The Edinburgh Fringe has returned after last year’s cancellation but it’s hard to find evidence of the festival on the streets. The atmosphere is weird, unsettling, ghost-like. The defining feature of the city in August is the constant din of music, but as soon as I arrived at Waverley Station I noticed that the pulsing backbeat was missing. The bars that throb with disco and heavy metal have shut up shop. So have the pubs that host free comedy shows from noon till midnight. The insistent tom-tom rhythm has been supplanted by a void. Edinburgh is on mute.
Before Covid, there were more than 3,500 shows to choose from. This year’s total of nearly 800 seems like a healthy bounce-back but very few of these productions will run for the full three weeks. Most are here for a handful of performances only. The posters and adverts have vanished from the streets and there are no performers handing out flyers. Famous venues have barely enough custom to justify opening their doors. Cowgate, the rancid teeming lane that snakes through the Old Town, is all but deserted. The Gilded Balloon offers a mere five shows between 2.30 p.m. and 7 p.m. The Pleasance has a handful of productions at its Courtyard space but its sister venue, the Pleasance Dome, is in cold storage. ‘Building Closed. Access to Dentist only,’ says a notice at the entrance. The Pleasance Dome is not just any old Edinburgh venue. This is the beating heart of the Fringe. Opposite, in Bristo Square, the outdoor bar has a seating area for 750 punters arranged around a raised stage. In the early evening I saw a circus artist juggling with flaming axes. He was being watched by five people.
Oddly enough, the city has reverted to its true self. Edinburgh turns out to be a standard European capital with a smattering of excellent attractions and the normal complement of chancers trying to make money from tourists.