An Edinburgh Fringe Experience
A Flying Visit to Scotland's Largest Annual Arts & Culture Festival
For over 50 years August in Edinburgh has meant one thing, the Fringe Festival. For three weeks the population of Scotland's capital doubles and the city plays host to a vast number of cultural events and shows, including theatre, comedy, dance, music, cabaret and other performing arts. For me, one of the festivals most understated strengths is its independent nature. Whilst it is remarkably well-managed, there is no governing body giving a stamp of approval on what they feel is "appropriate," the result being a remarkable range of things to see and do which is almost unprecedented.
Whilst you'll find a great many famous acts at the Fringe, in it's heart, this is a festival built on bringing non-mainstream art to a largely mainstream audience. Where else in the world could a doppelgänger for Barton Fink wearing a tutu, address you on the street with the line "Do you like to laugh?" without the smallest hint of irony in his voice? Where else in the world can you walk into a dingy nightclub basement at a quarter to four in the afternoon and watch Inspector Gadget burlesque, complete with go-go gadget boobs? Where else in the world can you find his Fuhrerness, Mr Adolf Hitler galavanting around an upmarket hotel, belting out lines like "I'm like a modern day Judy Garland, only with better facial hair" in the charming Hitler! The Musical? Where else indeed?
Arriving into Edinburgh
My girlfriend Vanessa and I arrived into Edinburgh on the Caledonian Sleeper just after 7am on Monday morning. Doing this during on the last Monday morning of the Fringe is a little bit like arriving at a teenager's house the morning after their 18th birthday party. Everywhere is still colourfully decorated, the place is still buzzing with a kind of latent excitement, yet everything is strangely subdued in a way that doesn't quite feel right. After a quick wander round to get our bearings we rolled up to Starbucks to take a load off, have a quick festival research session, an early morning pick-me-up coffee and an almost offensively stereotypical Scottish breakfast consisting entirely of shortbread.
Upstairs in the café were a number of bookcases containing leather-bound books with titles like Crowned Masterpieces of Eloquence. The clientèle upstairs consisted of half-asleep festival goers, power-dressing business types with spreadsheets open on laptops and that magical homeless guy who smells a bit like the reality of living with the Ninja Turtles. You know the guy. That scraggy haired vagrant who seems to appear all over the globe holding up signs brandishing fiery brimstone legends referencing "the end of the world." He was there. He'd left his sign at home, but it was him. We sat down on one of the few tables left vacant, right next to a hairy middle-aged guy in groin crushingly tight skinny jeans and faux snakeskin cowboy boots who had managed to fall asleep on the couch, occasional twitching and moving through a series of comically effeminate postures in his sleep.
Suitably caffeinated, but having failed to find any shows of interest due to poor phone signal in the café, we left shortly afterwards and decided to make our way to the hotel to drop off our luggage. Having never been to Edinburgh, a few things stood out straight away. In central Edinburgh there are amazing old buildings everywhere, the architecture is really stunning! Despite it's size and population, the place feels safe and friendly (it's much more akin to somewhere like York than London) and the streets of the city are built at a variety of heights (something which was not at all clear from the maps we had looked at). We found that point out on our way to the hotel, as we walked up one road to take a turn-off, only to find that the road we needed to turn onto was about a hundred feet below us with no clear (non-suicidal) route down, but that's all part of the charm of the city. Having wandered around a bit, we found our way down onto the street below and headed down West Port (a road housing the unlikely mix of mostly quaint second-hand bookshops and very seedy looking strip-clubs) to 'The Point Hotel' near Edinburgh Castle, checked in and got a copy of the Fringe festival magazine / guide from the hotel concierge.
The Fringe is Big!
Having travelled up from Ipswich (where the closest thing we have is our own little arts festival known as the Pulse Fringe) we knew the Edinburgh Fringe was going to big. It wasn't until we started looking through the full line-up that we got a real indication of just how much there is to see and do. The Fringe "magazine" is actually a 350+ page bible with most double-page spreads featuring around fifteen to thirty shows, and the sheer variety of these shows is almost as overwhelming as the quantity. According to edinburghguide.com, the "2011 Edinburgh Fringe saw 41,689 performances of 2,542 shows in 258 Fringe venues" of which 607 were free shows as part of the Free Fringe. If you are after comedy, dance, theatre, children's shows, cabaret, music, sculpture, visual art, puppetry, stage magic, spoken word, poetry, mime, opera or anything else even vaguely arts-related the chances are you will probably find it in some form at the Fringe.
Selecting Our Shows
Sadly our trip to the Fringe was to be a short one lasting just two days, so we had to be quite selective from the vast list. We attempted to get tickets to a few of the bigger name acts such as The Axis of Awesome and Dave Gorman, but unsurprisingly, to have any chance at all of seeing the bigger acts, you really need to book tickets days or weeks in advance.
The Fringe is ultimately about variety and new experiences though. Before we left home to travel up to Scotland a number of friends who had been before advised us to get into the spirit and do our best to go and see as many random things as possible. Things we would never usually go to see. This is exactly what we did, and in retrospect it was the best advice we could have received and I would highly recommend the approach.
Highlights of Our Trip
You won't be surprised to hear that two days at the Fringe Festival isn't nearly enough time to properly enjoy it. For anyone planning a trip in future years, I would advise going for 4 or 5 days minimum. That said, a couple of days there is still enough time to really enjoy yourself and we did manage to cram in a fair few shows. A few of our favourites are listed below:
Don't Trust Salmon
Don't Trust Salmon; as well as being a piece of very sound life advice; was the name of the first show we checked out. Coming to life in an intimate underground club called Zoo Roxy, the four person comedy sketch show was a fun and quirky way to properly start off our Fringe experience. As someone who takes much joy in a bad pun and enjoys his comedy a little off-the-wall, this strange mix of unusual sketches was right up my street.
Opening in pitch black to Carl Orff's epic composition Carmina Burana, the group enter the stage to a charmingly low-tech torches-shining-upward-on-faces sketch which quickly cuts to the chase by revealing the route of their inherent distrust of those aforementioned migratory fish, which I am now convinced are truly evil. The bastards. Other sketches included an interesting look into the chocolate driven psyche of our fairer sex and Lewis Carroll's (possibly dyslexic) Alice in Sunderland. Should you require further information on the effects of social class and unionization on the four block shapes from the Nintendo Gameboy classic Tetris, I would recommend checking out the show.
Markus Birdman: Dreaming
After a longish walk late on Monday evening we managed to find the Stand Comedy Club, which was a little further afield than we had anticipated (if you are going to the Fringe expect a lot of walking). Fortunately we arrived just on time to see stand-up comedian Markus Birdman in what can only be described as a second floor flat. The sign asking us to "please keep quiet" in the corridors so as not to "disturb the residents" was something of a give-away.
We'd found out about Markus Birdman's show Dreaming from a wonderfully enthusiastic girl who (like many others) was promoting the show to us whilst we were in the very long queue for tickets at the box office earlier that day. We had been privy to just about every sales technique in the book that day, but there was something very honest about this girl's passion and genuine appreciation for this show that convinced us to take a chance on it and we were very glad we did.
In my experience, self-deprecation is at the heart of most good stand-up comedy, but watching Dreaming I felt Markus Birdman had shown us something unique. There is a brave honesty in Birdman's routine when he stands up in front of a room full of strangers and jokes about the way he had done the very British thing of mistaking a life-threatening stroke he'd had just months earlier, for a hangover. Dreaming, whilst billed as a show about "following your dreams," is largely driven by an introspective look at Birdman's life during the twelve months leading up to August 2011; a year of his life that had clearly been as frightening as it had been enlightening. In light of his stroke it is hard not to feel some affinity for Birdman as he describes his hopes and aspirations for his children and for himself. Despite tackling material that could easily make for a rather depressing show, Birdman's highly witty and honest blend of humour coupled with an endearing optimism were never likely to leave the audience in anything but a positive place, as a show about dreams should.
The enthusiastic girl promoting the show described Markus Birdman as "the quintessential example of the comedian you go to see and think, why the hell haven't I seen this guy on TV?" Having seen Birdman's show for myself I can't think of a better way to describe him. Having listened to him describe his dismay at the way TV comedy has been reduced to a series of panel shows and TV talent shows to ritual humiliation, it is clear that this is a man who doesn't want to be on the TV.
Don't let the fact that you may not have heard of Markus Birdman put you off. In a world where the phases "good stand-up comedian" and "that guy off Mock the Week" have become almost synonymous, Markus Birdman's dark but hopeful brand of stand-up is a welcome break.
Mind-Reading for Breakfast
An early morning deconstruction of pseudo-scientific myths, spirituality and psychoanalysis with free coffee and croissants, might not seem like an obvious start to a Tuesday morning to most people, but to a couple of pretty staunch atheists like Vanessa and myself, Mind-Reading for Breakfast sounded like one to take a chance on.
If you were to throw Derren Brown and Holland "Dutch" Wagenbach (from The Shield) into a blender and then bake the resulting viscous paste at a gentle heat for about 40 minutes, it wouldn't surprise me if Rob Bailey walked out of your oven shortly afterwards smelling of sherbet fountains. On second thoughts, that would terrify me, not because there is anything particularly scary about The 'Psychic' Psychologist, but because it was a decidedly weird analogy to start off with and my brain is now starting to visualize it.
Pyschologist, magician and spirituality unbeliever Rob Bailey comes across as a charming, logical, charismatic and down-to-earth host who takes a light-hearted approach to debunking a lot of (what he refers to as) the "mumbo jumbo" we are exposed to during our day to day lives. Either that, or he subjected the whole audience to a series of subliminal messages as part of a master plan to get myself and others to write nice things about him and his show.
During the show Bailey asked the audience to judge a variety topics that included mind reading, psychic powers, healing and homeopathy, as either "truth" or "mumbo-jumbo." Bailey's show makes light of many an "alternative" remedy in a tongue in cheek fashion, the high-point being a section in which he "channels the spirit of Freud," using a very clever mix of illusion and suggestion to guide an audience participant into turning everything into a sexual innuendo.
Given his atheist approach to magic and spirituality and the nature of his show, it is hard not to draw the comparisons with Derren Brown, but Rob Bailey's laid back, no-frills approach is in many ways a welcome break from the grand showmanship of Derren Brown and others. He also gave Vanessa a sherbet fountain, which (despite itself sounding like some kind of Freudian euphemism) gets him bonus points. All Derren Brown ever gave her was a bottle of malt vinegar to drink in front of a crowd of 1,700 people, but that's another story altogether! With a girlfriend highly susceptible to hypnosis, comes great responsibility. Now close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice...
Alan Anderson: Whisky Fir Dummies
Single malt Scotch Whisky has been my tipple of choice for as long as I can remember. A show therefore promising to educate the audience on whisky, with laughs aplenty, sounded like the perfect way to end our short stay at the Fringe. And, please hold off on the intervention, but the added hook of "six malt whiskies to be tasted" probably sealed the deal, if there was ever any doubt, which there probably wasn't.
The show took place in the downstairs of a pub called The Tron. We positioned ourselves at a table very near the stage (mistake number one) and shortly after Alan Anderson took to the stage donning a kilt and a confident stage presence.
Starting with a section part stand-up and part rant, Anderson shared a series of stories about whisky and began to explain how whisky is made in a slightly self-righteous, yet very witty manner. After going round and questioning a few people to get a feel for his audience, he asked if there was anyone Irish in the room, to which I replied that I was indeed of Irish descent (mistake number two).
During the show, Anderson gave out whisky to select members of audience, on the condition that they had "earned" it. Firstly a free whisky was given to everyone on the front row for being daring enough to sit there. Everyone except myself that is. It quickly became apparent that I was clearly:
- bearing the brunt of my ancestors decision to drink Poitín (a harsh and highly potent spirit known as a "the cleric" by the Scots, due to the fact that if you drink it you're probably need to get a man of the cloth to read you your last rights)
- being denied a Scotch malt because the Irish triple distil their whisky (the Scots generally only distil twice as they believe the third distillation removes a lot of the cask flavours)
- being picked on because I was a "big guy" with a sense of humour willing to take it in 'good spirits'
- in for an interesting evening...
After the free dram of Johnny Walker Red given out to the front row, select members of the audience were asked to answer a few questions about themselves and were then asked to feedback on a glass of whisky based on their earlier answers. One gentleman from London was given a glass of whisky and asked which London tube line it most closely resembled, another guy who worked as a mathematician was asked which branch of mathematics was closest in essence to the whisky he had been provided. The audiences responses were about as smart as you would expect, but the formula added a random element to the show and helped to add to the air of banter.
As the show progressed, Anderson moved naturally from the smoother, richer whiskies such as the triple distilled Auchentoshan 12 and the Dalwhinnie 15 (which is a personal favourite of mine if you are looking to buy me a present) to the smokier, harsher whiskies, explaining the processes behind each and describing their flavours. This progression and the show itself all led up to the tasting of Laphroaig 10, described by Anderson as the "bad boy of Scotch whiskies."
After almost an hour of humorous anti-Cormacisms, the shouty comedian finally decided it was time to stop picking on me and let me have a "wee dram." He called me up on stage to taste the Laphroaig and poured me a considerable measure. "Neck it" he said agressively as I started to taste it in the careful, slightly pompous manner he had described to the other tasters. And that is how I ended up finishing my Fringe trip by downing a large glass of one of Scotland's smokiest whiskies and describing the flavour to a room full of strangers, not in words, but in the form of interpretive dance, to the tune of Right Said Fred's I'm Too Sexy for My Shirt!
If there is a 'central point' the Fringe revolves around, it must surely be the area of the city known to locals as The Mile. The Mile is home to both the Fringe box office and the Fringe shop, but most visitors to the Fringe will remember it for its high density of festival goers, show promoters and street performers.
The variety of skills on show from the street performers is quite extraordinary. From fire jugglers to comedians, to theatre, dance and choir groups, to all manner of acrobats and magicians. Some of performers are promoting their shows, but for many the street performance is the show. The quality of the street buskers is quite astounding and it is easy to spend several hours each day watching free shows on the streets of Edinburgh.
The short film "Streets of the Fringe" above was cut together using footage I shot on streets in and around the Mile. Other photos I took during the festival can be seen throughout the article. For anyone wondering, the second half of the video is cut to the soulful music of Richard Blues. Sadly I don't know who the first musician is...
Top Five Edinburgh Fringe Festival Tips
- Book ahead. If you want to see big name shows, phone your orders through or book online beforehand.
- Get to the box office early. The Fringe box office opens early in the morning and is not too busy at that time. If you are looking to buy tickets around lunchtime or later, expect to wait up to and hour or more to be served.
- Walk around. Don't bother with buses or taxis. There are a lot of venues, but they can almost all be reached easily on foot. There is so much going on in the city that you're likely to have a great time walking around and you might find new and interesting things to do on your travels.
- Carry some random leaflets around with you. This is a bit of a sneaky one, but when you arrive you will quickly see that there are almost as many people handing out leaflets as there are festival goers. If you want to avoid the gauntlet, carry a stack of your own leaflets and most promoters will think you are working and leave you alone.
- Don't shy away from the weird and wonderful. If you do visit the Fringe, make sure you get into the the spirit of it. Tickets are cheap so go and see things you never would at home. Be open-minded, be willing to try weird and wacky things, and if you happen to find yourself in a nightclub in the early afternoon, fighting ninja fishfinger-men of the imagination, dressed as a Klingon in bridal underwear as part of a conceptual art routine, punch your chest firmly as a mark of honour and embrace the madness. This is the Fringe and today is a good day to fry.
About the Author: Cormac Scanlan
Author Cormac Scanlan is our resident photographer and Photoshop junkie. With years of experience and lots of professional work under his belt, taking and editing both stills and video, he knows his stuff...
Cormac is the gapyear.com Webmaster, planning and running the design and implementation of new features and website components. He has worked at gapyear.com since 2005, having previously taken a degree in Digital Media specialising in web design, image manipulation and sound and video production. If asked, Cormac would probably describe himself as an aspiring polymath or something, but we’ll keep things simple and just refer to him as a geek.
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