The Edinburgh Fringe is HUGE. 3193 show at 299 venues. One man to ensemble piece. Music through theatre cabaret to radio plays being recorded and performance art up to dance and burlesque. As you can imagine it is easy to be swamped by information and, well, people. But it is BRILLIANT.
Generally, in the planning stage, you start thinking about three things. What to see, where to stay and how to get there?
In reverse order I take the train. It’s four and a half hours from London but book early. That is essential as the trains are full and you really do not want to stand! As we hurried to find our seats a lady, claiming to be a performer was trying to persuade a reluctant guard to accept her bike into the luggage carriage. Her performance, I must say, was compelling and later she was seen on board so maybe credible as well.
We paid for a first class seat. You can read, write (free wifi) and doze. And look out of the window. My ears pop through the tunnels north of Kings Cross (the London terminus from where we start our journey) but the countryside is soon beautiful – rolling English stuff with corn and trees and sheep and – you get the picture. The Textiliste grew up in Norfolk. She has a thing about windmills, even the new fangled whirligig ones (I can’t forget the film of the Danish one where the brakes failed and… well, see for yourself). There are loads to keep her happy. They should do I-Spy books on Windmills – she’d be a star. The Archaeologist and I had loads of these as kids and major fun, especially if I tried to cheat and say I’d seen something I clearly hadn’t. Probably the easiest way to wind him up which, believe me, wasn’t easy but was a joy when achieved.
I digress. North of York the line goes from beautiful to, well, stunning. It passes Durham, you glimpse the Angel of the North and arrive in Newcastle. The moment the train crosses the Tyne and you look down on the river and across at the crisscross of bridges is, for me, a breath holding moment.
And then the line hugs the coast and you reach Berwick. It doesn’t get much better, frankly. These pics don’t do it justice but, hey, they give you and idea.
The second issue is accommodation. In past years we’ve hired a Unite Student flat. Clean, central and reasonably priced. The best thing about that was opening the curtains on our first morning (we arrived in the dark) to look across the roofs of the other student blocks and spot the dozen (I kid you not) grow-bags with little stunted cannabis plants growing. I’m not sure what appealed to me most. The indifference of the authorities to this illegal horticulture (‘they’re tomatoes, a new variety, honest’) or the optimism of the students who thought they could grow weed outdoors – on the roof tops – in Edinburgh.
This year I went online and found flat for our four days easily enough. The prices range wildly and with the advent of BnB you can find some decent enough deals. Ours, near the Parliament at Holyrood is neat enough. Holyrood Palace (home of the Queen when in residence) is stunning; the Parliament, I thought, quite something when it was first up but it is looking a touch tired now.
Once it situ, it is time to see what’s on. Now the official brochure is bible-thick (over 400 pages) and about as readable (and credible). So if you know what you want to see then fine but if not it is rather soul-destroying to wade through. you can narrow the search by category but the popular two – theatre and comedy – are still indigestible.
Experience has taught us two things. Read the reviews – The Scotsman and the Guardian are good with the other broadsheets not far behind. The online reviewers are rather too hit or miss and can be a waste of effort. Also the top venue-groups (there are individual venues and then groups of venues) have a magazine with their shows. The Assembly, the Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance and the Underbelly. It is available here and worth getting hold of. While it doesn’t contain reviews it has details f the shows which are listed by start time – when trying to fit things together it is a really helpful addition. There is now a Fringe app and the website is also helpful.
We plan a couple of shows a day before we leave London and then, when we are here, fill in the gaps. Edinburgh has a lot of exhibitions what draw the Textiliste like a fly to a Frappuccino – she already earmarked the Tapestry of Scotland, a genius idea of Alexander McCall Smith modelled on the Bayeux Tapestry and housed in the Scottish Parliament building. So that had to be factored in. And with the Lawyer and Beautician as novices they were inevitably going to fill things up as much as they could.
So, arriving just after lunch and checking in we made for the Fringe Box Office on the High Street, one part of the Royal Mile that leads from Holyrood to the Castle – don’t be fooled it’s well more than a mile. The queues used to be horrendous but with online booking this year they are shorter – I imagine people book on-line and then print out at one of the machines at most big venues, thus saving a lot of time. I am a Friend (£25 a year) so I have a separate box office that avoids the queues. In past years worth every penny but this year I’m not so sure it adds much.
And so to the shows on day one.
Our first show was at the Pleasance, a group of rooms and venues around a courtyard. Jeremy Paxman – Paxo – and his one man show. He bemoans celebrity yet what was this if not pandering to his celebrity. He has a wheel of fortune which he spins for topics and tells anecdotes, occasionally interacting with the audience – mostly to be (mildly) rude which is I think what people want. A lot of familiar stuff comes up – Michael Howard, Chloe Smith, the weather, Russell Brand. But he is amusing, sometimes insightful. He makes some odd points – he fumbles around religion, admits to an unfortunate and unwanted atheism and ‘merely observes’ that most homeless charities were set up by people of religion – suggesting in his observation that atheism is incompatible with altruism. This ‘I merely observe’ thing is a sneaky way to put forward an opinion or comment in the guise of reportage. He’s more the politician than he likes to admit. ♥♥
Axis of Awesome
Our first filler. We pulled this from the brochure, timed as it was for after dinner. I will talk about Edinburgh and food in tomorrow’s post as we’re off for dinner with a couple of old friends and will have more detail to give. The venue was in a debating hall – this is called, for the festival, ‘The Gilded Balloon’. It is more student union that gilded anything but it functions as a concert hall well enough. The Axis are an Australian three-piece – well two piece and a fat singer. They’re fast paced, pretty funny and very rude. But they did two songs that were excellent (the Lawyer liked a third about iPhone upgrades that was ok). The first was Four Chords – that’s all you need for a pop song and the second How to Write a Love Song. Check them out. ♥♥♥
This was mostly excellent, with elements that were disturbing. A ‘comedy’ take on circus acts, the ring master was the weakest part but as soon as the individual acts appeared it was a mix of powerful, funny, poignant and downright skin crawling. We had a magician with an existential angst incapable of finishing any trick; a clown who had lost his partner, killed a member of the audience but who couldn’t stop people laughing; a lion tamer whose lion had been removed by a combination of animal welfare and health and safety but needed his job; and two dancers clearly hating what they did and playing it for laughs – and laugh we did until we began to realise it wasn’t a laughing matter – it was more some form of slavery, coercion or domestic abuse/bullying that made them perform – sort of holding up the stereotypes of the circus performers to be dissected and looked at for what they are – essentially cruel. Frankly these two women creeped me out after a bit, so close to the bone was it – and it certainly wasn’t a comedy so much as a thought-provoking piece with comedic elements. ♥♥♥
That was the end of day one. No rain so far! Here’s a hero and some street art.