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48 Hours at the Fringe – An Edinburgh Diary

Hey, I had the good fortune to jet off to the Edinburgh Fringe over the weekend. It was my first time to the festival – but not to the city (which is as beautiful as ever and seems particularly alive when populated with strange and wacky students and artistes from all over the world). I arrived after the travel-trip from hell on the Friday night and flew back last night, so I had just two days to spend at the world’s most renowned theatre/comedy festival. I am glad to report that not only have I returned with my sanity intact, but I actually had a pretty good run at the festival.

Best. Holiday. Photo. Ever.

Best. Holiday. Photo. Ever.

Everything at the festival is winding down at the moment, so it’s unlikely that this review will be of any use to anyone, but it’s handy to have a place to jot down my thoughts on what we liked and disliked on your trip, what we discovered and what we missed, what we’d like to see more of and what we’d try to avoid the next time around. Today is a Bank Holiday Monday in the UK (if it only it were here) and – I think – the last major day of the festival. The atmosphere in general seemed to be one of winding down and relief.

We had the good fortune to have our own intelligence gathered by friends and relatives who had been able to attend the event earlier in the month. With their recommendations (which mostly seemed to be what to avoid), we launched a tactical expedition. All the kudos must go to my better half, displaying (as ever) her keen analytical and tactical abilities in managing to get us to see seven shows over the space of a crowded Saturday and Sunday. Not only were they seven shows, they were seven very good shows (okay, well, seven above-average shows with a few examples of awesomeness thrown in).

We were staying at a “city centre” (those inverted commas and italics are intentional) hotel, where we lived in a cardboard shoebox with a single wallpapered wall. I don’t mention the wallpaper as a complaint, just that I found it odd they gave up after doing one wall. The staff were – in fairness – great, but dealing with inadequate facilities. We had to queue half-an-hour for breakfast on Saturday morning, which got us into the town a bit later than we expected.

Utilising the keen scheduling abilities that we are renowned for, we enjoyed a two hour ramble which involved picking up tickets for all the shows we would attend during our trip and a twenty-minute trip to the Edinburgh Book Festival at 10am. We browsed the shop (and I was pleased to discover that there was a whole bookcase of Sandman books available) and determined that Mark Millar was the guest of honour that evening. My better half kindly offered to indulge my nerdiness, but we had better things to do that evening.

So began a tradition (so much as anything on a two-day trip can be a tradition) of spending mid-morning in “New Town” (Princes Street and George Street) and the rest of the day in “Old Town” (the Royal Mile). I will concede on crossing the river that I took a while to re-adjust to Edinburgh’s rare (and magnificent) three dimensional topography. Basically, some streets are higher than others, meaning adjoining roads are as likely to be bridges over where you want to be as they are to slope down to them. We didn’t really lose much time, and it was a stunning example of what makes Edinburgh so amazingly unique – along with the rest of the architecture in the city. Seriously, run a Google Image Search on Edinburgh and you’ll be blown away. Oh wait, we’ve already done it for you. You don’t have to thank us.

How are the girls going to weasle their way out of this one?

How are the girls going to weasel their way out of this one?

Anyway, our first play (chosen to ‘ease’ us into the festival and also to be satisfactory to both of us rather than one or the other) was Wind in the Willows. Presented by the Cambridge Union Amatuer Dramatic Club (it’s a mouthful), the play was a lovely bit of insubstantial fluff that managed to entertain the audience, both young and old. Clever use of props and character and jokes meant for all age groups made it nice up-beat, not-too-heavy-on-the-old-gray-matter sort of play. Most of the performers were great. I’d be remiss if I didn’t repeat a comparison between the portrayal of Toad and the Hugh Laurie characters on Black Adder (the Georges), as it’s pretty damn apt, old boy. The actor landed with the rather dull part of Ratty makes the most of his role and is incredibly engaging despite being ‘the dull one’ of the ensemble. Above average production values and a fair bit of audience acknowledgment, as well as a gentle sense of humour make it a solidly entertaining start to the day.

Somewhat befitting the play’s skillful evocation of youth, we both found it highly amusing that the play culminates in a battle of boys vs. girls. I think Toad would agree with us if we called it jolly good fun.

I window into the darkness of the human soul... or, err, the darkness of Ernest's apartment...

I window into the darkness of the human soul... or, err, the darkness of Ernest's apartment...

After that light fare to ease us in, we went straight for the heavy stuff. Ernest and the Pale Moon, the only play we got to see that had been heavily recommended to us by friends and family and the only one of the shows that we saw that we booked ahead of time. I’m of two minds about the play. I loved the style and the sound (and the performances) and most of the technical aspects of the piece, but I found the script itself lacking. The play starts off pretty dark and goes straight for pitch black. From the setup we sense the play is aspiring to Poe, but the writing itself doesn’t really get off the ground until the play goes from echoing to outright stealing.

Still, despite my misgivings, the staging is amazing, as is the sound design and as are the performers, who often manage to provide a soundtrack musical and vocal at the same time. The more I think back on it, the more these technical elements impress, but I remember feeling more than a little let down coming out. One things that the troupe might have been better served to provide a direct adaptation of one of the works of Poe that provided the references peppered throughout the play. To be fair, however, neither of the two of us thought it was anything less than a very good and interesting play (in fact, my girlfriend thought it was great).

This was followed by a light dinner in The Lot, a small restaurant in the shadow of the castle at the back of Greenmarket. I think it used to be a church or something. Anyway, three courses for £14 each – including the best Tomato soup I have ever had (and the biggest portion of lamb). One to check out, and one to get in quick as it tend to fill up at dinner time (6pm).

Afterwards, having satiated our appetites for food and fine culture, we went straight to a show that was squarely aimed at this member of our expedition. How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, a seminar given at the Zoo, run by After Dark. Basically an excuse for madcap interactive zombie-themed comedy, the seminar was run by Doctor Dale and his crack team of zombie survival experts. Relying on a whole heap of audience suggestions and questions, such as whether zombies prefer smart brains or stupid brains (they don’t care, but stupid people are more likely to get eaten first), or how to distinguish a religious resurrection from a zombie resurrection (Jesus was the son of God, whereas most zombies aren’t the son of God; Jesus was fictional, but zombies are very real), or whether it’s a good idea to try to sneak through a heard of zombies by pretending to be one of them (see the answer to the ‘smart brains’ question above).

Admittedly the area is of niche interest to me as a cult film enthusiast, but it’s done with enough broad strokes to get laughs on the charm of the performers. Everyone is quick on their feet and the characters are cleverly disfunctional. The performance sold out and I got the impression that there were several repeat viewers. This is probably the highlight of my Fringe experience, as it’s the most successful interactive and improvisational show I’ve ever seen. Plus I learned a whole host of valuable facts and applicable skills.

I know I'm probably taking this too seriously, but why isn't that dude's stray touching his pineapple?

I know I'm probably taking this too seriously, but why isn't that dude's straw touching his pineapple?

This was followed by an evening with Foil Arms and Hog, the Irish comedy sketch troupe. The three lads had received a ‘Pick of the Fringe’ award by the time we arrived over and we can see why. A madcap hour of random sketches, the lads provide quick and clever laughs on a whole range of topics. There are even a few clever recurring elements in the show and more than a few sharp sideswipes at popular culture (including a hilarious trailer for ‘Pooh’ or the worst breakfast radio show in the world). Not all of their sketches were amazing, but there were a few chuckles at least in each and you were never more than two minutes away from a hilarious gutbusting laugh.

The three performers are highly skilled, both with comedic delivery and also just at acting. They were tested a bit by a heckler in the first row (who was likely doing something more than just the red wine, if you know what I mean), but the handled her in good sport and managed to still get the audience going. They never stopped to pick on her, and thus the audience was never really taken out of the frantic flow of things. Which is fantastic because the guys just build up momentum over the entire run of the show. They’ve apparently begun recording a series of audio sketches for a London-based radio station for their morning show, and we believe there are good things in the future for these three lads.

Given our late night before and early day to follow, we wisely retreated to bed following that show, arriving home for a not-unreasonable 12.30am – but we stopped to admire some amazing fireworks from the castle. We were up the following morning to check out of our hotel. Unimpressed by our experience the previous morning, we decided to head into down for a breakfast. Initially this appeared to have been a fatal mistake – it would appear that Scotland does not open before 11am on a Sunday. Still, we wandered down George Street long enough and we found an open restaurant.

Browns was the name of the place, and it provided an authentic Scottish breakfast – which I was to discover was an irish breakfast, but better value. Seriously, the portions were huge and the price was more than fair. My companion was able to order a fairly generous portion of melon and berries while I managed my fry-up. We were both impressed. Seriously, the food was so much more reasonable over there, and it was meant to be a tourist trap? What the hell is wrong with Ireland?

Anyway, we caught an early (11.15am) showing of Austin’s Women. Clearly payback for the aforementioned zombie show, this one-woman play had a target audience, and it was not young pop-culture-conscious males. Okay, I may be too vicious. It does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a Greatest Hits mix of one of the world’s most renowned female authors, performed by a very capable actress, with a large enough scale and a clever construct (she adds and removes items of clothing as she shifts through the characters). If I was an Austin fan, I am sure I would have been in paradise, but I’m not – and I wasn’t.

The play had all the problems of a Greatest Hits. The tracks are solid and entertaining and sound well, but they lose a lot out of context. On an album everything ties together, but here it’s just whatever sounds good. There’s no overarching structure or point to be made – it’s just a random collection of stuff that works well on its own. Some segments are stronger than others. The Harriet segment (from Emma) was great. But the problem is there didn’t seem be a grand point to all this other than that Jane Austen wrote a lot of women and some of them had great character with some pithy lines. Which would be fine, but for the fact that the tickets were the most expensive of all the ones we bought over the weekend.

Having sampled the high-end of production, we crossed the valley and made our way across to the Edinburgh College of Art. We’d bought tickets to see Her Yellow Wallpaper (and adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper – a short story by Charlotte Perkins). I had not heard of the piece beforehand, but my better half really wanted to see it performed and this performance was the best reviewed. Being honest, I was blown away. It really was a very pleasant surprise.

The production obviously wasn’t on the largest budget (relying on five chairs and five actresses, along with a pretty neat atmospheric soundtrack), but it worked. It was modest in its aims and very well put together. Dealing with patterns, the women in the chairs are all carefully choreographed as we follow or narrator on her breakdown, nervous or otherwise. It was modest, but very effective. I think that this was the best of the dramatic pieces that I had the good fortune to see over the weekend.

The final choice was a slight improvisation on my part. I’ve always wanted to see Faustus performed live (as I have longed to see Hamlet), so when we found out that there was a performance playing directly after Her Yellow Wallpaper, I insisted on adding it to our itinerary. It was – in many ways – the exact opposite of what we had just seen. And was the worst for it. The performances were solid, but the play seemed to rally against both its miniature budget and its modest scale. Condensing the play to an hour is tough, but necessary. I can’t really say how it was managed – but I do feel something was missing.

However, the production”s real flaw is that it seems to insist on doing things on as larger a scale as possible, rather than settling for the simple means evidently at its disposal. The performers could probably carry the play better on a blank stacge than the one peppered with conspicuous tables and chairs and fake blood and flashing lights. It distracts from what’s going on, while never making things very clear. Still, it’s a solid work with a capable cast. If only the director knew that…

So, that’s really it. We missed out on a few. My girlfriend’s older brother recommended Eric: Tales of a Submariner, but we couldn’t make it as it clashed with Her Yellow Wallpaper. We heard a lot of buzz around A-Team! The Musical, but it had sold out. I’m still browsing the web looking for a soundtrack.

All in all an amazing experience and one I wouldn’t hestitate to repeat next year. Just maybe with a better hotel.

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