“Welcome to the Fringe. The first rule of The Fringe is: you talk about The Fringe. The second rule of The Fringe is: you DO talk incessantly about the Fringe! Third rule of the Fringe: someone yells “stop” or goes limp, the talk about the Fringe is over.”
The Fringe is huge. In 2014 (2015 was bigger) there were 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues. Nearly 2.2 million tickets were issued. Add to that the exhibitions, music etc. and you can see why the guide to the performances in 2015 itself ran to nearly 450 pages.
OK, if you want, there is the rest of the Edinburgh International Festival. Opera, ballet, worthy productions of plays by obscure Hungarian play-writes performed via the medium of interpretive dance, whatever. There is also the Literary Festival. This is not their story.
I had often considered visiting the Fringe in previous years yet never quite got around to it. I had watched the TV shows on it, listened to the live radio broadcasts from it but never actually gone. In 2015 that changed.
Anyone with children of different ages will know that planning a summer trip which all support and are enthusiastic about becomes more difficult as they grow older. Unless one is imaginative or willing to throw money at the problem, you are left with either some sad compromise, truly pleasing no one, or setting oneself up for the behaviour of the disgruntled offspring who has had to be bribed or threatened into joining.
My three are 23, 20 and 16 (MMF). Last year, we happened to be driving back through Edinburgh shortly before the Fringe was due to begin. A brief discussion ensued and agreement reached. Planning followed. Accommodation is not cheap during the Fringe. Staying close to the centre is highly desirable. Taxis exist and are reasonable but the queues, especially late at night (and you will be there late at night) are painfully long (more on the taxis later).
In the end, we selected a four bedroom flat which is normally privately owned student accommodation. Part of a modern block, it is practical, if not luxurious. It was also less than ten minute walk from some of the main venues.
Then came what to see in our three days. Here are some tips.
The fringe website is superb. Easy to follow, easy to book. It is even easy to pick up the tickets, provided you have the credit card you paid for them with you.
A couple of warnings. Getting between venues can prove a nightmare. Check where your performance is in comparison to others you have booked before or after, before pressing the purchase button. Performances are generally an hour but can overrun. Plus you have to queue before and to get out. Unless the venues are practically next door, allow an hour at least (preferably longer) from the end of one to the beginning of another. Download the Fringe App, great to find locations and any shows nearby with spare tickets if you find you have a gap in your day (bit unlikely but you never know)…
What to see depends on you. We managed eleven shows in the three days. Some big names (e.g. Al Murray and Ed Byrne), some stars in blossom (e.g. Aisling Bea) and some we had never heard of but who had gotten great reviews. I would suggest go for a mixture of styles and definitely include improv. For the top acts, book as soon as the tickets go on sale, don’t hope you can get them on the day.
Booking in advance means you take a chance that a performer you prefer suddenly announces they are appearing somewhere else at the same time. We only had to skip one show we had booked because a better offer came along (yes, we were comedy tarts). As the tickets are non-refundable, mistakes or changes of mind can prove to be expensive.
Secondly, on no account, simply take only some of your tickets with you when you set out from your accommodation, wherever located, in the confident belief you will have time to retrieve the later ones and leaving them behind means there is therefore no danger of them getting lost. You will not have time, Edinburgh eats time. You will spend all day ping ponging from one venue to the next and then suddenly realise the tickets for the one you are now heading for are safely left in your room. Take all your tickets for the day with you if you want to avoid enriching taxi drivers, moving closer to a coronary and annoying any of you party who will kindly remind you that they DID mention you might want to bring all the tickets with you.
2 The flyers
Where can you buy shares in Edinburgh printers and a5 binders? These guys must make a fortune. Walk down any street and some keen student/friend/spouse of a performer will be handing out A5 flyers of some act, normally performing at 11pm in a basement on the outskirts of a part of Edinburgh even the people of Edinburgh don’t know exists. They are polite, friendly but with a slight look of desperation in their eyes. This is never more so than when you look at the picture on the flyer and see it is of the performer themselves.
Some of these performances are free. All appear to have been given four or five stars by some critic. This may lead one to the erroneous conclusion that they are all good. In reality, the five stars may be from a critic, who happens to be their mother, in a publication which exists only on a website or in the mind of its creator. The sight of all these brave, hopeful performers, waiting to be discovered and appear on the next series of Mock of the Week, must bring a tear to the eye of those seeking to support the arts wholesale. This is Darwinism in its cruellest form. Brutal.
I have no idea what passes through the mind of a budding performer, having spent his year’s savings on flyers for his one man “The stupid show for idiots” (page 171 of last year’s Fringe programme) to gaze upon the only empty room in any pub in Edinburgh, but it must be similar to that of an antelope finding himself no longer surrounded by a herd of his kind, but a pride of his unkind.
Now, having culled the weak, the unlucky and the untalented, some will survive and jest with Dara O’Brian every week on prime time television. Imagine having a flyer from their first appearance in Edinburgh. Therefore, collect all flyers. You can lie about actually going to the performance later.
3 Kids and the Fringe
To deprive a child of a trip to the Fringe is akin to refusing to take them to Disney. Actually worse, as the Fringe has cultural merit whereas Disney simply has, well, everything else. OK, forget that argument but you should take your kids to the Fringe. There are countless shows throughout the day dedicated to them, from puppets to theatre, from stand-up to juggling. For the older ones, it gets even better. Whilst some shows are age restricted (at least in theory), most are not. They can do workshops on every conceivable artistic area and some that are difficult to conceive.
If you do plan on taking older children to the Fringe, i.e. those who want to see the same things you do, it helps if one of them has an injury. Nothing serious or permanent, that would be nasty, but something that requires crutches. Arm injuries do not work in this instance nor anything that is not visible to the naked eye. They need to be ambulant, but with difficulty.
Now, I do admit, it is a bit unfair on the child concerned, as Edinburgh is hilly and possesses countless step, however, there is a greater good here. Every performance provides “access”. This is like the Fringe version of speedy boarding. You get to use the lift to the auditorium, there is no queuing and often a seat in the front row. As the seating is normally unallocated, this means everyone in the party gets the same privilege. The staff are charming and helpful. Obviously, if everyone turns up with a child with a torn ligament (my case) or broken ankle, it will ruin it for all of us, but, if you are lucky enough to have a child who times their injury fortuitously enough, then count your blessings.
There is, however, one word of caution. Access seats are often in the front row. For a number of comedians the front row is the cannon fodder of the audience. Whilst the one on the crutches is generally avoided, their fellow travellers are fair game. Whilst this is hysterical for the rest of the audience, the victim has about a second not to look a complete idiot. The odds are, you will fail.
4 The venues
Don’t rely on the walking time Google maps gives you. Google lies. Yes, that might be the time on a clear day with no one else around, but not when you are in a maelstrom of fellow pre-audiences, going in different directions and at different speeds. Normal pedestrian rules do not apply. Apparently, you can stop without warning, suddenly change direction or proceed as if in a slow motion replay. If the Spanish wanted to truly disrupt walking across the border, they should forget the new passport machines and simply get some Fringe goers to hang around the frontier.
Also, saying there are 300 venues is a lie in anything other than the literal sense. A venue implies some functionality for the show to be performed. In Edinburgh, shops become “venues”, dank basements in terrifying pubs become “venues”. By 2017, anyone foolish enough to leave their car unlocked will find, on their return, it has become a “venue”.
As a result, some of these venues will become significantly hotter as the production progresses. Remember this when you dress to go. Air conditioning appears not to have reached Edinburgh in any meaningful way. They seem to regard that as being what outside is for.
However, be grateful if you end up physically closer to the person sat next to you than many people are in marriage. This means the show is popular. Far better than that sat virtually alone with only the performer and his mum sobbing silently at the end of the row for company.
5 Getting there and getting about
Basically, you will be doing a lot of walking. If you are planning to take a car, don’t expect to use it when you are there. In fact, unless you have a pressing need to have one because, for example your idiot offspring have persuaded you to go camping on Loch Lomond afterwards (to be precise, an island on Loch Lomond) in the height of the midge season, don’t bother.
There is an Edinburgh Taxi App, a kind of McUber which works extremely effectively at all hours and saves hanging around trying to hail these occasionally elusive creatures. However, in peak times, walking is often your only option, especially as a number of venues are in pedestrianised areas.
Given the lack of a need for a vehicle and the current absence of direct flights from Gibraltar, there is one alternative worth considering. Fly to London then get the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston to Edinburgh Waverley. Whilst the carriages are old, they have been refurbished and the sleeping compartments provide a degree of comfort. The dinner includes the choice of haggis and neeps and they have ten different malt whiskies on offer. Most importantly, it has a degree of charm and a feeling of lost days of Union. There are few more relaxed ways to embark upon the Fringe. Ok, you do arrive way too early to check in anywhere but romanticism has its price.
So, how does it feel to lose ones virginity in Edinburgh? Pretty good, we all loved it and have agreed to go for longer again. Who will be on? Who cares? Some will be great, some good, some will be stars of tomorrow, some will be pursuing different careers shortly after. It doesn’t matter; it is only the Fringe if they are all there.
To conclude: go to the Fringe before you die. Preferably, go to the Fringe until you die. People tell me Edinburgh itself is pretty good, indeed, like a capital city in many respects. They say it even has a castle and lots and lots of shortbread. Didn’t notice, was too busy at the Fringe.
For 2016 programme and more info go to www.edfringe.com