The Edinburgh Fringe is somewhere between Christmas and The Rapture for theatrey types: with a dash of Brigadoon thrown in for good measure. Here’s our pick of the fly-by-night venues that return year after year as well as fixtures of the Edinburgh theatre scene like Summerhall, Traverse and Bedlam. And in case we lose you in our collective psychogeography of the Edinburgh Fringe, we’ve also got some theatre recommendations in each location that should have you on solid ground.
Duska Radosavljevic: Two men giving birth to a watermelon. The cash register in Krishnan’s Dairy going ‘kerching!’ One child killed by a car in an American suburb. Another child killed by a car in an English suburb being turned into an oak tree. Theatre doing something for the bereaved parents of a Welsh woman soldier where all other institutions have failed. Daniel Kitson. Many frothy cappuccinos, glasses of ice cold water and plates of nachos. One or two dates – one dating show! – two or three award ceremonies. Many glossy playtexts at discounted prices.
Its two stages, glassy foyer and a subterranean bar are an inimitable factory of forever haunting memories. Especially because you’ll have no mobile phone reception and will not be distracted.
Go to see the tenth anniversary revival of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, the Gate Theatre’s The Christians, Bryony Kimmings Fake it Till You Make It, Unlimited Theatre’s Am I Dead Yet?, or for a guaranteed unforgettable experience, Ontroerend Goed’s A Game of You.
Full programme here
Alice Saville: I can’t darken the door of C Venues without a shiver: and it’s not just this low-budget behemoth’s parsimonious approach to heating, it’s the weight of ghosts, both bad and good. It’s where I made my first and last appearance as an actor, paralysed with fear in a 10.30am kids’ show that involved being pelted with plastic balls at its chaotic climax. It’s where I got trapped by a man in a tree costume in a two hour midnight mindfulness experience. It’s where I spent many ill-advised nights in the admirably lit bar, which combines the atmospheres of a student union and the birthday party of a particularly flamboyant goth to admirable effect. But it’s also the place that introduced me to the idea that theatre didn’t have to be people in velvety costumes reciting the words of long dead men, and for that I’m eternally grateful.
With the biggest programme of theatre and new writing on the Ed Fringe to wade through, the 150 plus acts across four venues on offer are best scanned with a cautious eye: rogue a cappella groups jostle am dram rub up against art school experiments and truly bonkers new musicals (Body to Diet For, I’m looking at you).
But there’s gold every year, including the prospect of long-time adherent Jethro Compton’s Frontier Trilogy, which will be housed in a specially built western-style chapel. A musical of The Addams Family? I’ll sign up in blood. The Frida Kahlo of Penge West sounds worth a punt for the name alone, and Ursula Invents Old Woman promises “intergalactic intercourse” with Le Guin herself. Among the chaos, there’s plenty to give you the shivers for all the right reasons.
Full programme here
Daniel B. Yates: Summerhall sits within the Fringe as an oasis of rare intelligence, with a strongly curated through-line, it comes off more like some utopian intentional community than a festival space. The sprawling complex of The Royal Dick veterinary school lends a curiously calm and tutelary air, vast enough that it’s possible to find oneself at the far reaches of one of the mid-century corridors, with the art having run out and nothing to visit but a spacious and elegantly tiled toilet. (A toilet of one’s own? in the collective gigadump that makes up fringe venues? – there can be no better definition of UTOPIA!) With a convivial courtyard and decent gastro-pub grub from the Dick, you could easily live here, re-engineer the material base and recompose the polity, and in-between see a bunch of stuff that is probably pretty brilliant. If the main Fringe venues are lousy teeming plague pits, Summerhall is like some supercool and visonary hospice: thoughtful and committed, plenty of experimental drugs & therapies, immanent transformations, and people to come to terms with the surprises of art. If that extended metaphor makes it sound faintly wank, it isn’t – go.
In theatre news, this year Forced Ents are booting up Tomorrow’s Parties which I’ve just found out was performed at NASA a couple of years ago. FellSwoop are doing sci-fi, while not a fan of Grid Iron the noises are good and I’d want to check out there thing, and feminist theatre’s equivalent to #corbynthusiasm Sh!t Theatre are agitating here, along with new work from Mark Thomas. Kitson is malingering here too talking to tape recorders, predictably sold out but it might be worth checking in at the venue. And don’t forget hip young gunslingers Barrell Organ, who wrote a cool thing for us here. The chief virtue of Summerhall is that genre boundaries are generously disrespected, so expect interesting plastic and performing arts sluicing about all over the shop.
Full programme here
Stewart Pringle: Once floating in a falafel-wrap-and-nachos haze above a cafe that looked like a better place to score drugs than it ever actually turned out to be, Forest Fringe is now absolutely fucking miles away in an old Drill Hall down Leith Walk. Fortunately, it all turns up towards the back-end of the Fringe, by which time any opportunity to escape from the rolling fields of Tellytubby astroturf and Speigeltents is actually pretty welcome. The sense of decompression as you walk down past John Lewis and that weird shop with a real-live parrot in the window is palpable. And once you’re there, you won’t want to leave. The cafe is nice. The cafe sells beer. The cafe has places to charge mobile phones. The work is good. The work is free. The work has aspirations to change the world, or at least the way you look at it. It’s playful and generous, angry and compassionate. There are sharp teeth and rough edges, but there’s warmth and kind words too. You know that bit when you’re in a swimming pool, and you think you’re having a great time, splashing about or whatever, but then you go in the jacuzzi for ten minutes, and then when you come out you’re like “This pool is fucking freezing, I’m having a shit time, what was I thinking?” Well that’s what it’s like when you trudge back into town, where there are flyers, and card machines, and the dead, sinkhole eyes of the hollowed out, the star-haunted and the financially ruined.
Personally I’m looking forward to performances by Action Hero, Luther & Bockelson, Scottee, Rosana Cade and seeing This is How We Die for the 5th time, but I’m going to try to see it all, and you should too, if there’s any sense in you.
Full programme here
Duncan Gates: It’s rare to feel more subversive than to suddenly dive off the Royal Mile to the relatively unassuming wee door at the top of Victoria Street into a spiral staircase thick with promo, as if all the flyerers of the Mile have come here to die. There are nooks, crannies, occasional venue staff sitting at improvised ticket desks, already pale at the very thought that the wifi may expire. There are wonderfully pointless little booths and galleries, like a brothel Lewis Carroll might have visited after joining the Ramones. There is a beer garden that is basically an accident caused by the bins once being moved. The performances spaces themselves start to proliferate, getting larger and more numerous as you descend, all with gorgeously laboured names playing on the word ‘belly’ – the Fringe’s own ‘Magnificent Seven’, reeking of dead beer and Victorian misery.
That’s the best thing about the Underbelly. For all that it’s home to cutting edge new writing (Tether), innovative comedy (Toby Peach), writer-performer heroism (So It Goes) and branded umbrellas for when you’re eventually excreted onto Cowgate itself, something in the air keeps it from gentrifying. It has the desperate fug of cider-chaos you get at student club nights at 1am. Art comes here to be generated, to breed frantically in the short time it has, and occasionally to spread uncontrollably and change everything. There are a million and one places that might claim to be the soul of the Edinburgh Fringe, but there can be little doubt that the Underbelly Cowgate is the intestine.
Full programme here
Daniel B. Yates: The dome is an unfinished Mad Max prequel where everyone is fighting over the planet’s last stale panini. Will it be heated? Will it fuck. But do not ask the harassed worker to gurn and spit petrol onto it. It is as it is – going into the machine and coming out only slightly warmer than the Fosters. We need to relearn the old technologies, like sanitation, napkins, and seats which aren’t bolted to the floor lest someone in a commes des fuckdown tee, hopped on fug and touristical ennui, attempts to rip them up and forge a more suitable venue out of them. It’s like the last motorway service station on the interplanetary highway. Queues form across the humid and unsuitable terrain like chain gangs, snaking through the plastic ferns, up and down the architecturally redundant open-plan stairs, before magically dissolving. The weird plastic biodome above ensures the temperature setting is always at ‘recycled respiration’. I have breathed some rare air here in the past, with Josie Long’s political turn, Bryony Kimmings, Mark Thomas, Ross Sutherland, Tim Key and Mark Watson sweating and answering questions awkwardly for hours, all fighting over the last panini on earth.
Blind Man’s Song from Theatre Re, which killed at LIMF this year, is definitely one to see. Dumbshow’s piece based on Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine ought to be interesting. David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s binaurual theatre headfuck FICTION is here, and headfucky. In comedy, Massive Dad, Ari Shaffir and generously manic participation master Adam Riches are likely worth a punt.
Full programme here
Tim Bano: I don’t know for sure, but it seems like Bedlam may be the only venue in Edinburgh whose chilled, student-filled atmosphere is no different during the Fringe than the rest of the year. The cafe/bar area is almost always rammed, but then that’s true of most of the city. Last year I was in the returns queue for Avenue Q somewhere along George IV Bridge (my sister was visiting and really wanted to see it). Just as we were told that there were no tickets, it started to rain. Very heavily. We took refuge in a bizarrely deserted Bedlam and had one of the best nights I’ve had at the Fringe. We bedded in. We bought piles and piles of cheap nachos, freshly microwaved and lacquered with plastic cheese, and alternated between hot chocolate and gin. We looked at all the old Fringe brochure covers pasted on the walls and all the flyers from past Bedlam shows. Some friends popped in, drenched and miserable after a really disappointing show (a fourth-rate charlatan/comedian who pretended he was Frankie Boyle in order to sell tickets). A couple of others joined until it felt like we’d taken over, until it felt like we owned Bedlam’s teeny little cafe. We asked if there were any more shows that evening. Only one: at midnight, a joint improv show between a group from my uni and a group from my sister’s uni. We piled into the theatre, everyone sodden and steaming slightly, and watched the mediocre improvisation. Bedlam had turned a disappointing, rain-soaked evening into a simple, unexpected joy. And it’s well cheap.
Full programme here
Catherine Love: Forget Quizoola. The Fringe’s real endurance test is found on the innocent stretch of road just off South Bridge, which for the length of August becomes a durational spectacle of clowning, ukulele playing and hollow-eyed flyering, all fuelled by a potent blend of caffeine and fast-fading enthusiasm. The branding-plastered archway is a portal into a hyperactive realm of whiteface, a cappella groups and booming one-man Shakespeare, with the distant promise of Edinburgh’s best baked potato for the sharpest elbowed of the crowd. Jugglers juggle. Students try to harmonise through hungover grimaces. Men inexplicably totter on stilts. And when the performance finally ends, its actors broke and broken, all that’s left is a carpet of forlorn, sodden flyers, the air still ringing with a lone cry of “four stars from Broadway Baby!”
Lorna Irvine: Site. Specific. Are there two words more destined to shudder the marrow?
Rock. Opera. Simon. Cowell. Katie. Price…Nope, site specific is a bold contender. When your red, rheumy eyes peruse the dog-eared pamphlet and you chance upon said term, it’s as chilling as the university adaptation of a Noel Coward which made you wonder when the proposed subversion was actually going to happen. However, Ryan Good, a Neo-Futurist and maker of anthropomorphic comedy Sex With Animals is bringing a site-specific show this year which will provoke discourse, discomfort, and who knows, perhaps even change the way some people regard their own entrenched attitudes to sex. His ménage takes place in a secret location near the Underbelly. Two audience members at a time will hear him talk about prostitution, misogyny, law, and much more using verbatim interviews collected from sex workers in London and Edinburgh. It sure beats braying thesps, rain-induced water-boarding, contrived mateyness and other site-specific Fringe disasters.
TARDIS Roundabout Pop-Up Theatre Quick Manual
Annegret Marten: Technical specifications
- Manual erection from zero to fairly high up in 1.5 days
- Seats 170 passengers
- State-of-the-art LED lighting rig
- Main console is conveniently placed out of view.
Species allowed to operate
Performers, directors, storytellers: dead writers are not permitted into the premises.
Tip: Feed operators Gin from local gin distillery to ensure smooth running.
Summerhall (round the back), in summer months only, otherwise decisively not orbiting the capital.
Please charge batteries and check ticket sales before putting vehicle into operation and adjust your driving style accordingly.
Eco Mode: The End Is Nigh
Dynamic: I’m Not Here Right Now
Explorer: The Human Ear
Suitably coloured bum cushion is included in ride.