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Beginner’s Guide to the Edinburgh Fringe

2012 August 7

The Edinburgh Fringe has begun! I’m not there yet – I’ll get there next Saturday – but the Twitter updates from friends there are already making me jealous and nostalgic in almost equal measure. This year will be my fourth Fringe – so here’s a beginner’s guide from – if not an old hand – someone who’s been ’round the Edinburgh block a few times.

Welcome to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival! Wave goodbye to your money, sobriety and any semblance of a normal sleep pattern. Say hello to the weird, the wonderful, and hysterical, dry-heaving laughter of a kind that won’t quite translate to the outside world.

Get ready to start spotting your idols just walking down the street, get ready to say ‘no thanks’ to flyers roughly every 30 seconds, and wind up taking them anyway because the person handing you them was funny/charming/in a funny costume/worryingly eager. Primarily: prepared to be completely overwhelmed for choice.

No poster stays up for long before someone posts another over it

The very first time I went to the Fringe, I just dipped in for a day when I happened to be in Scotland. My travelling companion and I almost had panic attacks when we started leafing through the Fringe Brochure (about 1/3 the size of a Yellow Pages directory and stuffed full of tempting offers). In the end, we managed three shows in one day, literally ran from one venue to another to make it in time and managed a pretty full Fringe experience: Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical, the wonderful Aussie musical comedy guys Tripod, and a belly-flop of a gig when we paid £10 to see Phill Jupitas Reads Dickens. It was literally just Phill Jupitas reading some of Dickens’ lesser-known short stories and – on that day – he was in a foul mood. Also: the day cost us £45 each in tickets alone. This was before I knew about the Free Fringe (more on that in a moment).

The great thing about the last couple of years when I’ve been up with a show (mostly just doing the flyering for them) is that way you have a big group of mates up there, and you can learn from each other’s viewing mistakes and benefit from each other’s recommendations. There are more shows at Edinburgh than you’ll ever be able to get through, even if you’re there for the full three weeks with both a millionaire’s budget and a jetpack to get from venue to venue – so choosing how to spend your time is important.

Royal Mile

Lying on the floor in an ‘installation’: my unfavourite flyering technique

This is where is all happens. The Royal Mile is a cobbled, pedestrianised stretch of road which – for the time of the Fringe – will become a gauntlet of street performers, impromptu performances, and a small forest’s worth of flyers. Shows with cool costumes will be flyering in character, improvisers will be improvising, musicians will be singing, and three small Fringe stages will be showing 10-20 minute showcases from a wide variety of shows.

PBH Free Fringe

The PBH Free Fringe is a wonderful institution. It’s been running since 1996, put together by a guy called Peter Buckley Hill (known to many as PBH.) As the Fringe became more and more expensive, the financial risks increased for performers. While headline names from the telly have guaranteed audiences, the vast majority of performers will be lucky if they break even after a run. As the main groups of venues increased their prices over the years, the financial risks of taking a show up to the Fringe also increased. A debt of a few grand isn’t unheard of, and is easily enough to wipe out a small arts troupe. To counteract this, PBH set up the Free Fringe, where performers don’t pay for the venues and audiences don’t pay to enter.

There’s lots of bucket-shaking at the end, but you can see a show and then decide what it’s worth. A good guide: give as many pounds as you would give it stars (out of five). If it sucked – you can just walk out. No obligation. No misgynistic asshole will call. If it rocked your world, give them a fiver (or more!) and buy a book or a CD from the performers. It’s good manners to buy a drink at the venues to make sure they stay with the Free Fringe next year, and to make sure you have enough change at the end. (If you’re broke, you can always just shake the performer’s hand and say thank you.)

Fringe Adventurer’s Cheat Sheet

  • Get hold of a PBH Free Fringe guide as soon as you ca.n It lists all the free shows and is arranged by time (not the mind-boggling alphabetic listing of the main programme) so if it’s, say, 3:00 and you want to to see something before your next show at 5:00, it’s easy to flip through and see what’s on.
  • Avoid TV names unless you really, really love them. Because their shows are guaranteed to be pricier, and – though it’s not the same – you see them at home on the telly anyway. It’s worth remembering at the Fringe that small audiences don’t necessarily mean bad performances and big audiences don’t mean quality. Go take a punt on something weird and wonderful for cheaps. You might not be able to see it anywhere else.
  • Try to get enough sleep. Yes, this runs antithetical to the spirit of the Fringe where there is a constant pressure to do and see everything, and some of the best shows are on late at night, but try to get enough sleep to stay sane, healthy, and up to the task. A couple of times in the past, I’d realise I was finding something intellectually funny but was just too shattered to fully appreciate it. Other times there were slumps and tears. Just… look after yourselves, eh guys?
  • Comfortable Shoes. You will be walking up and down a lot of hills, often cobbled, and often in the rain. Get some comfortable footwear, and maybe carry a change of socks to prevent trenchfoot. You don’t want to end up like I did last year, losing a whole afternoon to a trip to A&E to have a swollen, numb, tingly foot looked at. (Nothing broken, luckily, but annoying nonetheless.)

And, finally, recommended shows

These are on my Edinburgh to-do list on account of how I’ve seen the performers (and sometimes whole preview shows) already and I can vouch for their awesomeness. These are arranged alphabetically to avoid having to pick or choose an order:

The Beta Males – The Space Race

I’ve been a mad fangirl for these guys ever since I saw some little show of theirs in a room above a pub. Huge, howling belly laughs roughly every 10 seconds. These guys are taut, high-energy, dark and twisted, but never go for cheap shots. Blokey without ever straying anywhere near asshat UNILAD territory. Their shows are a series of sketches with an overall plot arc, and their first show I saw – The Bunker – is still quoted in my group of friends with the fanaticism of Monty Python fans. Trailer here. Random awesome YouTube video of theirs here.

Dirty Great Love Story
A two-person love story told through poetry. That explanation doesn’t begin to do it justice. It’s heartfelt, down to earth, sometimes awkward, sometimes hilarious, and with polished flows which will make you pause and go “ooooh” until another line brings you back up cackling. Written and performed by spoken word allstars Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna. Trailer here.

Fat Kitten Improv
I first saw these guys in 2009 and I’ve been hooked ever since. Full disclosure: they are my mates. Fuller disclosure: they’re my mates ’cause I loved them on stage so much I set about getting to know them. Once reviewed as “well-spoken but batshit insane”. Also they’re a mixed-gender team of predominantly huggable lefty feminists and won’t take cheap shots. Except the odd cock joke. (Hee hee. Cocks.) Improvised comedy will be different every time, so if you like them you can keep coming back and always see something fresh. Shout out your own suggestions and see them acted out for your viewing pleasure. Dance, monkeys, dance! Part of the PBH Free Fringe. Sample here.

Lashings of Ginger Beer Time
Like many things at the Fringe, these guys are hard to pin down – so I’ll go with their own description: “Lashings of Ginger Beer Time is a Queer Feminist Burlesque Collective. Combining songs, dancing, stand-up and sketches, luxe Victoriana drag with thigh-high fetish-boots, upbeat musical theatre optimism with 21st-century political rage, this is music hall for the internet age.” Saw them the other week with fellow BadReppers Jenni, Rhian and Miranda and the show really made me laugh. And cry. Like, lots. *shakes fist* *fails to hold grudge* *hugs Lashings people* Taster vids here.

Loretta Maine
Musical Comedy creation of the wonderful Pippa Evans, Loretta Maine is a fucked up Courtney Love-esque singer songwriter. Vulnerability, self-destructive everything, kickass and more than a hint of menace. Her show two years ago, I’m Not Drunk, I Just Need to Talk to You, was a highlight of the Fringe and I’ve had the poster on my wall ever since. Song here. Another one here. Clip of previous show here.

Max and Ivan Are… Con Artists
Two man high energy sketch duo. They share a lot of awesomes with the Beta Males in their format – minimal, inventive staging, a cast of bizarre characters and a high-energy sketch show with an overall narrative. This year’s one is about a band of assassins, and Max Olesker doing his Joanna-Lumley-posh-voiced character makes me feel funny things in my tummy. Trailer here.

The Mechanisms
Musical steampunks in space. “A band of immortal space pirates roaming the universe in the starship Aurora. If you’re very lucky, they might sing you a story before they shoot you.” With a sound defined as ‘Space Folk’ and mad theatrics and kick-ass (feminist!) reworkings of traditional songs and fairy tales. But IN SPACE! Full disclosure: my housemate is in this one. Complete full disclosure: I had to contain my fangirling when I heard their album, because otherwise it could have been awkward. Part of the PBH Free Fringe. Musical preview here.

Other Voices Spoken Word
Oh hai, this is my show. I mentioned it the other week. Put together by the wonderful Fay Roberts and featuring (I’m not just saying this) some of my favourite female performance poets on the scene, I’m chuffed to bits to be part of it. We’ve had some very nice reviews already. Apparently I “delighted the room with poems laced with puns and elegant, elaborate language. By turns comic and poignant, political and surreal, Hannah’s poetry made the audience laugh and made them think, a dangerous combination.” Just sayin’. Part of the PBH Free Fringe.

  • The 2012 Fringe runs from 3-27 August.

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