The Fringe – A little nitpicking but a lot of style.
I decided this was the year to make that great comedic pilgrimage. Inspired by my brave friend, Jen ‘The Muse’ Bird and her stint busking there last year, I decided now was the time for me to head to one of my favourite cities, Edinburgh in Scotland. The reason?
The annual Festival Fringe.
I trust that you’ve heard of it. Each August, the worlds of comedy, theatre and street performance converge on the Scottish Capital for the Fringe. A chance for new stars to emerge and for existing ones to get up close to their audience.
Now, with its global reputation a huge body of humanity hits town and wants a bit of a lie-down. So much so that I had difficulty finding a reasonably priced habitable room in town. You’ll find some at luxury prices if you have the benefit, and lots of dormitory rooms in hostels for the young and adventurous among you. Me? I decided to hang back over the English border in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. A splendid few nights in the new Tune Hotel there. I needed somewhere near the central railway station as I’d be commuting to Edinburgh Waverley.
And so last Wednesday morning I boarded the 0935 CrossCountry service alongside many other like-minded punters, a quick jaunt up the north-east coast (memo to self : must stop in Berwick on Tweed eventually, lovely looking), we pulled in around 1105.
The days adventure begins – what could I pack into my ten-hour stay? Well I had taken the precaution of booking a couple of shows in advance, more of which anon. So off the train, up what was once the daunting Waverley Steps (now subdued and flanked by escalators) and left through Princes Street Gardens, and there you’ll find a hub in front of the Scottish National Gallery. This is where the good people of Fringe sponsors Virgin Money have set up a box office offering discounted tickets. This is where I picked up my free programme. With every scheduled performance being given a few square inches in print along with city maps this runs to over four hundred pages. Bring a spare backpack if you don’t have a photographic memory.
This was also where I found my first entertainment of the day. Alongside a craft fair you’ll find two performance area and a space for musicians. Roll up roll up. Don’t be shy, make room for everyone to see, up the front kids. I started by watching a swedish knife thrower, but his style in delaying the inevitable for his volunteer/victim wore a little. So I moved across to the other stage. Here was a very chirpy and cheeky chap twirling with fire, performing ball skills, with a crystal ball no less. For his finale he asked a willing and sporting volunteer to lay down whilst he crawled across him, fire stick in mouth. A good funny turn. But here’s the rub. This is street theatre & the talent is looking to eat something other than fire and stop in one the aforementioned hostels. So the hat gets passed round. If you’ve enjoyed the performance give accordingly. If you haven’t, feel free to move away, but bear in mind the eating & sleeping needs of the artistes. Be kind. Be generous.
At this point I stepped away from the Fringe and into the Scottish National Gallery. To be honest I popped into use the washroom (clean & luxurious), but I was lured in further by all the naked ladies… immortalized on canvas. I’m glad I stopped and went down to the basement where the important Scottish art is held. I hadn’t realized one of my favorite paintings was there – The Skating Minister attributed to Henry Raeburn.
By now it was lunchtime, and following a trip on the new white elephant that is Edinburgh’s tramway I feast on saveloy & chips from a fine Italian-Scottish chippy. Yes, it’s true they will put batter on the un-batterable but I wasn’t that brave.
This brings us to be first paid for show. As a fan of TV sitcoms, and in particular the great BBC sitcoms of the 1970’s, it was a joy to have an audience with Mr Rodney Bewes, star of The Likely Lads & its sequel Whatever happened to The Likely Lads. Rodney took us back to the golden age of television. When series were booked over a good lunch and an even better idea. No focus groups, no go and develop this for the next three years. Just, we’ve this sketch about two teenage boys trying to impress lasses down the pub, we’ve made a ciné film, we hope you enjoy it as much as us…
And now, as I forewarned, a few of my bugbears. Expect to be overwhelmed by well-meaning people bearing flyers. Bless’em all for what they’re trying to do to promote the many many experiences. But when you surrounded by four of them barking up when you’re in a hurry trying to get somewhere you’ve paid for…
My main cause of sourpuss-ness was this though. Perhaps you’ve walked down your local high street and seen a busker with a violin. And then they switch on a CD of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. They play the opening phrase, and then let the audio do the hard work for the next thirty-six bars or so… Not on, eh?
And yet on The Royal Mile I saw a crooner on one of the main podiums singing over a big band backing tape. Damn Karaoke. Young man, take that tux back to the rental, find a few friends with a bass, some brass, a keyboard & a couple of drums, and come back next year to do it properly…
Onwards and upwards to my second paid performance. You’ve probably seen Lucy Porter on TV’s Mock the Week or heard her on the venerable Just a Minute. Petite with raven hair, full of angst about being thirty-something, single & childless. Nowadays, Lucy is just over 40 (she mentioned it), joyfully married to an actor and mum to two. And blonde. Utterly charming, especially to that man who got lost in the labyrinth of the Pleasance Courtyard with its multiple stages & who arrived five minutes into the set. Sorry Lucy!
So that was the end of my schedule entertainment for the day and the choice of either of going somewhere for a sit down meal or seeing what else was on offer and grabbing a burger before catching the train south at 9.
I’m glad I chose the latter, for on The Mound, I chanced across a young escapologist Tianna the Traveller. A very clever act, utilising the baggage straps & locks from her luggage as her tools of self-imprisonment. What was particularly sweet was her talking to the young girls in the audience telling them there is such a big world they can find out there for themselves one day. Oh, and Tianna was dressed in the style of Lara Croft…
In retrospect, I wish I’d bumped up my contribution with the money I went on to waste on the burger. Next time our paths cross…
And so my first trip to the Edinburgh Fringe was complete.
Will I go again? Yes.
What will I do differently – book early enough to stay in Lothian so I can stay later. And to take advantage of the fact that most venues have more than one stage or more than one show a day (The Courtyard for example, serves up show after show after show).
My main regret – that I don’t have the courage or talent to get up there myself.
So here’s to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival… never boring.