Yorkshire's Fringe benefits

Since it began in 2015 the Great Yorkshire Fringe has gone from strength to strength. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports

Cultural winner: The Great Yorkshire Fringe is back again.
Cultural winner: The Great Yorkshire Fringe is back again.

“One of the best things about York in the summer, long may it continue” – so reads one comment in the Below the Bar area of a local newspaper.

For those unfamiliar with ‘below the bar’, it’s the area underneath a news article where readers are able to comment on an article.

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At times this can feel like another example of how the internet has brought out the very worst in humanity. So to read such an overwhelmingly positive comment was both surprising and heartening.

Michael Palin is one this years headliners.

The person who declared ‘one of the best things about York in the summer’, was commenting on an article announcing the welcome return of this year’s Great Yorkshire Fringe.

And when you look at the line-up they have convinced to come to Yorkshire this year it’s not hard to see why they were so getting so enthused – there are some seriously impressive names from the world of comedy taking part.

Adam Robinson-Witts and Jane Veysey are the brains behind the event, which started out in York back in 2015. The idea was to build on what felt like a thriving cultural scene that already existed in the city and, the organisers admit, capitalise on the excitement of the Edinburgh Fringe.

“It’s not difficult to persuade acts to pop up to York, as it’s such a beautiful city and conveniently on the way to Edinburgh,” says Robinson-Witts.

The festival was started by an adopted son of York and a seriously impressive former resident of the city. Martin Witts, who moved to York as a teenager to attend university, began his career at York Theatre Royal in the carpentry department.

A tour of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers gave him a taste for the open road and he’s never looked back. Becoming that most mysterious of things, an impresario, he is now the owner of Leicester Square Theatre and London’s Museum of Comedy and Witts has a contacts book that would make your eyes water. He booked Joan Rivers to play his theatre.

He also, back in 2015, decided to bring some of his contacts book connections to bear on his home city, starting a festival of ‘comedy, cabaret and theatre’ in York.

Witts attempted to gain sponsorship and backing from both the city’s council and corporations but when he decided support was not going to be forthcoming, decided to go it alone.

For 10 days Parliament Street was turned into an artificial-turfed village green with several venues created for the festival. It was the city’s biggest arts festival since Jude Kelly directed the York Festival in 1988.

This year Witts has handed the reins to Adam Robinson-Witts and Jane Veysey. Most impressive is that the reputation and goodwill Witts has built for GYF has landed acts this year from Michael Palin to Omid Djalili via Reginald D Hunter. “GYF is growing with each year,” says Robinson-Witts. “We are now firmly in York’s cultural calendar and we’ve had a fantastic response from locals and tourists alike.”

This year’s festival kicked off last night with Omid Djalili and surrealist Paul Foot and runs until July 29.

As well as marquee names hosted in its purpose built Spiegeltent, the venue also provides space for up-and-comers and locally based acts.

One particularly intriguing event is the Guest Skipper Cruise in which the popular River Ouse City Cruise boats is host to a guest skipper.

On July 25, the guest skipper will be all-round lovely man and York pantomime favourite Martin Barrass. It’s this sort of event sitting alongside a one-off performance from Reginald D Hunter that makes GYF an exciting addition to the York cultural calendar.

Jane Veysey says: “York has a vibrant arts scene, from high end theatre, comedy and music gigs, to grass roots interesting community arts projects and collaborations and we are very proud to act as a platform to showcase the whole range. York is also perfectly positioned at the heart of Yorkshire, giving us a perfect setting to not only showcase some fantastic entertainment but also give a platform to Yorkshire talent nationally and internationally.”

When pushed to pick out favourites in this year’s line-up, Robinson-Witts says: “Probably the one I am most excited about seeing is Michael Palin at the Grand Opera House.

“It’s a fantastic chance to see a man that has done it all and through his works created a legacy in which most modern comedy is inspired by.

“Another modern day inspiration for me is recent BGT Winner Lost Voice Guy and the opportunity we have to showcase his hard-earned talent.”

Highlights of this year’s festival

Ross Brierley, Accumulator, 
July 29: Leeds favourite, 
co-host of The Not So Late Show, Brierley is previewing his Edinburgh show about how he won a year’s wages on a bet 
and became a professional gambler.

Reginald D Hunter, July 28: One of the elder statesmen of comedy, this is a great chance to see one of the best in the business.

Craig Campbell, July 26: I once saw Campbell tear the roof off a tiny venue in Edinburgh. Not literally, but it could have been. Entirely unique comedian.

The festival runs to July 29. For full details and to book tickets, visit www.greatyorkshirefringe.com