The Must-Read Guide: An Extremely Subjective Review of the Edinburgh Fringe

 Following a week at the Edinburgh Fringe, I decided I’d write up a review of what I saw, with links to information about the good ones for anyone who’s going this week or next. It’s really more of a blog.

My colleagues at work think I’ve been on holiday in Scotland. That’s wrong; I’ve actually been at the Edinburgh Fringe, which I’m pretty sure is the least Scottish thing you can possibly do. If you’re not acquainted, it’s a three week long theatre and comedy festival for established performers and talented newcomers alike (not to mention some who are crap) based around the centre/ old town of Edinburgh.

This is not pronounced Edinburg, if you’re Spanish or German, nor Edinborough, if you’re North American, but more like Edinbruh. Imagine you’re so hip-hop you don’t even say bro, and you’re talking to a Bosnian man. If the play, improv shows, spoken word, sketches, stand up comedy and people in weird costumes handing out flyers aren’t enough, there’s a book festival that runs for part of it, as well as the Edinburgh tattoo at the castle. It’s fair to say that the city it gets a little bit crowded.

And it’s a stunning city. It’s got the most unfairly clustered together collection of beautiful old buildings that I’ve encountered outside Dresden, combined with cafes and pubs with quirky names (the Banshee Labyrinth, anyone?). From the centre you can see a craggy yet fairly shallow extinct volcano called Arthur’s Seat. It’s like Pride Rock in the rain. It might be the best thing about the city, from a distance.

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

Apart from the shows, I did all the things I’d missed about being in the UK. Told credulous Canadians that I was the bastard offspring of Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap and the Loch Ness monster. Ate toad in the hole. Went to Nando’s and asked the waitress what time she got off, to make sure that it was a sufficiently cheeky Nando’s. Prepared to complain about the weather and was surprised when it was sunny most of the time. Complained about pipers.

So, onto the shows. This is seven days’ worth, so it’s going to be a long read.

Saturday: My first taste of the Fringe was a comedian called Ash Frith. He was likeable enough, and a confident performer, but not especially funny. NEXT!

The same evening, I got treated to my first live sketch comedy from a duo called Lazy Susan. One of them flyered us outside the venue, saying something like: “They’re this comedy duo, and they do these sketches that are a bit like, wow, how did they come up with that?” With that review, my expectations were not high. And yet, once they took to the stage, they had me in stitches. The show doesn’t lose a lot in the telling, it loses everything, but the highlight had to be the entrepreneur and self-help guru Jackie Sánchez taking to the stage to tell us how she had got a slug (played by a woman in a sleeping bag) to start a small business. “And ah have had sex with over 3,000 main. Thet’s noat a qualification, ah’m just very prood o’ that” she adds. Again; just go see it.

The last show of the day was from actor-turned-comedian Christian Steele. “It’s called Gloom Hunter but it’s not really gloomy” was how he sold it. Now, I’m always sceptical of shows focussing on how one person overcame illness/ addiction/ depression that are designed fill you with renewed lust for life (ha) and make you shout, “Mother, I’m leaving my job in the call centre- I’m off to Thailand to work with hairy-nosed otters!” and share a lot of irritating inspirational statuses on Facebook. I needn’t have worried. It wasn’t inspirational, and it wasn’t even  funny. I deeply believe that there’s a lot of comic potential in dark, depressing themes- I love Withnail and I and Four Lions– but Christian Steele could do with more punchlines.

Sunday: The next day I had my first taste of an improv group, with an improvised Sherlock Holmes story. In hindsight, I saw a lot of fucking improv and not all of it was good. But it was fun, and the group doing it were very sharp, with some very witty asides (including one about Edward Said’s Orientalism, which I guess says something about the kind of people who go to/ perform at the Fringe). Sherlock Holmes maybe wasn’t a great choice, as they needed to do some very sudden tying together at the end of how the “mystery” actually interlinked, but it makes me glad that some people are actually willing to perform improvised theatre to strangers, free of charge, for several weeks, because they like doing it.

Later on, I saw Shitfaced Shakespeare. This seems to be something of an institution now, and it’s predictably hilarious as a drunk Passanio (on the night I saw- they alternate which actor is getting drunk) muddled his way through The Merchant of Venice, remembering other characters’ lines better than his own and at one point straddling his friend, crying “I’ve got a month to turn him!” and talking over the others in the final scene to explain that he feels that the play is unfair on Shylock, who really isn’t that villainous. This play, it should be mentioned, took place in an enormous purple inflatable cow.

Monday: This was a day for serious themes, as my family took me to Every Brilliant Thing. It’s a serious play about depression with a light touch, though, I felt, somehow not quite satisfying- it was left very ambiguous, but given that it’s based mainly on the writer’s own life, it would be dishonest to pretend that everything is over in a satisfying way. I’m not sure it lives up to the hype of the reviews, but it was worth seeing.

That was followed by Spilikin, which alternated between a love story between a nerdy teenager wondering if he might have a hereditary brain condition and a bratty girl who wants to go to drama school; and the girl as an old woman with dementia, talking to the robot her husband built to keep her company. It raises some weird, disturbing questions- “If you like, I could talk as though I am Raymond. Would you like that, Sally?” says the robot at one point, before assuming the role of the husband- who is referred to as being “at a conference”. Her alternations between trusting and resenting the robot are sad and extremely well-performed.

The same evening saw Parker & Norris, the second two-woman sketch group (“I can’t do sketch comedy! That’s for failed actors who aren’t brave enough to be comedians!”- as they put it-) of my Fringe. Their sketches were a shade more contemporary and grounded in reality than Lazy Susan, with the Little Mermaid song Poor Unfortunate Soul reworked to be about the Tory government, and plenty of making fun of the industry. It had a few moments that were a bit too grotesque for me, reminding me of Little Britain, and made me wonder if something like that, which was awful on TV, might have actually been funny live. It was hilarious, so if I go back in the future, my resolution might have to be to go to more sketch shows and less improv.

Tuesday: The Oxford Imps (another improv group) have a good rapport and it’s good to see how there seems to be no leader in the group, but nature of the show- a selection of improvised sketches- isn’t all that exciting and they clearly didn’t know what to do with the audience’s suggestion of “shovelmaker” as a job, going into a sketch about one of them secretly being the devil.

That was followed by an improv murder mystery, which was better tied-together than the Sherlock show, and if there were moments that felt a bit formulaic, they were more than made up for by the interaction between the actors and the comic turns (which again, are different every time and don’t make a lot of sense to repeat).

One of the most talked-about shows of the Fringe

Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho had to be one of the standout shows of the fringe; attracting a more politicised, left-wing audience, though it’s deliberately treated lightly. Thatcher is played by a bloke in drag, talking about the Section 28 law and meeting with important figures of the time in between songs, and there’s a lot of on-point political observations throughout.

Wednesday: The next day I saw Austen-tatious, yet another improv show done in the style of a Jane Austen novel; once again, the speed at which the actors expose information, develop the action and end a scene before it gets dull is a pleasure to watch, even if there weren’t so many actual Jane Austen tropes.

Following that, Jack Heal’s tiny room one-man show Frankenstein Love Monster suffers from awkward delivery paired with slightly repetitive, if well-written jokes.  It does produce the best groaner of my Fringe; “I went through a red light and nearly crashed into a Mini Cooper. He was sitting on the pavement making tiny barrels.”

One Man Breaking Bad is another one that could benefit from more time, but it’s so well observed that in future when I think of those characters, I’m going to find myself thinking of the sarcastic impressions before the actual characters in future; the breathy “Walter!” for Skyler, the maniacal “hehehe!” for Hank. The performer Miles Allen opens with some gloriously inappropriate dance moves that will appeal to the fans: “Call Saul! Test the product! Die like Jane!” and seems to take particular delight in doing a spot-on Walt Jr. impression.

Finally, Kieron Hodgson’s show Lance, about his admiration for Lance Armstrong and the 2014 Tour de Yorkshire, is funny and uplifting, the highlight being a song about the temptations for him as a teenager of applying to a university in the South of England.

Lance, one of the only shows to feature an exercise bike on stage.

Thursday: Harry Baker played in a tiny dark room in the most over-the-top goffik pub in Edinburgh, and his poems are extremely well tied together by his stories about joining the university pole dancing society and competing in poetry slams in the USA, including inviting fellow poet Dan Simpson on stage for a haiku deathmatch. If you’re a fan of BATTLE RAP (in-joke, my bad), then the haikus are akin to bad bars. I’ll include a link to his RAP BATTLES too. If he keeps progressing like this he might one day be as great as William McGonagall, or Pedro.

Balletronic, the ballet show set to Daft Punk and Avicii, might not have been all that accurately billed, with quite a lot of classical violin and singing and fewer floorfillers than expected. What it was missing, in fairness, was Korn and Skrillex’s classic Get Up. I haven’t seen ballet since the last time my sister was in a show, and enjoyed the pieces that focussed on interaction, almost combat, between the performers, but overall I found myself following the girls with my eyes more than concentrating on the dancing, and wondering, having done karate that required me to be a fraction as flexible as they are, how much pain they must be in all the time. My mum and sister, who’ve actually seen ballet before, felt that it wasn’t as good as other performances they’ve been to and oh my God why are they walking with their feet turned to the side like that.

For A to Z improv, see as for Oxford Imps. Sorry.

Friday: Guerrilla Aspies could be worth its own article; it’s not funny, nor really a performance, but raises some interesting questions about neurodiversity; about alternate ways of thinking being an equally legitimate way of seeing the world, rather than a deviation from the proper way of seeing it. He does, to quote My Immortal, portray neurotypical people as horny simpletons.

Sing For A Life, a musical of questionable taste.

And you’re welcome to judge me for my final show of the Fringe. Open-mindedness is one thing, but had they gone too far? What’s this, you ask? A naughty cabaret? A tasteless Brass Eye style satire? Worse. Sing for your Life is a musical with stuffed animals. Not the American tendency of calling teddy bears “stuffed animals”- no, someone in the world has made puppets out of roadkill, and they sing. The grotesque/funny ratio is shifted by the fact that, instead of the glass eyes you see in stuffed animals in museums, these ones have googly eyes. Low points include a mink striptease that results in a skinned dead mink being produced and giant rats experimenting on a human. If you want, the link is here:

So that was my Fringe. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and as ever, wait avidly for my next short story or poem.

Regards, Jack

1 thought on “The Must-Read Guide: An Extremely Subjective Review of the Edinburgh Fringe”

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