Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities so what better time to visit Scotland’s capital than August when the Festival is in full swing.
The Edinburgh Fringe also returns with an explosive programme of over 2,500 events, 42,000 performances and dozens of free events.
I’m just back from a weekend of cultural indulgence and comedy mayhem so thought I’d share my highlights with you.
For me, a big attraction is always the crazy Royal Mile where street performers and drama groups congregate to promote their shows.
There’s intense competition to sell tickets so this is an entertaining way to see what’s on offer and who has the best marketing pitch.
My favourite stunt was a 12-strong chain gang of performers dressed as slaves with a Roman soldier dragging them up and down the Royal Mile.
I still have no idea what production they were appearing in but it was one hell of a promotional gag!
Another theatre group had set up a large board with cut-out heads so punters could have their photos taken. Their production was called A Writer’s Lot, although I wasn’t sure what the reason was for the large prop.
It seems that you’ve got to have a gimmick or eye-catching device if you’re to turn heads and sell tickets.
A writer’s lot at this festival is definitely to get noticed and stand out amongst the noise, the mayhem and posturing.
Every show seems to have a gimmick or a marketing poster brimming with superlatives and glowing reviews.
As an acting friend once told me in Edinburgh, if you haven’t got a five star review in The Guardian or a campaign on Twitter “just invent a few quotes, darling, and attribute them to some obscure person”.
I did begin to wonder about some of the quotes on the flyers!
Down the street, a couple of strangely-clad guys were promoting The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society, whilst a weird man dressed as a snowman kept popping up everywhere.
As this was the opening week, enthusiasm amongst the flyering crowd was high and it wasn’t long before I’d accumulated a sackful of promo literature.
It was pretty crazy on the Royal Mile – the crowds were so deep that I tripped over a piece of street furniture trying to avoid a man dressed as a large, yellow banana promoting a show called Galoot (meaning “a strange and foolish fellow”).
I ended up falling into a small street fountain. Fortunately, it was just my feet and my pride that got drenched!
Even escaping down to the Pleasance Courtyard’s festival village did no good.
At one point I became mobbed by ‘flyer people’ and a lunch time hog roast was cut short by theatre types sitting down to share stories of how wonderful their shows were.
Cramming in culture at Edinburgh’s Fringe
Over the course of the weekend, we managed to squeeze in two plays, two art exhibitions, two solo performances and a series of random events across the city.
It’s almost impossible to cram in every show and some didn’t fit with the dates of our visit but we managed to catch several cracking dramas.
We started with The Confessions of Gordon Brown at the Pleasance, an excellent one-man show about the former Prime Minister, reflecting on his time in office.
It could’ve been as dour and dry as Mr Brown’s political demeanour but in the hands of Emmy nominated writer Kevin Toolis and actor Ian Grieve this was a punchy, insightful and entertaining drama with plenty of wit as well as wisdom.
Next stop was one of last year’s successful shows, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs – Revisited, the tale of the Apple leader’s rise to fame told through the eyes of a tech geek.
This one man play is really about corporate responsibility and uncovers some unnerving facts about the Apple Corporation and its working practices in China.
Whilst I found the show interesting, my partner Tony loathed it and sat with his head bowed in disapproval and boredom.
He’s an Apple geek himself, so he pulled it apart for simplifying the facts, and criticised the writer for picking on Apple.
After all, most big corporate businesses can be criticised for employing low paid staff who work long hours in repetitive jobs.
But I did think the play highlighted important issues about the welfare of workers in the electronics industry.
It was somewhat ironic that I was sitting with two Apple devices that had been made in China in my handbag.
Rather more successful was Making News, a satirical play about the BBC and its recent crises, starring Phill Jupitus as the DG and an excellent supporting cast.
The show could do with a little tightening up in places but it has plenty of crackling humour and clever one-liners, reminiscent of Arnando Iannucci’s satires.
Later that evening, it was off to the C venue on Chambers Street where student thespians were hanging out en masse.
I have to declare an interest at this point as my step-daughter was performing in the Oresteia as part of Cambridge University’s ADC production.
Forget the Greek tragedy because this, like all great Fringe productions, throws out the original version and mutates it into something weird and wonderful.
This setting is modern day Las Vegas where the city’s great casinos are at war. Two dysfunctional families tie themselves in knots with fear and loathing in a production which is more akin to The Sopranos than Aeschylus.
This new adaptation by Alex MacKeith deftly turns the classic tragedy into a dark, tragi-comedy with the finale centred on a TV reality show set in Hell.
It’s great fun considering the dark source material.
Edinburgh Fringe benefits
One of the joys of the Edinburgh Fringe is the madness and mayhem on the streets and stage.
There are many shows that are simply insane with a level of eccentricity way off the sanity scale.
A late night tour advertised itself as The Funeral Replacement Service, a comedy on board a double-decker bus celebrating the recently departed Roger Cocksweets.
Sadly too many drinks after the last theatre show of the evening knocked that one on the head but it sounded intriguing.
In a similar vein, The Faulty Towers Dining Experience promised diners at the B’est Restaurant on Drummond Street a delicious and insulting meal time. Sadly, it was fully booked when we wanted to go for dinner.
I was also gutted to miss the sold-out Gardening for the Unfulfilled and Alienated, a bitter sweet play about a man struggling with the modern world.
Set in a shed, it sold out quickly, but perhaps the reason lies in the small print on the blurb which describes it as “an intimate storytelling experience, two audience members at a time”!
Biographic-plays were everywhere again this year. Edinburgh loves the one-man and one-woman show, presumably because they’re relatively cheap and cheerful to produce and they work well as one hour plays.
But this summer they seem to have two big themes – mad geniuses and crazy film stars.
The Assembly was hosting The Unremarkable Death of Marilyn Monroe as well as the powerful one-woman drama, Who’s Afraid of Rachel Roberts.
Over at the Pleasance, the well-reviewed Einstein’s Relativitively Speaking celebrated the power of the scientific genius whilst Kubrick told the story of a businessman who pretends to be the brilliant film director.
Elsewhere, Entertaining Mr Orton and Engels! The Karl Marx Story celebrated two more larger than life figures.
Art at the Festival
Rather lower key this year were the art shows featured at the Fringe. In the past we’ve been regailed with Gauguin, The Impressionists, The Art of Spain and Tracey Emin but this year’s shows are not what you’d call blockbusters.
Peter Doig at the National Gallery of Scotland is worth a view but is a rehash of an exhibition which previously ran at London’s Tate.
Our main port of call was From Death to Death and Other Small Tales at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, a good place to chill out away from the crowds as it’s a bit of a walk from the city centre.
This high quality exhibition of bizarre works was compelling and I enjoyed the show, but its subject matter is perhaps not to everybody’s taste.
The best pieces in the exhibition come from the superb Dimitris Daskalopoulos collection which includes Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and important works by Jospeh Beuys, Marina Abramovic and Louise Bourgeois.
Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series of phantasmagorical films is impressive and disturbing in its exploration of the body and gender. Don’t miss his intriguing full-length video films.
Also impressive was the Man Ray show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which I’d already seen in London but decided to take another look.
It was far better presented than the London show although I do worry about Edinburgh getting this type of exhibition second-hand as it seems to undermine the festival’s artistic credentials.
The big visual arts show at the main Edinburgh Festival is Nam June Paik’s Transmitted Live at the Talbot Rice Gallery, which runs from 9 August – 19 October.
This high impact visual installation marries together video, technology and music with electromagnetic waves. It’s a show that I want to come back for.
Loving the Edinburgh Fringe
So what are my favourite things about Edinburgh’s Fringe?
I love the hustle and bustle of the festival, the creative spark, the madness and the mayhem.
Where else does life and art blur together so brilliantly?
Walking into the Gilded Balloon venue, I collided with a trio of costumed characters – Merlin (with long flowing beard and purple robes), a man in a Gimp mask, and a silvery space man.
There’s also the joy of watching the performers popping up in unexpected places, eating lunch or rushing between shows.
Then there’s the weird and wonderful madcap shows. This year’s The Suicidal Tendencies of Sheep and A Dog Called the Hoff captured my imagination but not my attendance.
And where else could you see an absurd horror comedy featuring a Sock Puppet talking to a man with ‘issues’ competing with another sock puppet show, Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet in Space?
I also spotted something called The Worst Show on the Fringe at the Bristo Bar and Kitchen (also free). It’s a show about the many top artists who received really bad reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe when they first started on the comedy circuit.
They include Miranda Hart, Julian Clary and Russell Howard, proof that comedy is very much down to personal taste.
It proves something else about Edinburgh. One person’s favourite show can be another person’s poison.
There’s only one way to make your own mind up – get yourself along to the Edinburgh Fringe!
Tammy’s top festival tips
The Edinburgh Festival 2013 runs for three weeks from 4-26 August in 280 venues across the city centre.
Book as early as possible for the big name comics and popular shows especially those later in the festival when word-of-mouth gets around about the ‘must-see’ productions.
This year’s festival App is an easy, painless way of booking festival tickets on your mobile phone or iPad. Simply pick the tickets up at one of the main ticket offices by swiping your credit card, avoiding any queues.
With nearly 3,000 events on the fringe festival programme it’s sometimes the smaller shows that can be the most interesting. Look out for reviews in Broadway Baby, Chortle, Time Out and newspapers/online sites like The Guardian.
If you’re not sure where to begin, choose a venue with multiple stages and cool bars such as the Pleasance, the Assembly Rooms (George Square), the Gilded Balloon or the Underbelly.
There’s a vast choice of shows at these venues and, in my experience, the quality is usually really good.
The Stand Comedy Club in York Place (at the back of Princes Street) has a great line-up of nightly entertainment from well-known comics like Stewart Lee, Sarah Millican, and Chris Ramsey.
The Traverse Theatre is worth checking out for its high quality theatre schedule.
Edinburgh hotels and B & Bs get booked up fast in the city centre so look at alternatives like cheaper B & Bs a short bus ride from the city.
Why not take your motorhome, camper van, tent or caravan to the Morton Hall site on the southern edge of the city? This well-managed site is a 35 minutes bus ride from town with the regular number 11 bus service running into the city. The N15 late bus runs until 3am if you’re returning from a show or club night in the wee hours.
For those who like something regimented and touristy, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, held at Edinburgh Castle, is a big draw although it’s not to my taste. If you enjoy pipe bands and military parades, this could be for you!
Don’t forget to grab your essential Fringe Festival guide, a must for deciphering what’s on and planning your schedule. Copies can be found at the bigger venues and tourist information centres. Alternatively, visit the Fringe website to get the daily schedules.
And don’t forget the official Edinburgh Festival which includes classical concerts, large-scale arts events and big deal theatre productions.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre – in Mandarin with English subtitles – caught my eye with its ambitious visuals and mix of drama and heavy rock bands playing live!
Another intriguing event is the collaboration between Patti Smith and Philip Glass, The Poet Speaks, A Homage to Allen Ginsberg, on 13 August @ Edinburgh Playhouse.
Glass and his Ensemble are also on board for La Belle et La Bete on 10-11 August, a musical accompaniment to the classic film. Having seen Philip Glass at the 2011 festival doing a similar show, this looks like a must-see event.
There’s also the excellent Book Festival running between 10-26 August, located in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square in the New Town. This year’s schedule includes authors Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Ian Rankin as well as unexpected guests such as former Joy Division man, Peter Hook.
Top advice: Try to organise your schedule but be flexible enough to fit in unexpected shows and make time for interesting bars and cafes.
With so many shows on offer, pacing yourself is crucial – unless you’re lucky enough to be staying in a city centre hotel where you can go back for a quick afternoon snooze!
Look out for free shows at venues like the Voodoo Rooms off the back of Princes Street which has a full programme of comedy performances.
Allow plenty of time to get between venues. We nearly missed our show at the Pleasance because we were wandering around the bar area – thank goodness for the steward doing his final call!
Fast food is the big thing at the festival if you’re cramming in loads of shows. All the bigger venues like Pleasance, the Assembly Rooms in the New Town and the Gilded Balloon have bar and food areas plus mini-festival villages.