The Edinburgh Festival Fringe may once have been considered a rite of passage, where many of today’s leading performers cut their teeth and before embarking on successful careers. However, now it seems that the festival is the place to play after you’ve enjoyed career success.
Playing the fringe has become fashionable. And a cynic might suggest that if Maureen Lipman swears in her own show Up for It, in George Square, then that’s about as shocking and risky as things will get this year.
Fifty years have passed since Lipman last performed there, but in 2018 she joins at roll call of other familiar names including Nicholas Parsons, Jason Donovan, Jeffrey Holland, Esther Rantzen and Gyles Brandreth. Some are returning, others are making their fringe debuts.
Their presence highlights a core age demographic within the fringe audiences that festival producers and venues have wisely targeted. At the same time, the well-known names can gain themselves a little extra street cred by getting down with the kids.
If you look around, there are still cutting-edge works to be found. The fringe will always find a place for a work like Cock Cock… Who’s There? or Pussy Riot’s Riot Days, both playing at Summerhall and guaranteed to get tongues wagging.
However, in more recent years, as numerous established performers have chosen to take the journey north and play the month of August in a converted school hall with a shared dressing room, the Edinburgh Fringe has served to become a platform for reinvention and rediscovery.
This year that point is exemplified best by two shows: Philip Meeks’ new play Harpy starring Su Pollard, and Stripped, John Partridge’s one-man cabaret performance. Pollard, who makes her fringe debut, became a household name in the 1980s BBC sitcom Hi-de-Hi!. However, as a result, Pollard was frequently typecast and her acting range neglected.
In Harpy, her name will guarantee ticket sales from those who loved her as chalet maid Peggy Ollerenshaw in the comedy show. However, Pollard’s appearance at the fringe has provided her with an opportunity to show off her own versatility as an actor.
Over at Assembly, Partridge is presenting what may be one of the most honest hours of cabaret-fused soul-searching you will find at this year’s fringe. In my opinion, Partridge is one of the finest musical-theatre performers our country has ever produced, and a triple threat as an accomplished actor, singer and dancer.
His stage work in the 1990s and early 2000s included leading roles in West End musicals such as Cats, Starlight Express, Tommy and The Drowsy Chaperone. He was then cast in Eastenders, which proved to be musical theatre’s loss.
The deeply personal show reveals a lot has happened since then, but, like Pollard, Partridge is using his familiarity in a popular soap to catch audience attention, and then using the fringe as a platform for reinvention. In many respects, Partridge, Pollard and other well-known performers who have chosen to perform at the fringe in a new play or musical theatre are among the bravest at work here.
It’s much easier, and safer, to use their name and cuddle up for a cosy hour of chat about their successful career with an audience. But in the case of these artists, they are challenging themselves with considerably more to lose.
They will have to work extra hard to justify their position at the fringe, where a successful past career brings with it great expectations from both audiences and critics alike.
This gives the fringe another dimension of danger. For the well-known actor who may often be performing a solo theatre show in a small prefab theatre space, there is nowhere for them to hide.
For an audience, it can be exhilarating to watch an experienced performer at work up close, which the fringe frequently offers. Of course, there have also been terrible misjudgements made over the years. Dannii Minogue as Lady Macbeth, in a 1999 outdoor production in Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens, still leaves me wondering if I just dreamed the whole unfortunate thing.
However, there have also been electric moments when I’ve experienced watching well-known performers get back to basics for an intense hour of theatre, offering much for young performers to learn.
Edinburgh continues to be a place of discovery that can thrillingly take on many different directions. For the younger fringe audiences, who did not grow up in the heyday of 1980s TV sitcoms, their first discovery of a performer like Pollard is through a touching drama.
For the established performer, this is arguably what can make their fringe experience both a unique and liberating one.