Edinburgh festival fringe 2014 set to be the biggest in its history

Number of shows is up 11% on last year, with acts preparing to swamp the city's every spare stage, pub and alleyway

This year's shows include a portrayal of the late Margaret Thatcher as a drag queen and pieces based on the lives and work of Andy Williams, Kate Bush and Charlie Chaplin, while Ian Lavender, star of Dad's Army, will take to the stage to reflect on his role in the classic comedy, and Jeffrey Holland from Hi-de-Hi stars in a solo show about Stan Laurel.

The magnificent gigantic sprawl of the Edinburgh festival fringe, the biggest arts festival in the world, is once again set to swamp every spare stage, school hall, pub back room and alleyway in the Scottish capital, this year featuring 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues.

The number of shows is up 11% on last year, making it the biggest in the history of the fringe, which began in 1947 with eight uninvited companies turning up and trying to barge their way into the official programme.

The fringe, which long ago exploded to many times the size of the official festival will open on 1 August, a week before opening of its more staid older brother which will feature a mere 2,400 artists.

Others on the programme include Morgana O'Reilly from the cast of Neighbours, in a one-woman show called The Height of the Eiffel Tower, and Katy Manning, glamorous companion to Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who in the 1970s, in Keeping Up with the Joans. Olivia Poulet, who played spin doctor Emma Messinger in the political satire The Thick of It, will be appearing in a revival of Mark Ravenhill's Hollywood satire Product. Russell Grant is promising a "showbiz extravaganza" at the Gilded Balloon, while Sex Pistols founder member Glen Matlock will be recalling the beer- and expletive-splattered early days of the band.

Katy Manning, known for her part as Jo Grant in Doctor Who, is performing at the fringe this year. Photograph: Perou for the Guardian Photograph: Perou/Guardian

There will also be a special tribute show at the Assembly to the late Tony Benn, who was himself a regular star performer on the festival circuit. Benn would have been delighted to see many shows and plays with political themes, in a festival on the eve of the referendum on Scottish independence.

New venues include a restored 18th-century courtyard house on the Royal Mile, and the return of La Belle Angele on Cowgate, restored after it was gutted by fire more than a decade ago.

The shows include 1,789 premieres, and artists and creators from 47 different countries. Although many millions of ppunds will be taken in ticket sales, there will also be 825 – at least – free shows, not counting spontaneous post-pub outbreaks of singing in the streets. The official tally of shows and venues will unquestionably be expanded by spur-of-the-moment inspiration and pop-up shows.

Comedy will dominate the programme as it has for many years, to the chagrin of some straight-play actors and producers who see it as grabbing all the best venues and the lion's share of box office receipts. Comedians appearing will include Rob Newman, Ruby Wax, Jerry Sadowitz, Robert Llewellyn of Red Dwarf and Rab C Nesbitt star Elaine Smith. Comedy will make up 34% of shows, just up from 33% last year, with theatre slightly down to 28% from 29%. Music, musicals and opera, again all slightly down on last year, trail a long way behind.

Edinburgh festival fringe 2014 set to be the biggest in its history
Ruby Wax, here performing her show Losing It, is on the fringe programme. Photograph: Alastair Muir/Rex Features Photograph: Alastair Muir/Rex Features

Although the spoken word category still only makes up 4% of the programme, the 124 shows including appearances by poet Liz Lochhead are up more than 80% since last year. There will also be a big increase in the number of children's shows.

Kath Mainland, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, said: "This year the fringe includes 3,193 shows, which is a record number, but more importantly the programme offers the widest selection of international high-quality arts and entertainment that you will find in any one place at any one time.

"This year is an incredibly important year for Scotland with major international cultural, sporting and political events taking place. With our eclectic range of shows and uniquely diverse range of voices the fringe will, as always, be at the centre of things and promises to keep residents and visitors unbored."

In the past the ticketing of the fringe has been as anarchic as the programme, and the organisers are promising that they've got a grip this year. For the first time there will be a ticket collection point inside Edinburgh airport, new collection points including the Institut Français d'Ecosse in the west end of the city, and there will be a Glasgow box office at Queen Street train station.

Ticketing on edfringe.com can be accessed on PCs, tablets and smartphones, and there are official apps available for Android and iOS. Audience members will be able to post their own reviews of shows on the website, which will also list the discounted tickets available daily at the half-price hut at the Mound, which will open on 6 August.

Edinburgh festival fringe 2014 set to be the biggest in its history
Street entertainers perform on the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh festival fringe 2012. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

There are overlapping themes in the two festivals: the centenary of the first world war will overshadow both. Many events in the offical programme reflect the centenary, and the fringe will have a special performance on 4 August, starting at 10.30pm and ending at midnight, marking the anniversary of the day Britain declared war on Germany.

The play, Forgotten Voices, is based on the memories of combatants from all the nations that became caught up in the first global war. The vivid oral testimonies, recollections of battles and civilian casualties, battles and life and death on the front and behind the lines, were collected by the Imperial War Museum in the 1970s from the rapidly thinning ranks of veterans in Britain, Germany, America, Canada and Australia.

The archive was assembled just in time, as there are now no surviving veterans, and became a moving book, Forgotten Voices of the Great War, by the historian and journalist Max Arthur. It has now been adapted by Malcolm McKay as a play. Like many of the shows, it will actually open just before the offical start of the fringe, running from 30 July to 24 August in the Pleasance Courtyard, with a shifting cast of international guest artists joining the company.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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