The Fringe for beginners

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

The House of Bernarda Alba

I’ve been wanting to go to the Edinburgh Fringe for as long as I’ve lived in London, but year after year, it didn’t happen. Lack of money, lack of time, lack of willing partner in crime – every time August rolled around, I’d sigh and think, ‘ah well, maybe next year…’

It probably says a great deal about the shape of my life over the last several months that the first time I finally made it to the Fringe, two weekends ago, it was almost entirely by accident.

I should probably back up a bit. Several months ago, a magazine for which I occasionally write exhibition and book reviews asked me to review a show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The only weekend I could make it up to Edinburgh before the deadline was the first weekend in August, so I booked train tickets and gave it no more thought… until I went to book a room for the Saturday night two weeks before and to my surprise and dismay found very few left in my price range. Oh… right… first weekend in August… the penny finally dropped. (In the end I did manage to bag a room that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It may well have been one of the last in all of Edinburgh.)

And so, the Saturday before last, without any prior planning, I landed in my first ever Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe: performers on the Royal Mile

Edinburgh Fringe: performers on the Royal Mile


About ten minutes north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the heavens open. It’s as if we’ve crossed a magic boundary – or, more likely, the Scottish border. (The day after I get back I tell a Northumbrian colleague about this stark border between decent weather and rain and she shakes her head and says ‘next time, just stay in Northumberland’). By the time my train pulls into Waverley, the only appropriate adjective for the weather is disgusting: leaden clouds, unending rain, Arthur’s Seat buried in fog and the streets streaming. Edinburgh is a grand and beautiful city in any weather but right now I would put it in a dictionary as an illustration for the entry for ‘dour’.

Only a few minutes out of the station on the way to my hostel, I notice an extraordinary difference to my previous four visits to Edinburgh. Despite the rotten weather, the streets are teeming. All the walls and street furniture are plastered with posters and flyers for performances, usually four or five deep. It looks as if every third doorway boasts an official ‘Fringe Venue’ sign. The Royal Mile is packed with street performers and, even more surprisingly given the rain, people watching them. Niddry Street is a gauntlet of performers and festival workers shouting ‘free comedy in five minutes’ and thrusting postcards for shows into the hands of any and all comers. (I acquire five in the space of about two minutes.)

Shows I didn't see (a tiny sampling)

Shows I didn’t see (a tiny sampling)

There’s an air of joyful anarchy over the whole city, and the rain and cold and all that wet dark stone throws it into much higher relief than any more forgiving setting ever could. I’ve never experienced Venice during Carnival but I suspect this isn’t a million miles away from it. Outlandishness – in dress, in behaviour – isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. This quartet of men in rainbow-coloured suits I saw walking down Cockburn Street is actually a fairly mild example. I’ve no idea if they were performers or just taking advantage of the chance to cut loose…

Cockburn Street, Saturday afternoon

Cockburn Street, Saturday afternoon

You find yourself having all manner of conversations with total strangers, which, when you live in London and are used to keeping yourself to yourself, takes some getting used to. To wit: on my first pass down the Royal Mile I’m accosted by a young guy who must be at least 6’6”, with a head of shockingly ginger hair and a huge, guileless but slightly mad grin. He wants me to come to his play, a romantic comedy. I make what I assume are suitably noncommittal interested noises and his smile broadens alarmingly.

‘Hey, you’re our target audience! You’ve simply got to come!’

I must admit I’m slightly baffled. What is their target audience? American? In their 30s? People carrying umbrellas and wearing sodden ballerina flats? ‘How so?’ I ask, rushing in where angels fear to tread.

‘You’re a woman!’ he exclaims triumphantly. I observe that he is indeed perceptive and make my escape from the ginger madman. The play actually sounds mildly intriguing, but it’s at 3 and I have to be at the gallery before then.

A few hours later I’m walking up the George IV Bridge and a worried-looking man with a broad Leeds accent hails me. ‘Oi, miss, you know you’ve got blue paint on your forehead, don’t you?’

‘Yeah, I know,’ I shrug. (I acquired it at the play I just saw, one of the occupational hazards of the Fringe is that an actor might just come over and daub blue paint on your face.) This doesn’t seem to assuage his worry at all.

‘Is it for religious reasons?’ he wants to know.

‘Nope, it’s from the play I just saw,’ I laugh and head off before he can ask anything else, because he still looks unpersuaded. Later I regret not telling him that I’m actually a Celtic warrior princess and the blue paint is in fact woad.


The first show I choose is something I first saw when I was sixteen: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. It’s a show created by the Neo-Futurists (who originated in Chicago – hometown pride! – but have since spread to New York and San Francisco) and it consists of a troupe of writer/actors performing thirty plays in sixty minutes, against the clock. The audience dictates the order of the plays (the titles are hung on numbered sheets strung up on a clothesline at the front of the stage) and as they add and subtract new plays at every performance, it’s impossible to see the same show twice. It is as absurd, madcap, occasionally annoying and mostly sheer fun as it sounds.

The Edinburgh performers are a combination of members of the San Francisco and New York groups. A few of the plays fall flat – that’s the nature of the beast – but the vast majority are excellent, running from surreal to ironic to surprisingly touching (one actor doing a monologue about his extreme shyness and how performing the written word has freed him of it really strikes a chord with me). One of the plays is called ‘All my friends are here tonight’ and there is no dialogue at all – it consists of one of the actors smearing blue paint on the faces of his fellow performers, then everyone in the audience, and bringing us all up on stage to dance together.

If this had happened in the performance I saw when I was sixteen, I would have died of embarrassment. As it is now, I just laugh and go with it. Because, clearly, that’s what you do at the Fringe.


The second show I hit isn’t a play, it’s a gig: Camille O’Sullivan, an Irish cabaret singer whom I’ve wanted to see several times in London but have never managed to before. She’s a veteran of the Fringe (this is her tenth year) and this grants her the privilege of performing in the Assembly Rooms, which are rather larger and more glamorous than the back room of a pub.

The previous act overruns and the queuing system is downright Byzantine, so by the time we’re all into the hall the air is crackling with tension – which turns into an expectant hush when O’Sullivan sweeps down a side aisle onto the stage, a black lace cloak streaming from her shoulders, gently brushing a hand over the tops of the heads nearest her path. Even before she opens her mouth, it’s obvious we’re in the presence of an enchantress.

O’Sullivan doesn’t write her own songs – she interprets those of other artists, and that list of artists runs from Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf to Radiohead and Arcade Fire. She has a powerful voice, clear and soaring with an undercurrent of gravel and grit, but it’s only one (important) element of her interpretations, which are as much about drama and storytelling as they are about singing. She seems to inhabit a different character with each song, from butter-wouldn’t-melt piousness (Nick Cave’s ‘God is in the house’) to heart-wrenching pain (Nine Inch Nails, ‘Hurt’) to glorious ribaldry (Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In these shoes’). She sings Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ a cappella, with the only accompaniment the occasional stamping of her bare foot, and I know I’ll never hear the song the same way again.

There isn’t a false note in the entire set, but the high point, for me at least, comes near the end. O’Sullivan, kneeling at the front of the stage, dons a beret covered in silver sequins as the stage goes dark and a single spotlight falls on her. It transforms her into a human disco ball as she gently sways her head back and forth over a shimmering, undulating guitar line. It takes me a while to pick out the melody but when she begins to sing, almost in a whisper, I realise it’s Radiohead’s ‘True love waits’. And I was wrong, her head isn’t a disco ball, it’s projecting a galaxy of stars onto the ceiling and walls. Halfway through the song, her voice vibrating with love and yearning, she raises her hands above her head and reaches out for the beams of light, as if trying to pull the stars out of the sky. By the time the last note dies away, tears are streaming down my cheeks. I don’t dare look at any of my neighbours but I’d wager I’m not the only one.

She announces her last song will be by Leonard Cohen and I find myself praying Oh no, please, not ‘Hallelujah’, I’ll go completely to pieces but thankfully it’s ‘Anthem’ instead, which is about as happy as Leonard Cohen ever gets. There are two encores and she says her goodbyes a few minutes before midnight, leaving me to float home in a tearfully joyful cloud.

Talking of clouds, they’ve finally cleared. I can even see a few stars.


Sunday morning, after a lazy breakfast, I’m in such a good mood I decide to take pot luck. I head over to the venue next door to where I saw Too Much Light…, ask what they have on at 11, and buy a ticket.

The 11 o’clock show turns out to be a new play, The Moth of August, written and performed by students from Cambridge in a tiny room with a set consisting of a table, four chairs, and a couple of biscuit tins. It’s a play being performed at the Fringe, about four performers at the Fringe, whose names are James, Conrad, Hannah and Claudia… played by actors named James, Conrad, Hannah and Claudia. It’s all a bit too meta for its own good. But there’s no doubting the sincerity of the actors, and even if I might quibble a little (okay, a lot) with the script, I can’t help feeling moved by the ending. And it’s always nice to take a chance on something new. I think back over my theatregoing experiences over the last year, realise it’s been solid NT/RSC/West End and decide I could stand to do this a bit more often. I’ve missed it.

There’s another exhibition I want to see – a show about John Ruskin as an artist that is, rather randomly, on at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland – so I only have time for one more show, which ends up being a street performer who’s set up outside the National Gallery. His act is traditional to the point of cliché on the surface – juggling knives, riding an eight-foot-high unicycle (while juggling knives) – but it turns out to be less about the tricks and more about working the audience and playing with expectations. Anyone who stands too close risks getting pulled into the performance, and I narrowly miss being chosen to throw the knives up to him while he’s perched on his unicycle – saved only by a woman standing right next to me who’s either more game or more foolhardy (so, Rona from Glasgow, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sparing me certain humiliation).

The Ruskin exhibition is excellent (if I’m honest, I prefer it to the one I was sent to Edinburgh to review) but after two shows and an exhibition with little break in between I’m starting to flag. Luckily, in addition to 3677 different Fringe shows and a decent number of museums, Edinburgh also contains a den of iniquity delights called Valvona & Crolla.

Dark as night and sweet as sin: Valvona & Crolla

Dark as night and sweet as sin: Valvona & Crolla

After I’ve polished off lunch (which, let’s be honest, was just an excuse for the chocolate tartlet and espresso), it’s too late in the day to take in another show without risking missing my train. I can’t help regretting what I’ll miss – a choreographed version of Macbeth, the ‘stand-up tragedy’ sessions in one of the venues in Niddry Street, the modern-dress staging of The Duchess of Malfi that I could have seen instead of The Moth of August, all the shows whose postcards I picked up (a mixed bag, I’m sure, but I’ll never know without taking a chance)… to name only a very tiny fraction.

As my train pulls out of Waverley (this time, in a sun shower), I make a resolution. Next year I’m going to come back for longer and do the Fringe properly.

But this wasn’t a bad introduction at all.


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