on the streets. The bucket men, as they are called, are now back at work, but the central area - the once gracious Princes Street - is a pile of rubble as workmen install a tram system.

Unloved, late and over-budget, the trams are an essential target for every stand-up comedian, more popular even than jokes at the expense of Scottish bankers and profligate MPs. The chaos on the streets can be seen as a reflection of a wider unease with the nature of the festival and its tendency to grow. Scotland's culture minister, Michael Russell, said last week that the Fringe needs to address whether its programme is now simply too big and whether it is too expensive for promoters and producers to bring shows here.

Certainly this has not been a vintage year. The Fringe is not only dominated by comics, but has failed to produce any standout shows. The International Festival has enjoyed a modicum of success with a Romanian Faust, some excellent opera and has a new work by the dance maverick Michael Clark yet to come. But so far it has shown nothing that has created the kind of excitement generated in previous years by productions such as Black Watch and The Bacchae. Its theme of The Enlightenment seems nebulous and ill-defined.

Meanwhile that powerhouse of drama, the Traverse Theatre, has taken a conscious decision to spread its main productions through the year and is consequently showcasing work that has been judged good, rather than great. Its one major commission, Rona Munro's The Last Witch, about Janet Horne, who was the final witch to be burnt in Scotland in 1727, feels like a worthy piece of historical research rather than a properly felt drama.

The absence of the film festival, which now takes place in June, has robbed the August event of glamour and the arrival of tired TV stars such as Denise Van Outen and the august Lionel Blair in shows of reminiscence on the Fringe cannot entirely compensate. Yet I still find the Edinburgh Festival an essential part of Britain's cultural life. What you experience here is an energy that inspires you to believe that culture matters. As you walk the streets and see people of all ages and from all areas of life eagerly consulting their festival guides and deciding what next to see, it is impossible not to be infected by their enthusiasm. As you pour out of theatres or concert halls, whether at 10am or 10pm, and hear people around you discussing what you have all experienced, you feel invigorated by the power of art.

Coming to Edinburgh each summer is like a cultural shot in the arm - and, to rephrase Dr Johnson, the man who is tired of Edinburgh is tired of life.