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A Class Act?

A funny thing happened on the way to Edinburgh this year. No, really. After a pandemic induced absence, and with all those small-is-beautiful type promises of a more bijou August festival season seemingly forgotten, the class-based inequalities of festival city are more gapingly obvious than ever.


The exposure of dodgy working practices by some Fringe venues, and the fact that it is increasingly difficult to work at the festivals at all unless you are from a wealthy background mirror the chaos of late capitalist society beyond. As too do extortionate accommodation costs, while ticket prices in some places look increasingly out of reach for the average punter in search of a good night out.


The result, in the Fringe, at least, saw the Fringe Society initially announce a Working Class Producers Mentorship. This was subsequently ‘paused’ due to a poor response, with successful applicants absorbed into the already existing Emerging Producers Development Programme. 


Meanwhile, in April, comedian Tom Mayhew, who first performed in Edinburgh on the Free Fringe in 2015, spoke in an interview with Edinburgh Live how “Even if you gave a working class comedian £10k they’d still be at a disadvantage because it is so expensive, there are less working class punters, less working class reviewers, less working class journalists.”


A grassroots initiative set up to try and address this social imbalance is House of Class, a new bursary to support working class comedians on the Fringe. This was founded by Best in Class, the crowdfunded, profit sharing initiative set up in 2018 by comedian Sian Davies. Aided by a Fringe Recovery grant, it aims specifically to support working class acts with rising accommodation costs.


“The main barrier to working class participation at the Fringe, is a financial one,” says Davies. “Even when you actually make a living from comedy, as a working class person, it's still really restrictive to get to the Fringe. Most people starting out have other jobs, and you can’t afford to just take a month off work to do the Fringe. What we’re doing isn’t the answer. It’s a sticking plaster at best. There needs to be real systemic change, because people are basically being priced out of what is alleged to be an open access arts festival, but which is only open access if you have money.”


This seems to be borne out by Dave Johns, the comedian and actor who starred in Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake. Johns has been performing in Edinburgh since the early 1990s. This year, he says, will be his last.


The way the way prices have gone I think it's going to be quite a few people's last one as well,” Johns says. “I don't know how anybody is going to start bringing shows up to Edinburgh, or even how punters are going to start visiting. It’s just got ridiculous. People have always gone on about how expensive the Fringe is, but this year, it's crazy. We’re talking about two and a half thousand pounds just for two weeks accommodation. How can that sustain itself if you want a diverse fringe? You're only going to get people who can afford to come up and pay those prices.”


Lauren-Nicole Mayes is a writer/performer making her Edinburgh debut with her solo play, Dear Little Loz. This semi autobiographical work came to fruition after an early version was spotted by director/producer Izzy Parriss.


“Doing the Fringe is something I would never have been able to consider otherwise,” says Blackpool-born Mayes, who works three jobs in order to supplement her writing and acting work. “Theatre should be accessible to everyone, but how will we ever be able to support working class stories in a Fringe system that is so expensive?”


While harder to gauge, the other Edinburgh festivals all have various initiatives that to some extent address working class representation. Edinburgh International Festival’s outreach work has included a three-year residency at Leith Academy, as well as Amplify, a songwriting project with young people at the Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre in Moredun.


Edinburgh Art Festival has been working with young people at WHALE Arts (Wester Hailes Arts for Leisure and Education), while Edinburgh International Film Festival’s talent lab and Youth Critic programme offers support for applicants experiencing social-economic restraints to enable them to apply for both programmes.


Edinburgh Book Festival features the likes of Jack Monroe and Darren McGarvey, aka Loki, in their programme, while there are numerous Pay What You Can events. The festival’s Citizen programme, meanwhile, brings together communities in North Edinburgh, Musselburgh and Tollcross to share stories across a series of events.


As well meaning as all this is, audiences from working class backgrounds are perfectly capable of dealing with big complex ideas in classical theatre as much as they are with a fart gag, and shouldn’t be patronised in the way Labour MP Angela Rayner’s recent trip to the opera was.


Again, money is the key. For audiences, the free market economy means having to shell out hefty ticket prices that remain out of reach for those with little or no disposable income. For artists without any financial safety net, it feels much the same.


I think the Fringe could go either way in terms of the future of it,” says Mayes. “If it stays the way it is, working class artists won't get through the barriers because of the costs, and that prohibits a lot of people from getting involved.” 


As Davies observes, “I think there's a hierarchy at the Fringe, with the performers at the bottom. But without us there's no festival. In any other environment I would be lobbying for a strike, but I quite want to do my show, so I probably won’t do that. It’s like we need to remove ourselves from it and say, well, without us, you haven't got a festival, so treat us better.”


Johns is even blunter.


“We should all be getting together and doing something about the insane costs of doing the Fringe,” he says, “because otherwise the Fringe is going to die.”



Sian Davies: About Time, Gilded Balloon Teviot, August 3-28, 5.40pm. 

Best in Class Counting House Lounge, August 4-28th, 8.45pm.

Comedy Queers, Counting House Lounge 4-28th, 11.45pm.

Best in Class All Star Benefit Show Featuring Frankie Boyle, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose, August 17th, 9.30pm.

Dear Little Loz, TheSpace @ Surgeons Hall, Theatre 2, August 5–27, 12 noon.

Dave Johns: A Comic’s Tale, Gilded Balloon Teviot, August 16-28, 8.45pm.



House of Class can be supported at

Dear Little Loz can be supported at

The List, August 2022




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