And so it is, every August, a certain city is swamped by hundreds of thousands of culture vultures, hungry for art, dance, theatre, comedy, film, books, men juggling burning machetes, shortbread, and that bracing Scottish air that invigorates even the most hungover tourist. Of course, I am talking of the greatest arts festival in the world: The Edinburgh Fringe and International Festival. With approximately 2, 695 performances on offer across the three and-a-half weeks this year alone (and that’s excluding all of the street performers), those brave and rich enough to venture into Edinburgh are certainly spoilt for choice. Indeed, where else could you see Paul Merton as a singing security guard, watch a play in a double decker bus, squirm as top comedians try and form a joke whilst pissed at 2 am, learn Danish from Sandi Toksvig, see Shakespeare as a rap, share a beer with an Oliver Reed lookalike, enter a competition to hurl cupcakes into a bin on stage, sing along with the acapella band from ‘Scrubs’, laugh as sock puppets attempt ‘Dracula’, help to write a new Jane Austen novel, or cry at a transvestite from East Anglia? That is only a few highlights from my visit to the festival and indeed, what an intense, tumultuous, and bizarre Fringe it was for me this August. I will break it all down for you below, should you be in the least bit interested…
1. THE SHOW MUST GO ON…
I was performing in Edinburgh with a theatre company this year – and once the previews had ironed out several issues we had, we were all ready to promote our show to the hoardes of visitors and enjoy the month’s run ahead of us. However, after realising the stage was smaller than we had been told, our flyers weren’t even in colour, we were still exceeding our stage time, and the accommodation was forty minutes walk from the venue, a cast member walked out. Just like that. After four performances. Completely vanished – like Lord Lucan but without the suspicion of murder. Although it did seem this person may have killed the show. A lot happened: I collapsed, a few cried, some people yelled, opinions flew like salmon struggling upstream. Eventually, we all said our piece and then voted (well not me, I was pretty much unconscious in bed) and after various cuts, re-rehearsals, and a superhuman actress stepping into the vacant role and learning it in twenty-four hours, we were back on track…albeit with stabilisers on. We went on to finish the run – mostly to fairly decent audiences, too, many of whom were extremely complimentary. However, that is neither here nor there. The fact is: we soldiered on. Everyone pulled together and we achieved something of which I think we can be proud – above all, because we weathered the storm and acted with true professionalism…which is more than can be said of some people.
2. ‘EXCUSE ME, WHAT DID YOU SAY?!’ – THE YEAR OF THE RUDE STAFF.
Now, please understand before I continue, that in no way am I deriding all of the staff who worked at the Fringe this year. Every single person who toils away for long and unsociable hours at the festival frankly deserves a medal – it can be an enormously stressful environment, not to mention unbearably hot in the venues themselves, and dealing with awkward, argumentative, or drunk festivalgoers seems to be part of the course. However, I must say that this year I encountered a lot of unnecessary rudeness from staff at various Fringe venues, some of whom appeared to be noticeably annoyed at the presence of so many people…hmm…yes, what an odd occurrence…? Look, I like to think I’m fairly easygoing. I didn’t really mind when I was instructed exactly where to sit by military style ushers, I was happy to oblige by queuing so closely to the man in front of me that he could have had me in court for sexual harrassment, and I was only mildly put out by the patronizing tones of desk staff when they told crowds to “…be quiet or they would have to stand outside if they didn’t understand what that meant”. So, what do I object to?
ME: Excuse me, I’m looking for this show?
STAFF MEMBER: Yes, it’s not going in yet. Wait in this room and we’ll call you.
ME: Thank you.
(10 mins later – after having NOT been called)
STAFF MEMBER: (after seeing me going up the stairs) Er, excuse me, what are you doing?
ME: Well, I was looking for this show here and I was told I’d -
STAFF MEMBER: What are you doing down here then?! Oh, that’s literally going in this minute – in fact, you’ve probably missed it! You better hurry up! Third floor!
Now, if you were that bolshy cow – I’m very sorry you had to work on a Sunday night, but you may need to learn some manners. Please do so before you put yourself out working at the Fringe next year.
Saying that, poor customer service did make for some wonderful moments. Whilst waiting in one major venue for a mid-afternoon show, we were ordered abruptly back upstairs to the bar where we had just come from by a young man, obviously under pressure as they were now running late. The bar in question was packed to the rafters (other shows queue from there) and it was time for the performance to start. “Why? Why do we have to move?”, we asked? “You’re all in the way of the stairs – we’ve got to keep it clear!” came the remonstration. So, we all shifted over to an available space, a large alcove behind the staircase, staying quiet and patient. Again, we were all told off like schoolchildren – “Is anyone listening to me? Why is no-one listening to me? You can’t stay there!” but this time, no reason came for why we had to move. He then called up to his colleague to let in those in the bar to the front of the queue! The brilliant Guardian critic Lyn Gardner was stood next to me and suddenly addressed this young man. “No, I’m afraid we will not go back upstairs, most of us here are at an age where we can’t keep traipsing up and down stairs – it’s not our fault you’re running late and we are not in the way…” she told him, quietly but firmly. I could have cheered. Another elderly gentleman waded in – “You don’t understand that we’re in our seventies’, I can hardly walk. Do you want to see my leg? I’ll show you my leg.” and it seemed the boy was defeated. Some twenty seconds later, the house was opened. I appreciate he was trying to do his duty. I appreciate he may have been given orders. However, there are ways and means of doing things and talking to people in a courteous and pleasant tone is the very least we expect. This individual’s attitude was wrong and therefore, he immediately got our backs up. Replying to one of my tweets which referred to the incident later in the week, Lyn Gardner said: ” Hope i wasn’t too over-bearing. Always think fringe audiences most patient in the world if venues provide good queue organisation” and I have to say that I completely agree with her.
Certain staff members have been disorganised, defensive, bored, condescending, curt, and impolite this year. I know I seemed to have experienced more than my fair share because I attended just over 100 performances but I found it impossible to ignore. Thanks to the majority of you, though, who remained patient, kind, pleasant, passionate, helpful, and efficient – you are valued more than you think.
3. GOING IT ALONE – THE SOLO TRIUMPHS.
The solo show is truly alive and well – at least, in Edinburgh. Maybe it is just me but I don’t remember a previous festival which had such a variety of one-man/woman productions and almost of all of them I saw were quite remarkable. Many, too, were sold-out – the peerless Miriam Margolyes and her famous ‘Dickens’ Women’ was fully booked for the entire run and Mike Daisey’s monologue ‘The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ packed out the Gilded Balloon every afternoon, especially after the swathe of four and five star reviews. Highlights for me included:
1. LEO (Assembly Roxy) – A man appeared to defy gravity whilst trying to escape his cell. A beautifully simple but devilishly clever physical performance where a performer’s movements were rotated on a screen adjacent to the stage to create illusions, unforgettable images, and a hilariously daft story of a French clown stuck in a world of moving drawings and endless possibility.
2. AN EVENING WITH DEMENTIA (Space on Mile) – Returning with his critically acclaimed (and sell-out) 2010 production, Trevor T Smith invited us all into his disease-ridden mind as he copes with dementia in a retirement home. At turns witty, warm, and achingly poignant, Smith eschewed sentimentality to create an absorbing and moving portrait of a man who is fading whilst trapped in his thoughts. A painfully beautiful and heartbreaking hour. Three hankies needed.
3. SIX AND A TANNER (Assembly Rooms – Ballroom) – After a successful tour of the Highlands and Isles, this sharp and intense drama about a Springbank man facing past demons over his father’s coffin rolled into town. What could have been a thin and cliched hour turned into a blisteringly powerful and darkly comic tale, largely thanks to Rony Mitchell’s crisp and vivid writing and David Hayman’s outstanding performance, brutally harsh, spirited, and often as funny as it was heartrending.
4. OLIVER REED: WILD THING (Gilded Balloon – Nightclub) – An invitation to a pub with Oliver Reed has the potential to be dangerous and wildly entertaining. Luckily, with this often boisterously shameless show, it managed to be both, but also offered us the chance to meet the man behind the bottle. Rob Crouch’s tour-de-force performance as Reed was a Fringe gem, capturing the true spirit of a flawed talent who felt he had to live up to the public perception of himself. Insightful and wickedly humorous.
5. JIGSY (Assembly Rooms – Ballroom) – Les Dennis gave one of the performances of his career as a fading Liverpudlian club comic down on his luck who drinks like a fish in his dressing room and sabotages the bingo to avoid his second set. Tony Staveacre’s excellent script mines priceless anecdotes about the best and worst of Britain’s comics and becomes genuinely affecting as Jigsy tells of his lonely life on the road and the crumbling of his marriage. Dennis was a revelation and his nuanced and charismatic performance kept you hooked throughout. Catch it at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory if you can.
Many, many more to mention: FAG ENDS AND FAMILIES (cynical, poignant, bittersweet evening with a man tinkling the ivories as he looks back); A MAN FOR ALL TIME: W.E.DUBOIS (an energetic and likeable performance telling the story of the incredible civil rights activist in America, overwhelmingly engaging); HITLER’S L’IL ABOMINATION (a charming if occasionally rambling monologue about a German woman questioning her identity); MARK GRIST – ROGUE TEACHER (a superbly heartwarming but unsentimental hour of poetry and anecdotes from a former teacher whose path to fame took an unusual turn, charming and hilarious); MISS HAVISHAM’S EXPECTATIONS (the exquisite Linda Marlowe as Miss Havisham with her view on Dickens and his creations – constantly surprising and inventive); THE HALF (an enjoyable hour in the company of Guy Masterson’s superstitious and depressed old soak and thesp before curtain up on his one-man Hamlet – slightly daft and cliched in places but some wonderful moments).
It must be a fairly lonely existence up there with no safety blanket (especially if you and the techie don’t get on) but costs, hassle, and wages for other actors are all significantly cut. Hmm…something to consider…
4. FLYERS, PUPPETS, AND COMEDIANS.
It was another bumper year for puppets this year, with some brilliantly innovative shows across the city pulling the crowds as well as the strings. Fringe stalwarts Les Enfants Terribles used puppetry to great effect (more of them later), late night vaudevillian puppets BORIS AND SERGEY were celebrated for their foul-mouthed, random, devious, and filthy exploits and became a Fringe must-see, and SWAMP JUICE’s ingenious shadow puppetry (made from the assorted jumble on stage) was much applauded. Myself, I found THE BOY WITH THE CUCKOO CLOCK HEART at the Pleasance Attic a very charming piece with a lot of heart (no pun intended) and seamlessly interwoven songs, storytelling, and puppetry. Indeed, it is a very positive sign when the audience are becoming emotionally involved with what is essentially a lump of wood – it does happen – but there was a cosy, old-fashioned feel to this show that put you at ease immediately and therefore, the audience allowed their barriers down. I find Fringe audiences can be the warmest, most supportive crowd or the most judgmental, harshest critics you will ever experience – it really can go either way. Elsewhere, I fell in love with Theatre Temoin’s darkly compelling nightmare THE FANTASIST at the Udderbelly, which used just three actresses to effortlessly portray a young girl’s visions as she copes with bi-polar disorder. Humorous, fascinating, shocking, tender, poignant, and delightfully quirky, the use of puppetry is simply stunning, complementing Julia Yevnine’s gripping central performance. I don’t want to say too much more – I recommend you catch it on their tour! Also, a quick mention for the New Zealand fairytale, THE ROAD THAT WASN’T THERE, which captivated audiences at the Three Sisters – a really simple story about an old woman remembering her adventures in another world when she was a mere girl. Bags of personality, lashings of comedy and some effective puppetry made this a little lunchtime treat to savour.
Now: comedians. Has the Fringe become more of a comedy festival in recent times? I have heard murmurs in the last 7 years I’ve been to Edinburgh that many performers feel almost pushed out of a festival that was created just for people like them. In a way, I agree. Stand-up is only one strand of performance – it shouldn’t be allowed to a festival that is so inclusive of all the visual arts. Myself, I adore stand-up comedy and believe it is an important part of our culture (the British public always seem to need cheering up) but even I am beginning to see an imbalance. Although I don’t think it will ever take precedence over other performing arts, as an actor it is slightly frustrating to compete with so many (often big name) comedians who could run the risk of turning Edinburgh Fringe into more of a commercial festival in the future. Saying that, I am not as sceptical as Stewart Lee, who in a recent article for The Guardian, lamented what he called “the death of the Fringe”. That certainly is not true. It is blisteringly, beautifully, and fantastically alive and kicking. However, he raises a point which may need addressing in order to stop it worsening and I do think some closer monitoring would do no harm. Everyone needs a fair crack at the whip. I did go to a few stand-up gigs this year and all were excellent – Reginald D Hunter, Stuart Goldsmith, Hannibal Buress, Joel Lycett – and whilst stand-up very much deserves its’ annual place in Edinburgh, we must be careful of shutting others out, whether intentionally or not. Among those I caught, Goldsmith was very witty, affable, and riffed off the crowd brilliantly, and Hunter delivered a particularly effective set, not always laugh out loud funny, but brutally honest, drily comic, and sometimes shocking. Towards the end, glassy eyed and swaying lightly due to copious amounts of straight vodka throughout the act, he bantered with the audience, side-splittingly flirting with attractive ladies and owning mouthy Scottish drunks with ease, style, and razor sharp put-downs. You had to be there.
Finally, in this section, a short note about flyers and flyerers. I cannot really complain too much about being littered with the damn things as I myself had to hand them out to the public…but to those people who shoved them in front of my face, shouted at me to “take it!” even when I was on the telephone or in a conversation, muttered some derogatory comment loud enough for me to hear when I politely declined, or followed me down the street until I finally promised them I’d run and book tickets immediately…you may want to consider some different tactics next year. Or if you enjoy running the risk of casual violence, then by all means, be my guest. Trust me, many of the Edinburgh residents do not take kindly to promotion of that type. Oh, and a word to the student companies – please do not lie down to flyer me – not only will people not want to bend down but it isn’t original and you’ll get your costume dirty. I’m saving you time and money on Persil here.
5. THE BEST OF THE REST – AND FINAL NOTES.
Apart from the aforementioned shows in this article, the best of the rest of the Fest (according to me) is below.
DESPERATELY SEEKING THE EXIT – Wonderfully eccentric but truthful show about a West End flop. **** SEEING DOUBLE: FIGURES/SEEING DOUBLE: VISIONS – Hilarious, pacy, clever farcical double which play simultaneously. A tumultous rehearsal process struggles along to its side-splittingly muddled opening night – relationships hang in the balance, confusions abound, and the dreaded term ‘avant-garde’ is mentioned. ***** OTHELLO – THE REMIX – One of the slickest, funniest, and awe-inspiring shows I have seen at the Fringe. Shakespeare’s tragedy set to hip-hop emerges as a punchy, powerful, witty, and blissfully entertaining experience. Unforgettable. ***** NEWSREVUE – Although it didn’t quite reach the dizzying comic heights of 2011, the award-winning Fringe favourite – and veteran – still offered up its usual heady cocktail of biting satire, risque humour, and silliness. **** APPOINTMENT WITH THE WICKER MAN – The National Theatre of Scotland served up a daft, bawdy, and humorous treat with this tongue-in-cheek send up of an Am Dram Group’s efforts to stage a musical of The Wicker Man. It wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste but there was a perfect balance of glorious absurdity and knockabout humour for this spoof to work. The sets moved from intentionally flimsy to visually exciting and the performances couldn’t be faulted. **** MAURICE’S JUBILEE – It could have been a painfully misjudged and embarrassing 90 minutes. This new play – written by and starring Nichola McAuliffe – looks (and even feels slightly) old-fashioned from the outset and centres around a retired (and now sadly dying) jeweller who once met the Queen and has been besotted with her ever since, hoping for a Royal visit to his Penge bungalow on her approaching Jubilee as she promised him 60 years ago. Thanks to a sharp and witty script, Hannah Eidinow’s sensitive direction, and beautifully judged performances from McAuliffe, Julian Glover, and Sheila Reid, I fell in love with this touching and gentle story and even ended up shedding a few tears along with the OAPs in the play’s poignant closing minutes. **** BARRY CRYER AND RONNIE GOLDEN: GOING GAGA - What can I say? Two geniuses coming together for an hour of joy, tunes, and gags. The audience rocked with laughter as tears streamed down their faces. I left utterly uplifted. What the Fringe is all about. ***** THE TRENCH – Those Fringe stalwarts ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ returned with a heart-stoppingly thrilling tale of a miner trapped in a tunnel in the First World War. Evocative, haunting, raw, and utterly beguiling, this highly inventive creation was enhanced by Alexander Wolfe’s beautiful live soundtrack, physical theatre, and masterful puppetry. ***** TRANSLUNAR PARADISE - A really simple but entrancing offering from Theatre Ad Infinitum. A wordless story about a grieving widower’s struggle to let go of his recently departed wife. George Mann and Deborah Pugh deliver such extraordinary performances as the lovers through their journey together that the emotional truth threatens to overwhelm you. I wasn’t the only one broken by this tear-jerkingly beautiful gem – as the house lights raised, the audience stayed rooted to their seats, many weeping, many holding hands with their partners, and some just staring ahead of them, lips trembling, eyes glassy, and numb. Incredible. *****
ALSO: GLORY DAZED (*****); OUTLAND (*****); SANDI TOKSVIG: MY VALENTINE (*****); MOON (*****); PROOF (Space on Mile) (****); THE BOY JAMES (****); THE INTERVENTION (****) COALITION (****) THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT (****); I HEART PETERBOROUGH (****); PAUL MERTON’S IMPRO CHUMS (****); UNMYTHABLE (****); SOLDIERS’ WIVES (****); MOLLY NAYLOR AND THE MIDDLE ONES: MY ROBOT HEART (****); AUSTENTATIOUS! (****) MAX AND IVAN ARE…CON ARTISTS (****); SHAKESPEARE FOR BREAKFAST (****); EDUCATING RITA (****); 4:48 PSYCHOSIS (****); STATEMENTS AFTER AN ARREST UNDER THE IMMORALITY ACT (****); ROB JAMES: MAGICANA (****); DARKNESS RISING (****).
5 THINGS ABOUT EDINBURGH FRINGE 2012.
1. There were 42, 096 performances of 2,695 shows in 279 venues, 47 countries were represented across the festival, 814 shows were free, an estimated 22, 457 performers took to the stage, and 1,418 shows were premieres. (Thanks to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for these facts).
2. It was remarkably mild this year! Yes, surprisingly, Edinburgh saw quite a lot of sun for a change…I even got my legs out a few times (this lost us some potential audience) and was even wearing shorts and sandals at 2 am and didn’t feel the onset of hypothermia. Incredible. There were a handful of torrential downpours across the month – but it wouldn’t have been the Fringe without them.
3. I was celebrity spotting again this year. Here’s who I saw: The Hoff, Clive Anderson, Nancy Dell’Olio, Les Dennis, Paul Merton, Sam Lloyd (“Ted” from ‘Scrubs’), Lyn Gardner, Mark Shenton, Miriam Margolyes, Isla Blair, Phill Jupitus, Stewart Lee, Eddie Izzard, John Bishop, Pam Ayres, Nicholas Parsons, Tim Vine, Reginald D Hunter, Barry Cryer, Matthew Kelly, Claire Sweeney, Simon Callow, George Wendt.
4. Ticket sales were down by 1% this year, according to official figures. Why was this? Too expensive? Olympics/Paralympics? Maybe a combination of both? To be honest, I thought the Fringe would suffer more than it has due to our London-centric summer so I am actually surprised by the results.
5. Finally, Edinburgh is known for its show titles: strange, funny, neverending, offensive, and sometimes downright wacky. Here’s some of my favourites from the 2012 Fringe: Piff The Magic Dragon in…Jurassic Bark!; As Of 1:52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title; The I Hate Children Children’s Show; The Shit; Captain Ferguson’s School for Balloon Warfare; Dirty Paki Lingerie; Molly Wobbly’s Tit Factory; Reginald D Hunter: Work In Progress…And Niggas; NGGRFG; I’m Not Crying In The Bathroom, I’m Crying In The Supply Closet; Quick! Save The Pizza!
So…er…see you all in August 2013. Maybe. If I’ve calmed down by then…and if the forecast looks hopeful…and if I pick a flat less than 40 minutes walk away…and if the doctor prescribes me Prozac…and if I have the money…and…and…hmm…? To tell you the truth, Barbados sounds tempting…
Thanks, Scotland! Of course I’ll be back…I always am…