- Associated Press - Friday, August 6, 2010

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND (AP) - A huge party is under way in Scotland’s capital, but there are a couple of clouds in the sky.

Britain’s economic uncertainty and painful memories of the 1988 Lockerbie airplane bombing are somber undercurrents at the raucous Edinburgh Fringe, a vast buffet of performance, standup, theater and music that opened Friday.

The Fringe, which has helped launch the careers of everyone from Hugh Laurie to Russell Brand, offers more than 2,400 shows in 259 venues, from theaters and comedy clubs to pubs, a playground, a parking lot and a hanging restaurant suspended 100 feet (30 meters) in the air.

“It can be overwhelming at first,” said Sarah Metcalfe, one of hundreds of eager artistes thrusting leaflets at passers-by along the Royal Mile, a series of teeming cobbled streets flanked by solid gray stone buildings.

“But it’s so much fun _ a holiday atmosphere,” said Metcalfe, a producer with Durham University’s comedy troupe. “In the evenings it’s as if I am in Thailand.”

The similarity lies in the vibrant atmosphere, rather than in Edinburgh’s gray weather and Gothic architecture.

Amid the creative mayhem, organizers are bracing to see whether ticket sales will be hurt by Britain’s battered economic state. And one attention-grabbing show is asking audiences to revisit a raw and divisive subject: the Lockerbie bombing.

The attack on a New York-bound jet over a small town, just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from here, killed 270 people, many of them American.

The tragedy moved back into the headlines a year ago, when the Scottish government released the Libyan convicted of the bombing, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi. His release infuriated relatives of many Lockerbie victims, especially those in the United States.

Al-Megrahi, who has cancer, was freed on compassionate grounds after doctors said he had three months to live. A year later he is still alive, which ensures the wound remains open.

It’s also back in the news because a group of U.S. senators is investigating whether BP-linked oil deals in Libya had any connection to al-Megrahi’s release.

Writer-performer David Benson was at the Fringe last year when al-Megrahi was freed and an international furor erupted. It inspired him to write the one-man show “Lockerbie: Unfinished Business.”

The play is based on an unpublished memoir by Jim Swire, a British doctor who lost his daughter in the attack. Swire has become well known in Britain for his campaign to prove that al-Megrahi was wrongly convicted and that evidence points to Iranian-backed Palestinian militants as the perpetrators.

“He is engaged in a single-minded mission to get justice for his daughter, Flora,” said Benson, a Fringe veteran who has created plays about Noel Coward, Samuel Johnson and the death of Princess Diana. “He can’t rest knowing the men who did it are still at large.”

Benson knows many disagree with Swire, but hopes dissenters will come see the show, which offers both a _ somewhat patchy _ lesson in murky recent history and a moving depiction of Swire’s restrained, intense, very British grief _ he hides his pain with a stiff upper lip, but at memories of his daughter it quivers.

“It’s not just about the evidence,” Benson said. “It’s about his personal tragedy, his loss and how he’s dealt with his grief.”

Controversy is nothing new for the Fringe, which began in 1947 as a democratic alternative to the high-toned Edinburgh International Festival.

Entry is open to anyone who can put together a show, find a venue and pay a one-off fee. The result is a smorgasbord of performance that ranges from the unpalatable to the delicious.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Fringe played host to the taboo-breaking comedians of Beyond the Fringe and the future Monty Python team. It soon became the crucible of countless careers, including those of Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and “House” star Laurie, all members of the Cambridge University troupe that won the festival’s comedy prize in 1981.

Acclaimed and contentious shows in recent years include the trash-talking “Jerry Springer: the Opera,” which drew protests from Christians, and Gregory Burke’s powerful Iraq war drama “Black Watch.”

Today the Fringe _ alongside the smaller international, book and jazz festivals _ dominates the city for three weeks each August, drawing 750,000 visitors and 20,000 performers, from high school drama groups to established stars.

Their shows run from Shakespeare to sketch comedy, from a Roman-themed musical _”togas collide with Lil Jon and the Backstreet Boys” _ to presidential musical “Obama Mia” and a standup show by New York City comedian-cum-yoga instructor Abigoliah Schamaun.

“It is incredibly competitive,” said festival chief executive Kath Mainland. “Everybody is looking for the next big thing.”

The schedule includes shows from 40 countries, and big names such as Eddie Izzard, Alan Cumming and Thompson, who is backing “Emma Thompson Presents: Fair Trade,” a hard-hitting look at sex trafficking.

On a lighter note, the “Glee”-inspired choir revival has inspired several singalong shows, while “Festival in the Sky” hoists ticketholders into the air around a table laid with a meal of smoked Scottish salmon, venison and local cheeses.

The Fringe has its critics, including some locals, who complain of the disruptive tourist hordes. Some say the festival is too big, too expensive and too focused on comedy, which accounts for more than a third of shows.

That has not slowed its growth _ this year’s festival is the biggest ever. But it is entering an era of uncertainty.

Britain’s new coalition government is preparing to slash arts funding _ and other public spending _ in a bid to reduce the swollen national deficit. Many worry this will end more than a decade of rich funding that saw an explosion of creativity in Britain’s arts.

Organizers won’t give details of ticket sales, but say the Fringe generates 75 million pounds ($120 million) a year for the Scottish economy.

“We live in straitened and uncertain economic times,” Mainland said. “But we are cautiously optimistic that this will be a good year.”

The Fringe runs until Aug. 30.


Online: https://www.edfringe.com

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