1982 and still going cuckoo for the fringe

Nica Burns

I still remember the moment The Scotsman review for Dulcima came out.  We had gone up to Edinburgh full of the excitement and hope of the naïve; an artistic adventure funded by my life savings of £600 saved up after two years acting in rep.  Any set that didn’t fit into my Ford Escort plus newly acquired roof rack, was mimed. My first entrepreneurial enterprise co-adapted with my director pal from university Colin Watkeys, from a novel by HE Bates that I had read and thought would be a great part for me. We didn’t know what to expect, we just believed in it.  And now a good review.  Thank you Joseph Farrell from The Scotsman.  The next day the Sold Out sign went up outside the Celtic Lodge and there it stayed until the end of the Festival.

That first Fringe adventure taught me everything.  How to take risks, how to back my own judgement, the discipline of writing, the nuts and bolts of production and how to budget a play.  We made £48 profit which Colin and I split.  I still remember that £600 and that £48 profit.  Never has a pay day been so special, because of all it stood for.  Having a hit meant having a ball, being invited to the Finborough Arms fringe theatre in London and going on tour.  That first Fringe was heady beyond belief.  I have been back every year since as a performer/ producer or director – drama and comedy at the same time.  It was here at the Fringe that I formed the basis of my theatre and comedy families which have endured and grown through the years.

High spots? Stories? Oh, so many.  Bumping into Dillie Keane in 1983 in a downpour on the Lothian Road:
-Will you direct Fascinating Aida?

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest with Christian Slater, Mackenzie Crook, Frances Barber. Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh 2004. CREDIT Geraint Lewis.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with Christian Slater, Mackenzie Crook, Frances Barber. Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh 2004. CREDIT Geraint Lewis.

Our collaboration lasted 17 years and countless shows.  Producing Eleanor Bron in her extraordinary one woman show at the Pleasance. The marathon five hour debate when Jack Dee, Eddie Izzard, Lily Savage (Paul O’Grady) Frank Skinner and Avner the Eccentric (who?) were the 1991 shortlist for the Perrier Award for Comedy.  The most extraordinary show experience?  Producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Christian Slater, Francis Barber and a huge cast of talented comedians at the Assembly Rooms in 2004. Christian got chicken pox in rehearsal and we had to cancel some performances which, as they were all sold out, caused a sensation.  Christian overruled the doctor and went on stage having not been in rehearsals for 10 days and never having seen the set. The bravest thing I’ve ever seen an actor do.  Making a speech before we started and then getting the audience to help me throw out Tim Cornwall from The Scotsman as this first performance was absolutely closed to press.  Christian was word perfect and brilliant. And then triumph, culminating in 17 weeks sold out at the Gielgud theatre in London.  I could write a book about all the set-backs, the drama, the tears, the parties – and that’s just one show!

Every year I still get excited. It’s always like that very first Fringe, every time I step back into the joyous madness, the spirit and the sheer, free mix of it all.  There is nothing like it on earth.

Nica Burns has gone to the Fringe every year since 1982.  She has been the Director since 1984 of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, originally sponsored by  Perrier, now by the wonderful lastminute.com.  She is a multi-award winning West End theatre producer who owns six theatres (Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and Duchess) and is building a new theatre on Charing Cross Road.  She is proud to be a Fringe veteran.

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