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Features Published 15 June 2015

Fringe Benefits: Our Pick of the Programme

Exeunt writers present their initial picks for this year's Edinburgh Fringe.
Alice Saville

Finding a programme wedged in your letterbox amongst the pizza menus and unopened bank statements is one of the joys of the hardened Edinburgh Fringe-goer (traipsing around branches of Fopp, Waterstones and an obscurely selected band of theatres in search of a copy less so). There’s a magic in getting a whole telephone directory of names and numbers of shows jostling for your attention, the Traverse heavyweights democratically sharing a page with American High School Theatre Festival with village hall musicals with shows that could only have been conceptualised as eye-wateringly offensive pub dares next to eye-skippingly endless productions of a few favourite Shakespeare plays.

This year’s programme has tried to capture such joys with a poem that seems to have come from the same cursed fingers that wove the London Underground etiquette doggerels – the ones that make you want to pull the emergency stop alarm and push your way onto the platform, rucksack flapping in the breeze, and leaving behind a musical hamper of malodorous provisions. Here’s the text in full, liberated from the semi-anonymity of sideways:

Ed Fringe programme poem

Admittedly it doesn’t sound tempting. Something about the cut-out style text makes lines like “A song may have no words or even no rhythm” sound like a ransom note threat — loud in a “no rules only exceptions” Fringeland of shifting sands and unwelcome encounters. But for every time you find yourself chasing a community choir round a damp beach, or kidnapped by a Mindfulness proponent dressed as a tree, there’s a beautifully transformative experience just round the corner.

At a time of year when press releases flood round the cracks in critics’ doors, in their Twitter messages, Facebook, never mind email, in one big chorus of “me, me, me!”, the biggest, most confident shows don’t even need to battle for our attention: they sit there, glowing with smugness and financial health. So these Exeunt recommendations aren’t there to pull the biggest or strongest productions out of the shivering knobbly-kneed masses on one big Darwinian school sports day. A lot of them aren’t even in the programme. They’re just some things that have the ingredients for a little bit of magic, or whispered sweet nothings to us through the dull medium of 40 little words of agonised-over copy.

David Ralf: Unlike most shows advertised with neon crosses, I am completely sold on The Christians which the Gate Theatre will open in Traverse One. Luke Hnath’s play is about an American megachurch, the relationship between its leadership and its congregation, and the nature and negotiation of belief. Directed by Christopher Haydon and designed by Oliver Townsend (the team behind Grounded), and featuring William Gaminara, Jaye Griffiths and Lucy Ellinson and an live onstage community choir, this is bound to be intense and intelligent.

One of my favourites from last year’s festival, Helen Duff’s one-woman show Vanity Bites Back is returning to Fringe 2015 at the Gilded Balloon. In her ‘clown cookery show’ which has since appeared at Vault Festival and the Adelaide and Melbourne Festivals, Duff uses her wonderful creation Jill, a playful relationship with her audience and a lot of margarine to explore anorexia. It’s a hair’s breadth from stand-up, and it’s no surprise Helen reached the semi-finals of “So You Think You’re Funny” 2014 and the finals of Squawker Awards at the Brighton Comedy Festival 2014. Her stand-up show Smasher is on the Free Fringe at Laughing Horse at The Free Sisters, and I’m dead excited.

Duncan Gates: Given that Unlimited and Chris Goode’s 2001 show Neutrino basically made me start writing drama, I can’t in all conscience not recommend their new show Am I Dead Yet?, which swings by the Traverse from 19th-30th August at 11:15pm. On the PBH Free Fringe, fiercely intelligent and intelligently fierce storyteller Dave Pickering will be Mansplaining Masculinity at Cabaret Voltaire from 8th-30th August (ex-Mondays) at 12:05pm, unpicking a mass ‘man survey’ for your viewing pleasure. And for those of you that like your comedy utterly bizarre, the armoured might of zazU return with A Fête Worse Than Death at Pleasance Courtyard (5th-18th, 20th-31st August, 9:45pm).

Wil Hodgson

Stewart Pringle: The programme? Who’s in the programme? How 2008. Wil Hodgson, winner of Perrier Best Newcomer a decade ago, is bringing his new show Paranoid to PBH’s Free Fringe at Cabaret Voltaire, and it’s nowhere to be seen in this year’s hideous green ArtsToss Catalogue. He is, for my money, one of the country’s very best storytellers and comedians, and his shows are consistently fringe highlights for me. Over the years I’ve heard him detail his youthful lust for Hattie Jacques, his uncomfortable afternoon around a chatty drug dealer’s flat, his favourite horror films, his favourite hangmen. He speaks with intelligence and sensitivity, with self-awareness as well as nostalgia, and with anger and frustration when appropriate. An hour with Hodgson is like an hour with that bloke down the pub who knows every 12″ Crass ever recorded, but also carries an encyclopaedic knowledge of The Crystal Maze or the history of third wave feminism. He’s often played to small and quiet rooms, and it’s probably fair to say he could do with a stronger marketing strategy, but I defy you not to fall absolutely fucking in love with his print this year. I mean, Christ knows what he’s going to talk about, but you can be damn sure I’ll be there to hear it.

Alice Saville: I’m full of hope that performance artists Hunt and Darton will get together the necessary dough and cake batter to bring back their cafe/performance space/refuge from the commercial excesses of the Fringe [fund their Kickstarter here]. And we don’t know what the Forest Fringe programme looks like yet but their awkward/enticing Indiegogo page (including an art postcard-a-day reward for high rollers) is raising funds so they can house and nurture a brilliant bunch of artists including Coney, Christopher Brett Bailey, Little Bulb, Tim Etchells and Figs in Wigs and more for free performances in Leith’s Drill Hall.

On sturdier ground, I saw Jamie Wood’s O No! As a work in progress at the Camden People’s Theatre and came out bursting with a love for humanity in general and him in particular. It’s about Yoko Ono’s performance art and John Lennon and his parents’ relationship – but even more about trust and love and openness to new experiences. And that’s something you need on a rainy day when you’re jaded from barrages of bad theatre, or hungover, or carrying a slowly disintegrating paper bag full of flyers up a street that’s doing its best impression of a waterfall, in sandals (true story).

Lorna Irvine: Formed in 2008, and supported through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, Made In Scotland’s remit is to provide a curated showcase of the very best of Scottish theatre, music and dance. This year’s line-up is a dazzling array of critically-acclaimed shows and brand new writing. Highlights in dance include Claire Cunningham’s uncompromising rumination on disability alluding to the art of Hieronymous Bosch, Give Me A Reason To Live and Scottish Dance Theatre’s unsettling ritualistic YAMA created by Damien Jalet.

Part of what makes this year’s line-up so interesting is that much of the work defies simple categorisation of genres. This is certainly true of Ramesh Meyyappan’s Butterfly which looks at a dangerous love triangle with puppetry, music and movement choreography. And Wendy Hoose, Birds of Paradise/Random Accomplice’s collaboration, is a sex comedy utilising BSL and audio description as almost secondary characters. Vanishing Point’s Tomorrow is a multimedia, often dreamlike, meditation on caring for people suffering from dementia. As part of the music strand, Piano Piano featuring Hilary Brooks and Karen McIver on grand pianos, combines modern classical performance with insightful and humorous storytelling. And two new world premieres appearing at the Traverse Theatre this year are by two of Scotland’s most fascinating young writers. Gary McNair’s A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, which he also performs, centres on a young boy and his grandfather’s idiosyncratic gambling habits, and Stef Smith’s Swallow explores the self-destructive tendencies of twenty-somethings.

Daniel B. Yates: The impecunious rate for Jobseeker’s Allowance is £76.40 a week, allowing for the barest of lives, relatively speaking. If creatives may have once thought they can’t afford to go to Edinburgh, such is the importance of the festival on the calendar that at this point, suggests Lyn Gardner, they can’t afford not to. But not being able to afford not to, well that’s an expensive business, so come August I will be here in London, as the sun dims, the birds fall silent, and the city heads into annual decline. I’m hoping my chervil, basil, and haplessly leggy coriander will come on in the sun. I’ll be reading on the intellectual life of the British working classes and the block chain. Elsewhere Ovalhouse are promising Edinburgh on Your Doorstep (there are not listings up yet), and Tim Crouch’s Oak Tree is at the NT Barn before heading back to the Traverse for its decennial showing. In July Bryony Kimmings will be previewing Fake it til You Make It at the Southbank Centre while David Rosenberg and Glenn Neath’s Fiction is at BAC, and at Latitude Unlimited Theatre’s Am I Dead Yet will happen. There’s also a Rupert Goold and Robert Icke Illiad across the British and Museum and Almeida which I hope to catch in August, and am booked into Hackney Picturehouse for an NT Undead screening of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet from the Barbican. In comedy BAC are putting on previews including Bridget Christie and Simon Munnery, and Stewart Lee’s A Room with a Stew is running at Soho Theatre throughout July. Shortly thereafter I am hoping the city will repopulate.

You can view the full Fringe programme online here, or absorb its magic through osmosis by reading Natasha Tripney’s cut-up distillation of it here.

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Alice Saville

Alice is a writer, arts journalist and handicrafts enthusiast. As well as writing and commissioning for Exeunt, she's a regular contributor to Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine, and makes costumes for performance.

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