Edinburgh Festival: Culture shock and belly laughs

Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh Festival – fun time!

The Edinburgh Festival is sadly at an end for another year.

I’m just back from this annual explosion of culture and comedy and must admit that I’ve become a little besotted by the Festival since my first visit in the 1980s.

So what makes the Edinburgh Festival special?

For me it’s the amazing array of entertainment on offer from comedy, cabaret and classical concerts to art and alternative theatre.

Throw in a barrow-load of oddities and eccentrics, add a smattering of circus and street performers and finish it off with a high-brow arts programme – voila!

Fringe benefits

For my money the Fringe is much more intriguing than the official festival which boasts an impressive but straight-laced arty offer.

Rather like a good pub crawl, the Fringe offers the chance to go from show to show with hardly a break to catch your breath. It’s possible to squeeze in more culture in one day than just about anywhere else in the world.

Fringe posters @ Edinburgh

Fringe posters @ Edinburgh

In a couple of days we managed to run between two plays, a cabaret-style theatre show, the Book Festival, two art exhibitions, a one-man performance and a comedy event whilst also taking in Edinburgh’s crazy Royal Mile street performers.

A big attraction is the eccentricity and the randomness of the Fringe.

Where else could you see a free show called A Young Man Dressed As A Gorilla As An Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair For Fifty-Six Minutes and Then Leaves?

“Expect a sell out” said the flyer – and indeed the show was packed to the rafters so I can’t tell you if this surreal show met up to its billing.

I was tempted by Simon Donald’s School of Swearing, Tax Deductible Theatre’s oddly titled Shit-Faced Shakespeare, and the intriguing Nutters of the British Isles – the Complete Field Guide which promised tales of indigenous UK eccentrics.

I passed on all the above but was tempted by the comedy show The Boy With Tape on His Face which was getting five-star reviews for a guy wearing gaffer tape on his mouth for an hour. Later, I found that it had won a major award!


Edinburgh – the Old Town

Hot tickets

Word on the street favoured comedian Ben Target whose interactive stand-up act included audience volleyball and a game of hunt the stick. That too was a hot-ticket.

Scotland the Brave

Why not get Scottish whilst queuing for festival tickets

But there lies the down side of the festival: trying to get tickets for the best shows can be difficult especially those in tiny venues.

Annoyingly, we  missed out on tickets for Traverse Theatre’s top-rated Bullet Catch, a dangerous cocktail of drama, mesmerising magic and death-defying feats. Everyone – it seems – likes to see a guy attempt a live bullet shot on stage.

This year just about every big deal comic was playing the festival from Paul Merton, Marcus Brigstocke, Phill Jupitus and Jason Byrne to North American men of mirth like Reginald D. Hunter and Dr Brown (who walked away with Fosters comedy award).

The theatre and circus shows were also proving popular. I even had to give up on tickets for a comedy show that involved learning the ukelele.

So getting tickets wasn’t going to be easy.

My biggest disappointment was not even trying for tickets for Speed of Light in the main festival programme, a mass choreographed event involving walking, running and a human public art installation on Arthur’s Hill.

My partner Tony didn’t fancy nearly three hours in the cold and wet wearing portable light sources.

It was supposed to give the audience an insight into long distance running – we feared a bad dose of the flu!

Luckily, there were other events on offer involving sitting down indoors, a welcome respite from Edinburgh’s lashing rain.

Fortunately, after countless phone calls and internet checks, we managed to book five decent shows, proving that tenacity is important in the guerilla world of festival tickets.

Show time

Our first show was the dark comedy play The Intervention at the Assembly Rooms about a dysfunctional family trying to intervene to help an alcoholic family member.

A fine script, good performances and an explosive finale left us satisfied before having dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant.

Next morning, we made an early start and perhaps peaked too soon. First stop was the Book Festival with an international line-up of authors where we picked out Noo Saro-Wiwa who gave a compelling talk about her book, Looking for Transwonderland, which is set in Nigeria.

Gilded Balloon at Edinburgh

Wild Thing at the Gilded Balloon

Next up was Rob Crouch’s one-man show Oliver Reed: Wild Thing, a dramatisation of the great British actor’s hell-raising career. An intense performance and hilarious audience participation made this a winner with me.

Then it was a quick run in the rain up the hill to the Assembly for Peter Straker in the superb cabaret show Brel about the life and music of the controversial Belgium singer-songwriter.

Straker was superb in the role  and got a rousing reception. British actress Miriam Margolyes, sitting behind me, looked to be enjoying the show too.

The Assembly – show time

After quick Spanish tapas and a bottle of robust red Rioja it was over to the main Assembly Rooms for Russell Kane’s stand-up show, Posturing Delivery.

Watching comedy late at night can sometimes be a trial but this show was a triumph featuring the fast-talking British comic taking on the tricky theme of giving birth and raising a child.

The belly laughs came fast and furious as Kane recounted true-to-life tales that were authentic, heart-warming and hilarious.

Kane also joked about the change of venue during his set.  Apparently the acoustics were so bad in the original venue that people were asking for refunds, simply because they couldn’t hear the gig.

It’s cool to think that a comic cares enough about his audience to get a change of venue, something I’ve never seen before at Edinburgh.

It also highlights some of the problems at the Fringe Festival where venues range from traditional concert rooms and church halls to back rooms of  pubs and community centres.

Turning up at a venue not knowing what you’ll find is part of the joy of the festival. You can find yourself in a dark cellar with no air con, a Georgian hall with crystal chandeliers or a ballroom with dodgy acoustics.

But sometimes the venue bites back so my advice is to sit near the front and you’ll have half a chance of hearing the show. The downside of this is that you’re likely to be plucked out of the audience during some comedy routine that requires ‘an audience member’.

It’s happened to me twice – you have been warned!

So it’s farewell to Edinburgh 2012. It was over far too soon for me but one thing is for sure – I’ll be back again next year trying to get those hot tickets.


Comedy and booze – a good combination

Tammy’s top tips

Here’s Tammy’s top tips if you’re thinking of going to next year’s Festival.

It can be tough getting tickets for the big name performers and must-see events so book early. The downside of booking early is that the reviews won’t come out till the second week of festival so it’s a bit of a lottery. If you leave booking late, pick a well-reviewed show featuring somebody who isn’t too famous.

With hundreds of events on the festival programme it’s sometimes the smaller shows that prove the most interesting.

The festival programme is so enormous it’s hard to know where to begin. Pick a venue with multiple stages and cool bars such as the Pleasance, Assembly Rooms, the Gilded Balloon, the Assembly or the Underbelly – and you’re bound to find something of decent quality.

Assembly Edinburgh

Festival time in Edinburgh

The Traverse Theatre is another venue worth checking out for its high quality theatre and comedy schedule but shows tend to book up quickly once reviews are out.

Looking for accommodation? Don’t leave booking too late as Edinburgh hotels and B & Bs get booked up fast in the city centre. An alternative is to pick a cheaper B & B a short bus ride from town. Many buses run late so it’s worth checking before you book.

Camper van types are onto a winner at Morton Hall, a caravan and camping site located a 35 minutes bus ride from town. This large, well-run site is a short walk from a regular bus service which runs into the city and back until late at night.

Searching for cheap tickets? There’s a new half price ticket booth outside the Scottish National Gallery on Princes Street but don’t expect to find the most popular shows on sale there. Another cheap option is to go to the first week of the festival when many shows have cut price previews but pick your event carefully as reviews are not ready by then.

Did I forget to mention the Edinburgh Military Tattoo? Shame on me. It’s really not my cup of whisky but it might be yours!

Don’t forget to pick up your indispensable Fringe and Festival guides. It’s also worth checking out the Book Festival which is located in Edinburgh’s New Town.

Try to organise your itinerary but allow enough flexibility to fit in some intriguing shows which you might spot on the hoof.

Look out for free shows at venues like the Voodoo Rooms off the back of Princes Street.

Edinburgh Book Festival

Edinburgh Book Festival

27 replies »

  1. I would love to go to that festival one year.

    Laughter – comedy is the soul of life, and the world would die without it.

    I don’t do stand-up (too shy), but I enjoy creating cartoons (see samples on my blog).

  2. I feel like you’ve summed up Festival madness perfectly – so many great shows, but you can never see them all, even if you try! As a local you stop noticing so much of these details, so it’s great to see and read about the city through the eyes of a festival goer – makes me think I don’t make the most of living here at all.
    The Free Fringe is another top tip – as you’ve mentioned this is held at many venues such as the Voodoo Rooms, but year after year becomes increasingly organised – it’s possible to plan an entire day around free shows. They can be a gamble, but stumbling across something brilliant and unknown is part of the fun!

  3. Wow – it’s hard to pick a favourite! Think Russell Kane was the best show for his breakneck comedy and brilliant observations. Funny but I also enjoyed an art show that I didn’t mention in the post because it was full of doom and gloom! But the National Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition of Munch graphic art was really amazing and included his iconic Scream and Madonna pictures. Recommended for those who like Scandinavian Expressionism and miserabilism – and as an antidote to the comedy gigs. And there were the great Edinburgh pubs – more on those another time!

  4. Great post and the festival looks fantastic! I hadn’t heard of it and it sounds great. Makes me think of the annual theatre festival in Avignon, France in July. It also has its ‘Fringe’, called “Avignon Off”, which is often more popular than the actual festival! Thanks for the great idea – it’ll be on my list of things to do and places to visit!

  5. I was there for the first few days this year — great ! Just stumbling across stuff is half the fun …but we were too early for the book festival…

  6. Great post! I love Edinburgh, and I loved visiting during Festival time! I’m from Adelaide, Australia, and we have the Fringe/Festival here too, and you’re right…the Fringe is often more exciting (and better value for money) than the actual Festival itself.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed 🙂

  7. In 2009 my and my husband went to Scotland for our honeymoon. When we came to Edinburgh the Fringe was one. I organized the trip and had no clue about that one. It was a hoot and we just checked out the guys on the street. However, we managed to get tickets to the Tattoo, yeah, that’s our cup of whisky. It was awesome.

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