To summarise for newcomers: I’ve been attending the Edinburgh Festival on and off since 1989. You can read all about that here. The ‘off’ part of the arrangement has, over the years, settled into something quite simple: every third year, I stay at home, and let Nick take control of the Pals for a week instead. The last time I did this was in 2012, so I’m due another break this year – and after the amount of money that Italy cost us, it’s probably just as well.
But a variation on that arrangement has slowly evolved in recent years, as Nick asks me if there’s anything in this year’s Festival programmes I can recommend, and I end up writing a couple of thousand words on the internet in response. The last time I did this was also in 2012: so, with the Fest just a month away, it’s time to plough through the International Festival, Fringe and Book Festival programmes to see what catches my eye, even though I have no plans to see anything I’m about to recommend here. As advice, you can take it or leave it, it’s entirely up to you. Ready?
Books: There are a couple of major categories that Book Festival attendees tend to fall into. There are the authors who are there year after year because they live down the road anyway (Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin): and there are the people who are famous in other fields who are coming along because they happen to have a book out (such as comedians Paul Merton and David O’Doherty, or politicians like Tam Dalyell and Alan Johnson). There are a few others worth looking out for: my top recommendation would be to do whatever’s necessary to get to one of Kate Tempest’s shows, either the interview or the poetry recital. If you can’t get into those, George The Poet is another name worth dropping on the current spoken word circuit. Cyrano de Bergerac is a staged reading of Edwin Morgan’s beautiful Scottish translation of the play – its performance at the Traverse in 1992 was an all-time Edinburgh highlight for me, but this will be the next best thing. Finally, in the children’s section, Catherine Wilkins should hopefully be as entertaining as she was last year, as she holds the fort in Edinburgh while hubby Richard Herring stays home and looks after the baby.
Cabaret & Variety: This category has been a relatively recent addition to the programme, really just to allow them to have a section for all the burlesque shows that isn’t explicitly labelled You May See Tits. It’s nice to see Dillie Keane here on one of her solo outings away from Fascinating Aida, still doing the same sort of funny stuff she’s been performing here for three decades while they’ve been rebuilding the programme categories around her. Of the known quantities in this year’s section, Phil Nichol’s Cray Cray Cabaret is curated by one of the Fringe’s finest Renaissance men, so expect anything: Transformer has cabaret icon Johnny Woo doing a tribute to Lou Reed’s best album: and Shit Girlfriend is a series of songs by a woman who recently impressed me at a gig support slot when she was called She Makes War. In terms of ideas that could go either way, you could take a gamble on The Iraq Pack, a series of cabaret standards performed by Frank Sanazi, Dean Stalin, Saddami Davis Jnr and Osama Bin Crosby you’ve stopped reading already haven’t you I can tell.
Children's Shows: Turning up to one of these as an unaccompanied grown-up is always risky, so be careful. Abigoliah's GoPro Comedy Talk Show could be fun for the more extroverted little ones, a comedy show hosted by a woman with a webcam on her head. (As she uploads the results to the web afterwards, it may also be a nightmare for paranoid parents.) Other than that, most of the standout titles are the rude ones. Father Christmas Needs A Wee! Princess Pumpalot: The Farting Princess! Return Of The Snot Zombies! My Dad Ate A Pie Full Of Toenails! You get the idea.
Comedy: This year’s biggest trend? Try searching the Fringe programme for titles including the words ‘work in progress’. It used to be the case that comics used a national tour to warm up for the Fringe, but now it’s the other way around – presumably it’s no longer considered the industry shop window that it used to be. So let’s look at a few things that fall outside the standard template of one person standing in front of a microphone for an hour, even if it’s as simple a deviation as Katsura Sunshine sitting in front of it instead. There’s a series of discussions called Talking Comedy, in which Alexei Sayle, Mark Thomas, Jo Brand and Nina Conti are interviewed on stage about their craft: on a related theme, Comedy Death features interviews with comedians on the specific topic of their worst ever gigs. Brendon Burns is host to a couple of format-breakers, with the daily podcast recording sessions of The Brendon Burns Show Again, and the none-more-Ronseal Brendon Burns and Colt Cabana Sit in a Fucking Yurt at 11pm and Provide Comedy and Commentary to Bad Wrestling Matches. Louise Reay appears to be taking the idea of my Monoglot Movie Club feature into the live arena, with what she claims is “a comedy show in Chinese for people who don’t speak any Chinese at all.” George Egg will feed you with items cooked using only the electrical items you’d find in a hotel room, while Set Menu has Hardeep Singh Kohli doing something similar using only the kitchen of his Indian restaurant. Finally, Barry Ferns is doing his Edinburgh Festival Fringe Audio Tour again, which you can download from his website and take any time you like.
Dance, Physical Theatre & Circus: For all my talk about Brendon Burns and Colt Cabana above, it has to be said that this is the section with the most does-what-it-says-on-the-tin titles in the entire Fringe programme. So let’s just say that the following shows exist - The Biggest Marionette Circus In The World, Clown Macbeth, Guru Dudu's Silent Disco Walking Tour, and A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for 56 Minutes and Then Leaves… 7 – and you can decide whether you want to be associated with them or not.
Events: This is where they put the support meetings to help out other Fringe performers, or the things that are frankly unclassifiable. Phoney Or False Reviews Online - What Can I Do? is a good example of the former, and I’m tempted to describe it as “nothing more than a front for a heroin dealing operation” to see if they namecheck me at any point. As for the latter, Aurora Nova’s The Animotion Show could be an interesting clash of visuals and music in the large-scale arena of the George Heriot School Quad, while Thai Cookery And Fruit Carving is much more intimate while being hellaciously more expensive.
Exhibitions: These always feel like a bit of a cheat, as a lot of the time they’re exhibits that will be in Edinburgh’s main galleries long before and after the Festival dates. That’s certainly the case for the big retrospectives for Roy Lichtenstein and David Bailey. But don’t forget to check out the smaller shows, with things like the University Library’s Towards Dolly: A Century Of Animal Genetics In Edinburgh surely worth a punt for its entrance fee of nothing. At the other extreme, admire the chutzpah of local artist Ruth Addinall, whose Visit The Artist show invites you to look at her paintings for a mere forty-five quid.
International: There’s a new boss in charge of the International Festival this year, and Fergus Linehan has got an intriguing programme lined up for his debut. The focus on contemporary music is certainly a new feature, although it’s all backloaded into the final week, which means that the Pals won’t be able to catch shows by the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Max Richter and FFS. But there’s plenty of excellent theatre they will be able to see. Two of the titans of world theatre are clashing head-to-head in one-man multimedia shows, with Simon McBurney telling the story of The Encounter while Robert Lepage looks at how memory works in the digital age in 887. Coming up behind them is currently white-hot director Ivo van Hove, whose production of Antigone starring Juliette Binoche is attracting a lot of interest. In other sections, Tao Dance Theatre are performing to the music of Steve Reich, while Colin Currie & Friends will also be dabbling with the composer in a Queen’s Hall morning concert for two percussionists and two pianists.
Music: It’s weird to see that the most interesting rock acts at Edinburgh are now in the International Festival rather than the Fringe. So, as with comedy, let’s look for things that fall outside the standard boundaries. Beyond Harlem Nocturne has the legendary session musician Terry Edwards collaborating with Tindersticks guitarist Neil Fraser. Come Together has Fringe veteran Barb Jungr working her way through the Beatles’ back catalogue, accompanied by John McDaniel. There are also a couple of interesting-sounding mixes of music and visuals, with the dome-projected graphics of Sonic Vision probably being a more high-tech experience than Graeme Stephen’s Live Score To Buster Keaton’s Film The Navigator.
Musicals & Opera: It’s always worth having a look at what the American High School Theatre Festival is doing at Church Hill when it comes to musicals, and Shakuntala – a rock opera based on an Indian folk tale – could well be worth checking out. Otherwise, you’ve got amateur productions of shows you never got around to checking out during their professional run, like The Addams Family or Sunshine On Leith. And then there are custom-built pieces like UKIP The Musical, which you suspect may have had to undergo some rewriting in the last couple of months.
Spoken Word: This relatively new section sprang up to cover the sudden spurt in performance poetry over the last few years. For example, the neatly-titled Poetry Can Fuck Off (it’s a neat title because it’s just a sentence missing an object) is a recital of recent work by Heathcote Williams. But it also covers comedy shows that aren’t quite brave enough to advertise themselves alongside standup gigs (like Kraftwerk Badger Spaceship), and actors just talking about stuff that’s happened to them (from The Tobolowsky Files to Don’t Tell Him Pike Part 2).
Theatre: As ever, the first thing to do is catch all the reviews for the shows on at the Traverse Theatre, see which ones are generating all the buzz, and book for them as soon as you can. (The Breakfast Plays are always worth taking a risk on.) A few random selections from the rest: Dylan Thomas – The Man, The Myth is being performed by Guy Masterson, and if you’ve seen him do Under Milk Wood as a one-man show then you’ll know what to expect. Daniel Kitson is at Summerhall with Polyphony, one of his experimental tape-based pieces, and as with anything Kitson-related it sold out ages ago. Linking Rings has magician Paul Zenon branching out into storytelling, which could be interesting. Fans of wildly over-ambitious theatrical adaptations will no doubt be heading towards Jurassic Park and The Hobbit (the latter advertised as a ‘fast-paced retelling’, which you can tell because it’s eight hours shorter than the film version). Fans of magnificently terrible titles will flock to the Marie Curie biography The Element In The Room. Finally, in a poor year for shows with the word ‘monkey’ in the title, hooray for Fills Monkey and their incorrectly-classified drumming show.
Other shows are available, of course. They're just the ones that caught my eye, and I don't even care because I'm not going! Let me know if you see anything else of interest up there - hopefully, the Pals will...