South Bridge, 9am. The drizzle-stained streets of old Edinburgh town are near empty, or at least as close to empty as they get this time of year. Its few pedestrians walk briskly, lanyards flapping around their necks sporting different job titles – Underbelly Technician, Assembly Front of House, Zoo Performer – as they prepare for the day. It is easy to imagine that many of these professionals who are visiting Edinburgh enjoyed a range of high-quality accommodation similar to what the Bonham Hotel offers, a well-known hotel Edinburgh offer to allow them to give their all throughout the festival. They pass silent shop fronts enveloped in flyers and posters, and pubs of every shape and size displaying an official Venue sign above their doors. In the soft damp morning it feels like the city is taking a breath before it all begins again – thousands of punters crammed into its narrow lanes and alleyways. It’s Friday: the second-busiest day of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
This is my third Fringe, first as a regular punter. Previously I have been a performer and, last year, a box office operator. Work commitments mean that I can only spend three days at the month-long festival this year, and having just arrived I already know that it’s not enough time. Over 3,000 shows of every variety – stand-up, theatre, cabaret, storytelling, and magic to name but a few – take place across 294 venues, making this the largest arts festival in the world. Last year a baffled American tourist wandered into the box office I worked in and asked us what the Fringe was – only when trying to describe it do you appreciate the bizarre nature of this enterprise. In the end, we told him it was like a giant Comic-Con and he left satisfied, but this comparison doesn’t quite do justice to the wide range of writing, design, performance and sheer graft that goes into the festival.
A quick look at the Courtyard’s facilities, including a gin tent, will hint to the onlooker that the Fringe, despite its counter-cultural origins, predominantly attracts a comfortably middle-class audience.
On my first morning, I head to Pleasance Courtyard, my former place of employment, to print off my tickets. The Pleasance Theatre is based in London, but closes shop every summer and moves its operations to two Edinburgh University premises – the Courtyard and the Dome. Right now the Courtyard is practically deserted except for staff, but it will soon fill with families coming for early children’s performances and later with Londoners travelling by train to spend the weekend. A quick look at the Courtyard’s facilities – a gin tent, prosecco bar and pulled-pork hut to name a few – will hint to the onlooker that the Fringe, despite its counter-cultural origins, predominantly attracts a comfortably middle-class audience. There is a growing concern in the British arts world that the overwhelmingly middle-class vibe of the festival has overshadowed contributions of minority groups such as artists of colour, disabled artists, and artists from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. These are the people, struggling to thrive in popular culture, for whom fringe festivals were created in the first place. These lesser-known artists are already at a disadvantage due to the sheer cost of performing at the festival, and the struggle to attract audiences means many consider the enterprise more trouble than it’s worth. If they cannot find an audience in Edinburgh, this begs the question: how “fringey” is the Fringe?
On a weekend, however, every show is in with a fair shout of selling out. Already the “Sold Out” board is peppered with performances, including three for which I have tickets – Daphne (a sketch group), Rose Matafeo, and We Are Ian. I’m not sure what We Are Ian is exactly, but I’ve been told separately by two friends working at the festival that I have to see it. I’ve booked several shows in advance, knowing from experience that everything will sell out at the weekend. Most of those tickets are for “alternative” comedians, whose work is always interesting to experience as part of a crowd. Alternative comedy is one of the most divisive forms of performance art – people are more likely to resent strange humour than simply not care for it, and a comedian’s greatest struggle at the festival is to discover their niche and appeal to them over the thousands of other shows available.
Having gotten my tickets I met with my friend working as a flyerer for Pleasance. Flyering is generally considered the toughest Fringe job of them all – hours in the rain flogging sketch and stand-up to punters for minimum wage, if you’re being paid at all, competing with hundreds of others doing the same task feet away from you. My friend promotes shows co-produced by the Pleasance, which has its advantages in that some shows sell themselves and need very little promotion – but others don’t fare so well. There is one particular show, a primetime slot musical in the theatre’s largest venue, which has yet to sell out its ambitious seat numbers of over 700. The street team are required to wear rainbow glitter and cowboy hats, along with t-shirts emblazoned with bawdy puns, whilst promoting this show. I gather that none of the team particularly relish this aspect of the job.
What could be more Fringe than two Irish guys dressed as mimes explaining the intricacies of time-travel in a small, dungeon-like theatre?
At midday a few of us went to my first Fringe show, Mimes in Time. Created by Irish company Dreamgun, the show explains how mimes came to control time-travel and eventually acquire the status of immortal gods. There is very little mime involved, but this is compensated by the amount of time travel. It’s a great start for the weekend: what could be more Fringe than two Irish guys dressed as mimes explaining the intricacies of time-travel in a small, dungeon-like theatre? They’re performing in Underbelly Cowgate, a part of the city hidden under a bridge between thin, steep hills. Cowgate is also home to the Three Sisters, which during August becomes Free Fringe venue the Free Sisters, a labyrinth of bars and rooms of every shape and size that squeezes scores of shows into its walls.
I then return to the Courtyard to find my flatmate from last year, who’s going to a free but ticketed show there. She’s not entirely sure what it’s about, but it’s free, which is what’s really important. By now it’s raining and the Courtyard is crammed with raincoat-clad punters, clutching pints and sheltering under awnings as they decide what to go to next. The “Sold Out” board now looks more like a full festival programme – tickets to pretty much anything are scarce on the ground. I manage to also get a free ticket to The Duke, which I am told is a “comedy-variety-thing”, but is in actual fact a Welshman telling us the story of his mother’s porcelain figure of the Duke of Wellington. It’s an engaging story, though his constant allusions to Syrian refugees seem a bit contrived, like he’s trying to make himself sound topical. It transpires at the end that the show is free because he wants us to donate to Save the Children after the performance, so I feel slightly monstrous for being so cynical, especially given the immense personal expense a Fringe show entails. Most sell-out shows don’t make back their money, so God knows the financial damage of a totally free performance.
My next show is Daphne, a three-man sketch group that sold-out the previous year and looks to be doing the same this time around. They are very much a show that appeals to the fringe masses, mainstream and well-executed sketch comedy of the English school, performing in one of the basement rooms of the Courtyard. Afterwards I meet a friend working as a venue technician for C Venues, which operates in seven venues across the city. She arrived in Edinburgh on July 17th and spent the first two weeks building the theatres. Like many Fringe workers, she is a volunteer, working long hours for next to nothing. Many venues, including C and Pleasance, offer workers a small subsidy and free accommodation in lieu of payment. Other jobs are waged but workers must find their own digs, no small feat in Edinburgh during August. Many of the city’s citizens leave the city for the month and sub-let their flats and houses for up to triple the regular rate, meaning even a paid employee will probably end up making a loss after deposits and rent. Venues are generally compassionate employers, but it doesn’t mean the work can’t get brutal – the closest I got to a day off last year was the day I only worked for eight hours, and I was one of the lucky ones.
Essentially, the Fringe cannot run without these volunteers – they are the only cost-effective method of getting theatres built, box offices run, and crowds safely controlled. By and large these volunteers are students eager to experience the Fringe, but unable to afford coming as a regular punter. It can be a very positive experience, and venues are always grateful for the work put in, but as with the problems faced by minority artists, the difficult accessibility of the festival for students somewhat flies in the face of what the Fringe apparently represents. The jobs come with significant personal risk – most volunteers must help with get-ins and get-outs, which require heavy lifting and manual labour, with little basic training. In a way, the Fringe indirectly relies on people being unable to afford its inflated costs in order to function.
In a way, the Fringe indirectly relies on people being unable to afford its inflated costs in order to function.
I next get a ticket for Max and Ivan, another Fringe staple that’s a guaranteed sell-out. Everyone I knew raved about them last year, to the extent that I was rather underwhelmed when I saw them at last. This is the trouble with month-long festivals: shows are so hyped up that you can’t help but feel disappointed by outstanding performances. This time around I have a far better time of it, and am in good spirits when I head to the Gilded Balloon to see Australian sketch group Aunty Donna. Gilded Balloon is in fact a church – a week before I arrived, comedian Bec Hill got married there, renting out a theatre and conducting the ceremony onstage. It’s one of the most popular Fringe venues and the home of Late N’ Live, the Fringe’s spiritual late-night after-party. Aunty Donna has sold-out, and the queue to the theatre is filled with excitable twentysomethings who’s seen their YouTube series – and one uncomfortable looking older couple in their midst. But even they smile at the exceptionally exuberant performance style of this group, one of the best at the Fringe.
Saturday gets off to a slower start – persistent rain and larger numbers of people in the streets for the busiest day of the Fringe week makes finding a show with empty seats a difficult task. We squeeze into a narrow little room in The Globe Bar on Niddry Street to see Cavan the Craic, a Free Fringe show hosted by comedians Davey Reilly and Aidan Greene from (you guessed it!) Cavan. There are several strains of “free fringes” within the official Fringe, the premise being that acts get free theatres and bypass the financial impediments of bigger venues. The disadvantage of this is that acts often have no control over what venue they are assigned or what time they will be on at – any time between 11am and 2am is fair game. Davey and Aidan have lucked out in the sense that there is a pre-existing stage in their venue, which is more than most get, and they’re on at a humane hour. Another common issue for free shows is that audiences who have no idea what to expect can be difficult to win over. A bit of opening banter with the Cavan the Craic audience establishes that many were attracted to it because it was dry, indoors and in a pub, and the acts have to work hard to get them onside. In the end the show is a success, but for a good chunk of the show most of the audience are stony-faced.
One could argue that once an act is a regular on the national broadcaster their work ceases to qualify as “fringe”, yet many of those acts return to Edinburgh every year and sell out shows on their names alone.
Every second person you pass in Edinburgh during August is probably a stand-up comedian with a pile of their flyers in their backpack, ready to give out at a moment’s notice. It can be extremely hard for them to compete with “the ones off the telly” – the handful of comedians recognisable from Mock the Week or Live at the Apollo to whom people are more inclined to buy tickets. This is another quandary within the melting pot of the festival: one could argue that once an act is a regular on the national broadcaster their work ceases to qualify as “fringe”, yet many of those acts are still returning to Edinburgh every year and selling out shows on their names alone.
My next stop is Tom Neenan’s Vaudeville, being performed on the adorably named Buttercup Stage, which turns out to be a shipping container painted purple in Underbelly Med Quad. Neenan’s one of those niche performers who flourishes best at the Fringe, a storyteller who plays multiple roles himself in a cross between sketch comedy and Hammer Horror. This year’s show is set in the old Vaudeville Theatre, and ends with the rather original twist that (spoiler alert) we, the audience, were dead the entire time. As we leave we’re given badges reading “Ghost” to remind us, as well as sneak in a little publicity for the show. Badges are a very popular way for Fringe shows to gain word-of-mouth traction, with festival workers festooning their lanyards with as many badges as possible.
I head back to Courtyard for what turns out to be my favourite show, Rose Matafeo is Finally Dead, in which stand-up Rose Matafeo plans her dream funeral in a converted attic theatre. Having seen her do a half-hour set last year in a Free Fringe venue that was essentially a curtain drawn over the end booth of a pub, a room with four walls is a big step up. As Saturday wears on and more pints are consumed, audiences become more restless, and Matafeo is forced to interrupt the show twice to show some of them how to turn on and off the air conditioner behind them (one issue with makeshift theatres is that their ventilation is not suited to accommodate a large amount of people, and many rooms become extremely warm to the point that people start fainting). Despite this, and a few other small skirmishes, Matafeo puts on a great show. There is a far higher number of female comedians at the Fringe than one may think, who manage to overcome cultural prejudice time and again to create sell-out shows. The lack of female comics on television and in film reinforces the idea that women aren’t as funny as men; when a woman does appear on a panel show or quiz show, they’re usually regarded as the lone ‘token woman’ rather than equally funny to her male counterparts. What’s clear from spending any amount of time at the Fringe is that there are hundreds upon hundreds of women working the circuit and looking for their big break, who aren’t making the transition to the mainstream, and not for lack of talent.
Next is Sam Simmons, last year’s winner of “Best Show” at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. It was a surprise win, as Simmons is quite a niche comedian, which is clear from the first 10 minutes of his performance (during which he uses fake kangaroo paws for hands). Throughout the show, Simmons alludes to the negative consequence of his comedy award: it has drawn a large audience more conservative than his usual crowd, many of whom are going solely on the basis of his award, who don’t react well to the stranger elements of his show. He describes a typical audience member, a white man in his late fifties, who’ll spend the show scowling with his arms crossed. (After the show, my friend tells, me he was sitting next to a man exactly fitting this description.) Next stop is Princes of Main, also performing in the Buttercup container – a sketch group not as manic as Aunty Donna, but with a bit more quirk than Daphne.
We Are Ian taps into a distinctly “millennial” vein of thought; the unspoken anxiety that we’re not having as much fun as we ought to be having in our twenties.
At last, it is time to see the much-anticipated We Are Ian. Developed by English company In Bed With My Brother, it can best be described as “rave-clowning”. In a bid to recreate the hedonistic house movement of the 1980s, as recalled in a voiceover by the performers’ 46 year-old friend Ian, the show goes back to party like it’s 1989. This involves giving everyone in the crowd a brown biscuit, re-enacting a bit of football rioting, and coercing the audience into joining the performers onstage for a rave at the finale. Despite the clear ring of nostalgia through the performance, there’s something very refreshing about We Are Ian. It taps into a distinctly “millennial” vein of thought; the unspoken anxiety that we’re not having as much fun as we ought to be having in our twenties.
My final day in Edinburgh opens to glorious summer weather, and my clothes have gone from being too light for the persistent rain to too heavy for the heat. I have one final show lined up before having to return to the airport: Alison Spittle Discovers Hawaii. At the top of a very steep staircase in a building called The Counting House, I’m greeted by Spittle who gives me a lei and invites me to sit down. The tiny space being used as her stage up front is filled up with inflatable palm trees, monkeys and flamingos. When the house is full, Spittle runs up to the stage space and cheerfully welcomes us to her stand-up show about her emotional breakdown. Spittle draws out the funnier aspects of her mental health problems whilst speaking candidly about a dark time in her life, displaying a deft creativity that is deeply admirable.
Goldsmith explains why he’s doing a Free Fringe show at the end of his set – he sold-out rooms in the likes of Gilded Balloon, and still came away £5,000-7,000 worse off.
I think I’m finished, but manage to fit one last show before I leave: Stuart Goldsmith. Goldsmith is an English stand-up best known for his podcast The Comedian’s Comedian, in which he interviews stand-ups from under the radar Fringe performers to Jimmy Carr and Dara O’Briain on how they write their material. Goldsmith is performing in the Liquid Rooms, and to find the venue one must go up a hill, down a hill, up a dangerously narrow alleyway, and down some tucked-away steps, ending up in a beer garden that seems to be on top of a building hidden from the naked eye. The room is packed out and excited to see a performer, who usually plays ticketed venues, for free. Goldsmith explains why he’s doing a Free Fringe show at the end of his set – he sold-out rooms in the likes of Gilded Balloon, and still came away £5,000-7,000 worse off. He also took the time to beseech the audience to see the lesser-known acts and not just “the ones off the telly”, as the Fringe audience is wont to do.
Unable to put off the journey to the airport any longer, I bid my friends goodbye and go to get the bus at Waverley Bridge, walking through the street performers and punters flooding the Royal Mile. I pass musicians, magicians, face-painted families and actors trading flyers on the busiest street in the city. Sixty hours after I first arrived, I pull away from the dark grey skyline of the old city knowing I’ve barely put a dent in what the Fringe has to offer. And, while this is a pity, it’s also a reason for optimism. It’s infinitely encouraging to think that the diverse range of performance I’ve seen, from clown raving to time-travelling mimes, is only a fraction of a fraction of the creativity alive in the city during this festival. Any enterprise as large as the Fringe will inevitably have problems attached to it, and whilst diversity and financial issues need to be addressed, they have not stopped imagination from expressing itself in over 3,000 different ways. Despite the monetary risk, despite the stuffy venues, sulky audiences something that’s beautiful, bizarre and bigger than themselves. No, sixty hours is not enough time to experience the Edinburgh Fringe – but even a full month here wouldn’t half cover it.