Edinburgh Festivals survival guide
Thinking of visiting the Fringe, Book, International or Art festival this weekend? It's possible to do them all! Ali Wood explains how...
Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
With over 50,000 performances in a single month, the Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, but add to that the Tattoo, Book, International and Art Festivals and the whole city becomes a stage. From tavern cellars to concert halls, gothic churches and contemporary museums, there’s a venue for every type of performance. What better excuse for a weekend-long pub-crawl?
2000: Charlotte Square Gdns, Edinburgh International Book Festival
We’re off the plane, feeling giddy, and straight into the Book Festival where the chilled folksy vibe of the Speigeltent whips into a maelstrom of sobering poetry. Before you can say ‘Sylvia Plath’ we’re confronted with themes of loss and death. Three exceptional poets, three lives stripped bare. The show’s description? Literary Cabaret!
Tip: Expect the unexpected… and just go with it
1000: Royal Mile walking tour
Saturday morning, and it’s the Royal Mile, the beating heart of the Fringe. Jugglers are prepping their batons and buskers tuning their violins. The choirs have started already and the smell of roasted coffee wafts from grand gilded tearooms. Just for fun, we squeeze in a two-hour walking tour through the wynds and closes of medieval Edinburgh, in preparation for a decadent day ahead.
Tip: Take a walking tour to get your bearings. Free 2-hour tours at 144 High Street.
1300: Chaos of Delight, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Robin Ince of Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage is first on our list. His job, he explains, is to wait till Brian Cox is turning listeners’ brains to mush, then lure them back with comedy. In other words, he’s ‘a professional idiot.’ And if anyone tells you that’s not a real job, they’re wrong.
The aptly named Chaos of Delight is a breathless, free-dive into everything from his father’s dead mouse to Dali and DNA. Ince flashes from one PowerPoint slide to the next like a toddler let loose with the controls. Each slide surpasses the last, offering a fleeting glimpse of comic genius, whilst Ince, wired and wonderful, is already narrating 5 slides ahead. No matter how fast he speaks (and believe me, he’s quick) he just can’t catch up with his brain.
Robin Ince of the Infinite Monkey Cage
1500: Will Mars, Edinburgh Festival Free Fringe
The Free Fringe encompasses the events you can see without a ticket. Just turn up, listen and throw some money in the bucket. Outside every iconic venue are young promoters delivering BAFTA award-winning pitches. Bit of song, bit of dance, a Lady Macbeth suicide… they’ll do anything to catch your attention.
‘You can’t miss this. It’s a masterwork of surrealism!’
‘She really extrapolates the hypocrisy of human nature.’
It’s like Magaluf for grown-ups, only instead of adult games and free shots, you get free comedy and cheap shots (if you’re in the front row).
We take a punt on Will Mars, whose show is in a cloakroom-come sauna. Dumped by his producer girlfriend for a younger comedian, Smart’s self-effacing, loser brand of comedy has us spilling our pints with laughter. Actually, he’s pretty accomplished (he’s been on TV in America) and hearing about his mid-life crisis is really good fun.
Tip: Leave 2 - 4 hours in your schedule for impromptu acts that just take your fancy.
1730: Stories from History, Edinburgh International Festival
We dive back into the 16th century with Victoria Glendinning as she reads from her novel The Butcher’s Daughter. Next it’s Simon Mayo with his first book for adults Mad Blood Stirring. The show is chaired by the adorable Janet Ellis, who hasn’t aged a day since Blue Peter. Afterwards, it’s selfies and signings. I chat with Simon about his Radio 2 Book club favourites, and give Victoria entirely unqualified advice on which of her book covers looks best.
Tip: Meet literary heroes face-to-face, and bring a rucksack for signed hardbacks.
2000: Midsummer, Edinburgh International Festival
We sprint through puddles to The Hub, a gothic revival church, and get the latecomer seats by the stage. Thank goodness it’s not stand-up.
Like a slice of cheesecake on a rainy day, Midsummer is bursting with sweetness and joy. Helena has a secret – will it stop her finding love? Bob has £15k in a Tesco bag and a gangster hot on his heels. The whole venue becomes a set as the couple sing and dance their way through a comedy of errors, narrated by their charming older selves. Set in Edinburgh with many familiar references, Midsummer is like watching La La Land and Mamma Mia – it’s Prosecco for the soul.
Tip: Highly acclaimed shows sell-out quick. Buy tickets in advance.
Midsummer: a stunning production
23:00 Street theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Still on a high, we stroll along the Royal Mile until our path is blocked by a silent disco flash-mob. Like the musical version of the Walking Dead they slide towards us, one group hollering ‘Bismillah! No we will not let you go’, the other singing ‘let him go’. Then just as we’re about to run away, they burst into laughter and twirl around, shopping bags swinging off their elbows.
It’s almost 11pm and we remember we’ve not eaten. Only Bella Italia is still serving food.
Tip: Whilst shows go on till 2am many of the restaurants stop serving at 10pm, so don’t forget to eat.
0000: Best of the Fest, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
We queue in the rain for the night’s finale, a smorgasbord of Fringe comics. Compere Jarred Christmas does a sterling job of jollying us along – not a single loo-goer is spared. We meet a magic dragon with a performing chihuahua, a psychotic air-traveller, and an eccentric Etonian, who we peg for future shows.
Tip: For a ‘taster’ look for shows with a mixed line-up then book your favourite act the following day.
1330: Jon Culshaw and Bill Dare: The Great British Take Off, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
With shoes still soggy from the night before, we buy brollies on Princes Street and head to Edinburgh University Debating Hall to see Jon Culshaw. What a talent! The Dead Ringers star gets every impression spot-on, and he shares an extraordinary tip: to get into character, just put their words to music. Think Trump rapping to ‘Birdhouse in my Soul’ sounds weird? Wait till you hear Blair singing ‘the Wheels on the Bus’ (with actions).
After a blazing start, Culshaw’s show has us on the edge of our seats. However, we gradually slip into the back-rests as the all-male cast of impressions becomes less and less relevant: William Hague, Gordon Brown and Dr Who actors I’ve never heard of. When he gets to Spitting Image, I’m already thinking about the next show.
Tip: Not all shows are contain new material, but if nostalgic political satire’s what you’re after, this one’s great.
John Culshaw and Bill Dare
1510: Casus: You and I, Edinburgh Festival Fringe
We queue early and get the front-row for this highly acclaimed performance. As the fledging romance between two male dancers unfolds, tender choreography becomes dazzling derring-do. In gravity-defying madness, and Hulk-like feats of strength, they swing from trapezes and balance on each other’s heads. They climb a pile of chairs balanced two storeys high. ‘No, boys! Get down,’ my maternal instinct screams. I can’t clap. I can’t breathe. The air is tightrope tense… and when they finally leap back down to earth, the audience lets out a collective sigh of relief. Spectacular!
0000: Various acts, Edinburgh Festival Free Fringe
It’s the witching hour and the promoters are off-duty, meaning the comedians are handing out flyers themselves.
‘It’s fine, I won’t be upset if you don’t come to my show... I’ll be REALLY upset.’
Faces we recognise from billboards and lampposts are hustling for an audience. It’s time to see what they’ve got… We’re herded into a creaking attic and squashed onto a velvet bench. In traipse four Canadian comedians, one after the other, from behind the twitching curtain. Two are fantastic, two are shattered, and the last looks longingly at the clock. He’s probably remortgaged his house to be here, and three weeks of shaking a bucket is bound to take its toll.
Tip: Late night comedy can be unpredictable, but intimate venues and small audiences make it an unforgettable experience.
1000: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh Art Festival
Just 15 minutes from Princes Street, these huge neoclassical buildings feel a million miles away from the city. We explore vivid works by German impressionist Emil Nolde and contemporary artist Jenny Saville. After huddling in dozens of small spaces, the vast scale of the venues and Saville’s sumptuous larger-than-life nudes are just what we need.
2100: Southwest Trains, the conductor
We land at Southampton, we’re on the train, and the conductor does a comedy voice-over. He finishes his announcement with a beat-box version of ‘mind the gap’. Laughter ripples throughout the carriage. Thank you, Southwest Trains – I’ll look out for you at next year’s Fringe!
For more information on Edinburgh’s festivals see www.edinburghfestivalcity.com