7 min read

Previewing the Fringe

I went to the Fringe. Actually, I’m still there, on day two after an epic first day.

Not many people I know go. That’s a shame, as it’s wonderfully eclectic mix of comedy, music, and theatre. I have to admit that my education to it was through the not-great-but-enlightening 2005 improv film Festival. While my main memories of it are grim sex scenes with Chris O’Dowd and Stephen Mangan (not together mind, but the one with Mangan included a prosthetic penis, urrgh), what it does show is how there can be top-notch comedians and highbrow historical plays right next to each other gaining acclaim in their own way.

While not everything it going on during the previews, there are some distinct advantages to going then.

  1. It has the feeling of a party that’s just starting to get going. Or, more realistically, it’s just not that busy. I still saw more groups of Japanese tourists taking photos than I did Fringe groups. It’s also quiet enough to avoid the people with posh accents handing out flyers for their shows if you don’t want any more paper.
  2. It’s a damn sight cheaper. Tickets can be about half what they would be during the festival. While if you’re a couple you could hold out and go on Monday and Tuesday when it’s two for one, for a single traveller like me, it’s a heck of a money saver. It’s also easier to get cheap lodging before the Fringe proper. If you’re lucky, you can even get comped a ticket if you’re wandering around an hour or so before a show!

However, after doing it, there are some things to be wary of.

  1. Obviously, acts are still finessing their acts. From the few I saw, the main thing that came out with was technical issues such as sound. (Though some performers were so good where you honestly wondered whether an accidentally turned off mike was part of the act).
  2. It’s a bit of a nightmare to figure out your schedule, since the printed material isn’t sorted by date, and the app doesn’t include previews. (Thanks, Fringe). The best way it probably to pick a couple up front and then just wander around the venues to see what’s happening.
  3. You’ll have to be prepared to wander around to occasionally find venues. They are spread out across a mile, and not always obvious when its quiet. One screwup I made was to not realise that the Pleasance Dome is in fact about 10 minutes walk away from the Pleasure Court, which meant I had to duck out of a show early.
  4. Most importantly: the organisation can still have teething issues. Pretty much every show I went to ran late (and by the time I got to the evening ones it was going 10-15 minutes behind). While you do get in pretty quickly once they open the doors, be prepared to be loitering a bit in a bar. The funniest one I saw while waiting for a performer was the actual act rock up to the door 20 minutes beforehand, be told the previous act was running over, sit awkwardly in the bar (with some of the ticketgoers for their show!) for a few minutes before suggesting to the organisers that they hang out in another dressing room. Awkward.

Still, these are minor quibbles. At best, you can have an epic day without spending much money.

Speaking of epic…

I was mad. 6 shows in one day! All were great in their own way though.

I Need A Doctor is a “non-copyright infringing” Doctor Who musical featuring a cast of thousands… played by two people. I had to duck out of the show early unfortunately. I suspect this is a show that will settle into its own rhythm after a few sessions: the timing was a bit off at times and felt a little stagey (but not enough to be stylistic) but there are some fun riffs on the Whoovian universe and the BBC. One to see if you’re a fan. Though hard core geeks may take exception to the wannabe Doctor being a ginger called Jamie wearing a kilt… Jamie McCrimmon anyone?

Sincerely, Mr Toad is a new musical about Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Graeme and how his complex relationship with his son created his work. Think of it like a Finding Neverland for Wind in the Willows. I’d like to see this show done with better orchestration (and to be honest, better music), but the acting and story was fascinating to the point that I want to check how much of it is true.

I’d heard many things about the Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra but never seen then. As it turns out, they’re not exactly an orchestra as much as a ukelele band (i.e. they sing). As a fellow Kiwi, they somehow epitomised everything good about New Zealand: with their not-quite-hip but fun attire, easy humour, and accomplished playing, it was like a throwback to a 70s parallel universe where you could get heaps of icecream for rully cheap. It helped that by that point the Fringe was still bathed in summery fun rather than the pouring rain that would kick in later.

I was particularly keen to see Sean Hughes’ Penguins, having been a fan of his confessional humour since Sean’s Show. (OK, I didn’t actually watch it in 1993—I was 8!—but thanks to the interwebs I’ve caught up pretty quick. He does mention that my generation has all the luck thanks to google). In interviews he’s pointed that comedians shouldn’t hide behind a deadpan armour, and practiced what he preached with a show that was fearless (let’s just say there’s a brave clothing choice at the start) and full of heart (you can feel for a guy whose local grocer casually mentions The Sun calling him a ‘has been’). And an obviously crafted act, with props and some great recurring themes. I’d heard stories of people being picked on mercilessly in the audience in his earlier shows The punters had less to fear than I expected, but was certainly enough for the shy and retiring to be wary of the front row.

Sugar and Vice’s ‘All The Men We Have Never Slept With’ is two Aussie girls: “one madonna, one whore” as they put it, talking and singing about their not-quite-loves in their life. Sounds depressing or a bit voyeuristic, but it’s not. OK, it is a little voyeuristic, but in a Sex in the City meets Muriel’s Wedding kinda way. I would be careful about going to the show with a partner you don’t know very well yet though! It’s well suited for a 9pm slot: cruisy and sexy and fun without taking itself too seriously.

Finally, after a long delay, a group of us backed into the nightclub (I’m pretty sure most people saw the lack of seats and went, what the hell?) for the Limerick terrors The Rubberbandits. All I knew about them was their 2010 youtube hit, Horse Outside, and to be honest I was pretty scared about what I was letting myself into.

But it turned out that their act is like a party scene out of Trainspotting or Spaced: druggy id with surprising intelligence and polish. (I did not expect to hear about the IRA or a story about ‘a spastic bird’). While I suspect most of the videos are online, they’re savvy enough about stage presence to make it more than an incredibly drugged up TOTP performance.

I’m glad I caught it before I felt too old to enjoy it (I would use loads of swearing to show how amazing it was, but am worried my mum might read this and get annoyed at me). Be warned though: if anything makes you want to take all the drugs, it’s be this set (again Mum, I didn’t take drugs, I know drugs are bad).

How the hell do you top a day like that? I don’t know. I’ll see what I can do on day two.

Day Two

There was a part of me that felt I should have just gone home after the first day. However, my aim for this part day (I intended to get back to Newcastle well before the last two trains of 7:30 and 9pm) was to try and be Scottish and go to free gigs where possible.

While I found a few free gigs I intended to go to, I lucked out in getting comped for not one but two gigs (both of which were fantastic). The third I paid for: I’d heard good things about Making the News but got confused about the title (it didn’t help that this was one of *three* gigs that Jupitus was in for this festival). If there’s one thing I can advise for the miserly on previews, it’s to wander around the more out of the way locations in the late morning and early afternoon. You might get a free ticket rather than just a leaflet!

I have been a fan of improv for a while, but the “And Now For Something Completely Improvised” was brilliant fun. The group had their work cut out for them with a story entitled Cribbles involving 220BC Paris and a secret list of the Queen’s corgis former lovers! Of course they handled it wonderfully.

Making News is a satire of the BBC (including the wonderful quips about the excommunication of heretics of Salford *gesture crossing oneself*), well worth seeing for anyone with anything of a relationship with Auntie Beeb. Phil Jupitus is a veritable Boston Legal character in a small but pivotal cameo as the hallowed Director General.

Finally, best songs of the day were from That Pair (“What pair? That pair!”) with a muti-character memorial to their manager that reminded me of the type of antics the Topp Twins get up to (minus the yodeling). It takes about 10 minutes for the characters to start to have their own personalities, but by the time they’re singing as Ohio sisters about “god forgiving you for being an athirst but not being a bitch” you’re on to a winner.

I have to say that for me the Fringe feels like something of a  … mecca? Nirvana? In saying that am I following up on a joke Sean Hughes made that us secular youth look for spirituality in all the wrong places? Whatever it is, it’s a wonderful experience. I overhead one man mention that he’s been scrapbooking ephemera from his visits to The Fringe for the last 40 years. Here’s to many more, Edinburgh.