Reviewed today: Burnistoun Live At The Fringe, The Edinburgh Tattoo, Music At The Cowshed.
In the end, the main issue I have with Virgin Trains East Coast dates back to May of this year, when I went to their website just outside the three-month window when they traditionally release all the cheap tickets, only to find that they've quietly started selling some of those tickets six months in advance. Nevertheless, I managed to get a decent deal for our party of seven, although there's always the nagging feeling that I could have got a better one. There's one sneaky marketing trick that Virgin have introduced, which may be worth making more public: if you buy your tickets through them rather than discount sites like The Train Line, you get free wifi for the duration of the journey, rather than just the standard 15 minute taster. I'd take issue with the way they've implemented this - as we've got seven people going up to Edinburgh and eight people coming back, I am now the proud owner of fifteen different wi-fi passwords that I have to issue to my party on an individual basis. Apart from this hassle, the network is actually pretty solid once you get on it, and we manage to get a number of show tickets booked online during the traditional trading of event recommendations that occurs on our four-and-three-quarter hour journey.
At Waverley, it's a surprisingly short wait for a taxi (possibly a consequence of Virgin only having cheap tickets for trains that arrive after 4pm), and after a bit of admin and some confused wandering around the wrong University of Edinburgh building we get ourselves checked into our flats for the week. First item on the agenda is a shopping trip, and within five minutes walk from the flats we find a terrific corner shop. The Belated Birthday Girl is particularly impressed by a number of items that coincide with her interests - some veggie sausage rolls to get over that whole pesky no-time-for-lunch problem, a fine fridge full of craft beer, and a copy of The List Eating And Drinking Guide to allow her to plan our meals for the rest of the week.
It's the List guide that points us in the direction of our location for dinner a little later on. Wildmanwood Pizza is a new restaurant from the people behind other Edinburgh favourites like The Outsider and The Apartment. This one's a little less fancy, and is promising authentic Neapolitan pizza like every other bugger has since we came back from there a year ago. It's been fascinating watching restaurants in the UK fawning all over this trend, to varying degrees of success: for our money, London restaurants Sartori and Sacro Cuore are the ones that come closest to the miraculous pies we ate in Naples. Wildmanwood tries hard, but the dough isn't quite of the same quality that the best Naples pizzerias offer. Still, they've got the procedure down cold - a red-hot oven and a very short cooking time - so providing there aren't queues out the door, it's a good location for a quick sit-down meal in between shows.
Wildmanwood's got an advantage this year in that it's directly across the road from the Gilded Balloon/Udderbelly/Pleasance Dome/Assembly George Square complex - and more importantly, directly across the road from the one entrance to them all, because someone has decided that the thing to do at Fringe time is launch a huge programme of building work that requires 98% of the biggest single conglomeration of venues to be hidden behind a gigantic set of hoardings. Still, somehow, we make it into the Gilded Balloon for the first event of our Festival.
You know how I sometimes take the mick out of the sort of people who come up to the Fringe just to watch people they already know from the telly? Yes, well, um. To be fair, Burnistoun Live At The Fringe would seem like a fairly obscure choice to anyone who isn't in BBC Scotland's catchment area, or didn't read my article comparing Burnistoun and Limmy's Show back in 2010 before any of you Sassenach bastards had even heard of them. The two shows debuted on BBC Scotland at around the same time, and both have ended up taking the same trajectory: three series, a special, and now a spin-off theatrical run to give the characters one last outing before their creators move on to other things.
Limmy's equivalent theatre show (which I reviewed from Glasgow earlier this year) was very much aimed at the fans - every character was from the TV series, put in a slight variation on the situations we knew and loved them for. Iain Connell and Robert Florence, possibly mindful of the fact that a general Fringe audience may not be entirely familiar with them, have largely avoided doing that here. Only three of the sketches rely on foreknowledge of the characters in them - the Quality Polis in the opening sequence, the slow reveal of a massively shoutable catchphrase in the final sketch, and the bewildering burst of Jolly Boy John in the middle. I've never really been a fan of JBJ's shouty nonsense, but here it's given a boost from the realisation that Connell is completely knackered at the end of the sketch, and Florence is delighted to tease him for his unfitness all the way through the next one.
Back in 2010, I suggested that while Limmy was funny at a smart intellectual level, Florence and the man I embarrassingly referred to as 'Cornell' throughout were 'naturally funny guys', and I think that still applies now. Little bits of off-script behaviour like Florence's references to Connell's inability to breathe after Jolly Boy John are indicative of their playful approach to the show - they're obviously having a huge amount of fun on stage, with just the right amount of corpsing from Florence at several moments. But there's still a darker edge to some of the material than we're used to from TV: for me, the highlight is an extreme yoga class where Florence walks around the attendees trying to instil them with existential dread while they're trying to relax. The dedication involved in producing an entirely new show for this run is much appreciated, though not necessarily by everyone in the audience - at one point, someone behind us yells "do something we know." No, you don't need to do that, that's fine, thanks.
We're out of Burnistoun by 10pm. What to do now? We're slightly underprepared, but I've had an idea - let's walk down Cowgate in the middle of a Saturday night. Edinburgh regulars will be horrified at that idea, because they know exactly what that'll be like, and it's exactly what we expect: drunks are either urinating into litter bins or singing A-Ha at the tops of their voices, and it's hard to decide which is the more embarrassing. We have a definite destination in mind, rather than a mere desire to experience Edinburgh at its most terrifying: we're going to Music At The Cowshed, our first Free Fringe event of the year. We've passed the Cowshed a few times in recent years without ever going into it, and it's always seemed like a fascinating venue to me: a large wooden room done up like an actual cowshed, with haybales on the floor and stalls for toilets, and bands playing for free on its stage on an hourly basis. It always seemed like somewhere that could be interesting to visit, once you got over the intellectual objection to all that hay making it a massive fire hazard.
The Cowshed, it has to be said, loses a lot of its appeal when you're actually inside it at 10.15 on a Saturday night. It's overcrowded and noisy, and trades on that as being a substitute for atmosphere. The main attraction appears to be some sort of game where you can win £20 if you allow yourself to be effectively crucified for two minutes. There's a giant screen showing the Olympics which dominates one wall of the venue, ensuring that even if the pub rock band on stage were any good nobody would be able to concentrate on them. But in the end, a quick look at the drinks list gives us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to recycle a catchphrase from the show we've just seen. "Is this a Tennent's bar? UP EH ROAD!"
This being Cowgate, going 'up eh road' from the Cowshed takes you to BrewDog Edinburgh, so you can see we had a Plan B safely up our sleeves. And after our traditional Cocoa Psycho nightcap, we're in a sufficiently good mood to give the Cowshed another chance - after all, we know the bands change once an hour, so maybe the next one will be better. The good news is, they are. The stage has now been taken over by The Mean Reds, a female-led rockabilly covers band who growl songs about hard-headed women without bothering to change any of the gendered pronouns. They're ridiculously tight and fantastically danceable. At the same time, the crowd inside the bar has got a little smaller and less arseholey, while The BBG is delighted to observe that many punters are avoiding the Tennents and drinking (ridiculously overpriced) cans of Punk IPA and Dead Pony Club instead. After a disappointing introduction to the Cowshed, this second visit is much more fun, showing it's entirely dependent on the people in the room - bear that in mind and plan accordingly. Besides, it makes a refreshing change for the pavement outside a Cowgate bar to be covered in stray clumps of straw, rather than spew.
Staying back for the end of The Mean Reds' set means we're on Grassmarket just before midnight, so we hang around for a bit looking up at the Castle and seeing what we can catch of this year's Edinburgh Tattoo without paying any money to see it. In previous years, you knew where you were - on the stroke of midnight on a Saturday night, the end of the Tattoo would be marked by a huge fireworks display over the Castle that could be viewed by anyone on the street at the time. This year, though, the show seems to be running long. From our vantage point in Grassmarket, we can see the Castle's being heavily used for son et lumiere purposes - initially with a few bits of pyro to fool you into thinking the cannons are being fired, and then as a big projection screen to tell the story of some battle or other. It looks pretty from street level, but it's not fireworks: eventually we wander off in the direction of home, only to find that the fireworks are launched at close on half past midnight, by which time we can only see them over the rooftops of Lothian Road. Still, it's better than nothing.