Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2013

And so once again the Edinburgh Fringe Festival draws to a close for another year. I have just returned and what a joy it has been. If I don’t go one year I always feel that I am missing out on something special. So whilst I nervously await the arrival of my credit card statement what is to be said for the Edinburgh Fringe 2013?

Well beards and feminism are in, though not necessarily together. But certainly a strong female confidence is present along with men determined to be covered in a thick layer of hair despite the heat. Perhaps this year’s Fringe lacked some of the big name comedy headliners but the glory of Edinburgh is truly in the atmosphere it produces. The Royal Mile is a splendid epicentre for this global cultural feast. How strange that this small part of the UK should draw acts from all over the world. Yet you will find performers from China, Hungary, America, Brazil and many others all buzzing around the streets, mingling with the tourists in their macks.

The weather in Edinburgh as is custom rarely sticks to one setting. Clouds come and go, blocking out the summer sunshine, whilst the threat of rain is rarely far away. Even in this glorious summer we have experienced thus far there is still little doubt that it will rain on the Fringe. Yet perhaps that is exactly what a festival like this needs? Unpredictable weather outside surely encourages people to spend more time inside watching great culture, than propping up the bar and toasting the sunshine with a pint. The atmosphere is simply amazing. There is creativity pouring down every street. The beautiful architecture of the city only adds to the allure. I couldn’t imagine a festival being as successful in a modern city. It doesn’t matter if you lack talent, August in Edinburgh is the place to put down a cap and just go for it.

Stand-up comedy is the beating heart of the Fringe.
The stand out comics for me were easily Jason Byrne and Andrew Maxwell. Their experience and their material were exactly what was needed to deliver a big show on a Saturday night. For me a top comedian has to make you feel that the stuff they have been saying for the past 20 nights is being delivered for the first time to you here and now. These two do it tremendously well. Jason Byrne has so much energy that he can literally prance about for an hour and your sides would be splitting. It will be interesting to see how his persona transfers to TV.

I was really excited to get to see Sarah Millican at The Stand. It is a small venue for someone of her profile, but gave the evening an intimate feel. Personally she perhaps wasn’t as laugh out loud as I was expecting but perhaps it was me and the fact that I hadn’t had my quota of beer before her early show. Alcohol consumption by the audience should not be underestimated by a performer. It certainly helps an audience to relax, though too much can make them a little too keen to get involved. Some of the more alternative free acts would play early in the day, when quite frankly their routines don’t work on a sober crowd. Anyone who has ever stood in front of an audience (even to deliver something banal like training) knows how terrifying it can be. Stand-ups therefore deserve respect for trying but they should not automatically expect laughs. The best ones either have that look or know how to work a crowd. Too often though some acts blame the audience for not laughing at a funny gag when it really isn’t funny. One Dutch act I saw had a bit of a run-in with one audience member and went all Frankie Boyle on her, insulting her and the rest of us. You really have to make sure the audience is with you on that and we weren’t. So he didn’t get a tip. Another bugbear of mine is that many comedians who have an ethnic mixed heritage for some reason feel the need to explain their background to the audience without it being remotely linked to a gag. It is as if we had rewound twenty years and should be so shocked to see them on stage. Unless you’re going to tell something really poignant I would prefer you just tell me a joke and make me laugh.

For me a great stand-up can also hold a room without relying on the audience for participation. They are able to build a rapport with the crowd. It is always interesting to note how nervous the front row can be at a venue and how late sometimes those seats get filled. I don’t mind sitting down the front as you always get the best views. However I do mind when comedians have to pick and insult their audience to get laughs. The key is to have good material. Another is not to get sidetracked. One performer who shall remain nameless, for they are up for the top award, got so completely obsessed by the microphone stand that they lost it and died (in a performance sense) on stage. A very surreal moment as you watch someone desperately try to swim to the surface but only sink further.

Another performer I saw at The Stand was Mark Thomas. He is a comic I have always admired mainly because he has a real sense of purpose about his art. He bounded on stage and delivered a great hour. But I did leave a little disappointed. Admittedly his show is titled ‘100 Acts of Minor Dissent’ and it lived up to that name. But in my heart I wanted to hear something more from him, something more profound amidst the biggest financial crisis of our generation.

Some people book all their shows before they arrive but I like to leave room for surprises. The Free Fringe is great for this if you have an hour to fill. The Half-Price Hut is also perfect for deals to see shows that you perhaps wouldn’t catch otherwise. I managed to pick up a ticket for a Taiwanese/Russian dance play which is not something you see everyday.

The Free Fringe is a great idea because their is less pressure on both the audience and the performer. If things go wrong then OK, nobody really loses. When things go well the audience is happy and put some money in the bucket, though I’m sure the performers would like some more ‘donations’. ‘Death Ship 666’ was great for this because it was just a joy to watch. It started in the morning, the script was comical and the performances spot on. There was just enough ham in it not to be too nauseating. And most importantly it had the audience truly laughing.

Getting ahead in the crowd is as much half the skill as putting on a great show. It can be a real shame when you visit a show that has few people in the audience. It can get a little draining walking along the Royal Mile trying to avoid eye contact with the desperate youngsters thrusting a flyer in your face. At first it is great to take and absorb the vibe, deciding which shows to see. But by the end you lie to say you’ve already seen a show to avoid getting another leaflet to throw away.

There are many performers that come here with one person shows. Whilst I applaud anyone who does this, I feel that you have to ensure that you really are good for the performance to work. To hold an audience all by yourself for an hour takes great skill and before acts throw money at it they have to be sure they can do this. Far better to have other actors on stage to work off, particularly if not many show up to see it. What may not come into a performers mind is the importance of the venue itself. Not only can a good venue help promote your show and get passing interest, It can also add or take away from your performance. I saw one interpretation of Metamorphosis which I enjoyed though for me it had two major flaws. Firstly too much of the story took place off stage via pre-recorded elements and secondly too much action occurred low on the floor. I was sitting in the front row so had a great view but many further back would have struggled to see the intricacies of the performance. A great show is also no guarantee of a large audience. Ulysses was a fantastic production but the auditorium was less than a tenth full. For me the performance by Muireann Kelly as Molly Bloom was the best I saw at the Fringe (admittedly helped by a rather tight costume that (ahem) accentuated her assets). So it was a shame that so few attended. Even after a century it still has the power to shock.
Whilst there are opportunities for comedians and cabaret acts to do short guest performances in ‘Best of’ shows, perhaps there needs to be a similar medium for the theatrical performers. Equally some venues are simply too far away to attempt to get to when you have to make your way back into the city to see other shows.

With over 2,000 odd presentations these ‘Best of’ showcases are a great way of packing in as many performances as possible. A note has to go out to Ali McGregor for performing her sultry late-night variety show whilst heavily pregnant! I would request though that acts have different material for their guest slots on these shows. It is a bit frustrating (particularly for comedians) to see their show later and hear the same gags. They may act like rockstars but their fans want to hear the classics, the old stuff. Gags on the other hand need to be fresh. It also surprises me to note that some performers bring the same show to Edinburgh as previous years. I saw Sandi Toksvig perform her show My Valentine at the Pleasance. I really enjoyed it but my friends that I went with said that it was virtually the same as the one she put on last year. To me that is a bit of a shame. Whilst she is undoubtedly busy I do feel that every effort should be made to produce a new show each year.

I got to see fellow Essex Boy, Terry Alderton, in an Amnesty Podcast for the first time. I liked what I saw and he got me thinking about something he said. Having been in the industry for 20 odd years he noted that he hadn’t had a proper shot at a TV show. Yet here also on the bill were acts straight out of uni who had just been commissioned. It does make you wonder how acts get their big break. Is it merely whether someone at the BBC (or another provider) just likes their stuff? Is it all about networking like everything else?

The BBC had a major presence at this year’s Fringe. With daily radio broadcasts and recordings it was a great way to pass some time at free shows. In depth conversations with artists and producers really gives a great understanding of the process, time and dedication that is put into this craft. But also for someone like me who comes from a background where people simply don’t do this sort of thing, it proves that this is a real career path. Being creative and entertaining is something this country does fantastically well, which should be celebrated. Whilst it has taken a few knocks, the BBC has to be congratulated for the support and nurturing it gives to UK talent. In this respect it works perfectly as a public service broadcaster. Hopefully they can continue to open doors for performers from across the spectrum.

I was a little disappointed in the line-up for the Macmillan Cancer Charity Gig, usually the highlight of the Fringe. Normally a few ‘lesser’ names open the show before the ‘big guns’ come in to blow you away in the final act. Too many performers this year were from the Free Fringe and they really weren’t good enough to hold a crowd in such a large venue. Lee Nelson certainly stirred things up by discussing the independence referendum to be held next year. There were a few noisy foul comments about the English from some of the crowd which hopefully isn’t a sign of things to come. As someone who has worked and socialised with Scots all my life I do find the whole situation a bit odd. You do notice when walking around how Scottish the place is. This may seem like a peculiar statement, but walking around London for example, the international and the British are emphasised. There is little mention of the English element (or perhaps I just don’t notice). In Edinburgh everything is Scottish, from museums, to power companies, to shops, etc. There is little talk of Britain. Perhaps this is just branding for tourists but there is a worrying undercurrent of ‘Little Scotlanders’ which I don’t think is healthy.

The fact that Edinburgh still can’t get the trams sorted out proves that not everything that goes wrong is the fault of the English! I think the banter that we have is great and the atmosphere in the city as England faced Scotland at Wembley was electric. When Scotland scored first it seemed like a mass rally was taking place. You did think twice about venturing out as an Englishman, but that isn’t what Edinburgh is like, certainly not during the Fringe. It is a hive of creativity. A place where entertainment is King and you can drink in funky and obscure bars late into the night whatever day of the week it is.

Each year I do a few more touristy things. And this year I got to visit the old underground remnants of the city. It was great to witness the conditions our ancestors once existed in, though it would have been a better ambience if there weren’t emergency exit signs aglow everywhere. I hope eventually to actually make it to the Castle and the surrounding countryside which looks beautiful from the air. For that to happen though the Fringe is going to have to become a lot less interesting. Better start saving for next year, or better still produce something myself!