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Edinburgh Festival Preview 2023: Needs A Bit After The Colon

Fun fact: I actually picked up the Edinburgh Fringe programme from one of the venues at the Manchester International Festival, and had to carry it around with me the whole weekend we were there. People thought I was very confused.When you think about it, our usual Edinburgh rule of two years on and one year off is completely wrecked these days – the last time we took a break from the festival was in 2018. Okay, so 2020 was online only, and we were only there for a few days in 2021, just long enough to see a dozen or so shows and catch COVID. But it’s probably time we stepped back for a year.

Also, seven weeks ago we got hitched and had a two week honeymoon in Italy, and that all cost us a fortune. So there’s that.

But we can still maintain one of this site’s long-standing traditions, and plough through the programmes anyway to come up with recommendations for Nick, Cha and the other Pals who are heading up there without us. So let’s go. (The focus is going to be on the final week, which is when the Pals are visiting: booking links are provided if you're interested enough to want to go.)

Book Festival: The approach that The BBG and I have used in recent years is to choose Book Festival events by subject matter, rather than by author, and that’s worked really well for us. The closest we can come to that this year is Kate Crawford’s discussion of where we currently are on the hot topic of artificial intelligence, with the added bonus that you get food and drink thrown in for your £45 admission. And if you have a way of getting into children’s events without getting yourself arrested, The World of Japanese Spirits could be a fun introduction to the traditions of the yokai. But there are still names that leap out: Linton Kwesi Johnson, Alan Moore, Jeremy Deller and the double bill of Michael Pedersen and David Shrigley are the ones that we’d be going for if we were there this year. In fact, because the Book Festival is still livestreaming many of its events in hybrid fashion, we’ll be seeing some of them anyway (notably LKJ and Alan Moore, particularly as the latter won't be in Edinburgh at all but broadcasting live from his Northampton lair).

Cabaret & Variety: It’s interesting that for many years, the Cabaret section was largely made up of burlesque acts offering the promise of tastefully presented boobs. But this is 2023, and it’s now heavily queer and mostly in drag. It’s hard to come up with new ways to present cross-dressing, but Drag Queen Wine Tasting may just have pulled it off. Elsewhere, it's basically unclassifiable novelty acts, like Arron Jones apparently attempting to do an hour of magic while in a straitjacket, or Kokoon’s comic take on the K-pop boy band.

Children’s Shows: Another developing trend is how the children’s section is taken up more and more with established comedians slumming it in interactive, family-friendly versions of their usual schtick. John Robertson has been doing it for ages with his Dark Room For Kids: this year we also get Marcel Lucont’s gameshow for awful children and Olaf Falafel’s silliness, which I’d imagine only requires the slightest tweaks to his adult material.

Comedy: I remember the old days of the Fringe programme, when the first page of it was taken up with comedy acts using titles like Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! to get themselves at the top of the listings. These days, the sort order has changed, meaning that the first thing you’ll find in the comedy section is the ASCII representation of a pair of tits. Get past that, and most of what you’ll find is the usual collection of returning names: Andrew O’Neill, Elliot Steel, John Hegley, Frank Skinner, Jerry Sadowitz (bravely promising Last Year’s Show), Liam Withnail, Mark Nelson, Mark Thomas, MC Hammersmith, Ronnie Golden and Simon Munnery to name just a dozen who’ve been mentioned here before. A few others worth noting: pop into Impro All Stars to pay tribute to former member Andy Smart, who sadly passed away earlier this year; see what silliness Mark Watson can pull off on a corporate awayday or in a church; find out what a walking tour led by veteran Scottish comedian Raymond Mearns would look like; hear Ivo Graham trying to keep control during a series of Comedian's DJ Battles; cheer on Rhod Gilbert in his return to standup after some major health problems: and tut loudly at the blatant zeitgeist-baiting of getting AI to generate prompts for an improv show. Oh, and as previously mentioned there's Daniel Kitson, if you're prepared to accept the challenge of queuing for returns for a show that starts at 10.30am.

Dance/Physical Theatre/Circus: Hard to get a handle on this section this year, although at first glance there’s a surprisingly large number of shows from Hong Kong. Still, it’s worth mentioning that In/Outside: Visible Things has grabbed The BBG’s attention for being a Japanese piece that throws calligraphy into the mix, while the attempt of Perfect Pairing: A Wine Tasting Dancegustation to find four ideal wines to go with four pieces of dance has to be applauded for its sheer audacity.

Events: This is always where the unclassifiable stuff ends up, hence the appearance of Charmed Circle, a brewery and distillery walking tour. Nevertheless, I’m somewhat perturbed by the mere existence of Fringe At Prestonfield, some sort of posh cabaret held in the stables of one of the city’s fanciest hotels. Christopher Biggins is hosting, Cliff Richard and Gloria Hunniford are being touted as guests, and tickets are going for fifty quid. Spirit of the Fringe, my arse.

Exhibitions: As usual, the Fringe is cheating by taking any exhibition in one of the major galleries whose dates happen to overlap with the festival and claiming it as one of its own. Still, you could probably do a lot worse than a Grayson Perry binge.

Film: At the start of 2023, it was uncertain if there’d ever be an Edinburgh International Film Festival again: so this emergency edition, put together as a sub-event of the International Festival as we prepare for the first one under new boss Andrew Macdonald in 2024, is a lot better than we could have hoped for. Potential highlights include the new Kelly Reichardt (Showing Up), an Edinburgh-based retelling of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, Chinese slacker animation with Art College 1994, and an interesting collection of Animation Short Films to remind us how the London Film Festival seems to have given up on the medium. There are some excellent archive presentations, too: Life Is Cheap… But Toilet Paper Is Expensive (first seen at the 1990 festival) is a pre-handover look at Hong Kong that’s got to be worth a rewatch now, while an open-air screening of Safety Last rejoices in the content warning that it ‘contains depictions of people which were harmful in 1923 and continue to be so now.’ (After some consultation with my MostlyFilm colleagues, we suspect they're talking about some antisemitism in a jeweller’s shop. Couldn't they just say that?)

International: Obviously, the International fest is doing non-film stuff too. In their theatre programme, I’d be curious to see Life Is A Dream to find out how this production compares to the one featuring Sylvester McCoy that played here a quarter of a century ago. It’s been a long time since I immersed myself in anything by Punchdrunk, and I’ll be keeping an eye on the reviews for their kids show The Lost Lending Library. If you’re just here for the classics, then The Rite Of Spring and The Threepenny Opera should keep you happy. The best-looking Queens Hall morning concert features Mao Fujita, while the best-looking gig is the Afro-classical mashup of Abel Selaocoe. And for those of you on a tight budget, there’s the chance to hear recordings of some of this year’s classical concerts free of charge in Charlotte Square over the final weekend.

Music: There are far too many tribute acts cluttering up this section these days, including all the ones calling themselves The xxxxxx Story to give themselves an air of theatre. These should be avoided (although the idea of a Kirsty MacColl tribute is intriguing). Instead, revisit one of my highlights from last year (The Katet Vs John Williams), or help Chris Difford celebrate 50 years in the biz, or watch Glasgow DJ Rebecca Vasmant pulling together some of Scotland’s finest jazz musos into an excellent band. Also available: an online mix of poetry and music in Arrive Alive, local folk from George Machray, a mix of traditional and modern Korean sounds from Il Won Dang, and the chance to celebrate 50 years of Dark Side Of The Moon by listening to it in Edinburgh's Planetarium like a great big hippy.

Musicals and Opera: I remember when American High School Theatre Festival was an outlier, the only group on the Fringe exploiting cheap child labour in a series of productions of musicals. These days, everyone's doing it: the musicals section has several youth theatre groups performing Junior versions of existing musicals, from Disney's Frozen Jr. to Singing In The Rain Jr. (When I was a lad, Disney's Frozen wasn't a musical, it was a conspiracy theory.) Curiously, virtually all of these youth productions are front-loaded into the first week or two of the Fringe, so this isn't much use as a recommendation for the Pals. Instead, they could consider Harry Hill's Tony Blair rock opera, or a gig theatre piece at the usually-reliable Traverse (No Love Songs), or marvel at what might be the single worst show title of the year (The TUNEabomber). If you're looking for mysteries to contemplate, you would wonder why we now have two separate Alan Turing musicals, or why Fringe stalwart A Young Man Dressed as a Gorilla Dressed as an Old Man Sits Rocking in a Rocking Chair for 56 Minutes and Then Leaves... 14 is being classed as a musical this year.

Spoken Word: You'd have thought that with the rise in performance poetry over the last decade or so, this section would be full of that sort of thing: and yes, old hands like Attila The Stockbroker still have a home here, along with interesting variations like Drumming Up Poetry. But we seem to be ankle-deep in political interviews this year for some reason. For me, In Conversation with... Andy Burnham is the only one that feels like it could be interesting, although I'd definitely be curious about Culture For The Many and its Jeremy Corbyn/Ken Loach double-header. Meanwhile, Cabaret Of Dangerous Ideas is still doing its thing, although you'll need to visit the Stand website to see what that thing is day by day.

Theatre: It's the final section of the Fringe programme, and one of the biggest, so to be honest we're just skimming at this point. Some incredibly disjointed thoughts follow. Two different adaptations of Die Hard, really? I'd rather see Grief Lightning and its reinterpretation of the plot of Grease. Several standup comics and poets are pretending their act is theatre really, including Mark Thomas, Ivo Graham, Luke Wright and Paul Zenon. The Grand Old Opera House Hotel could be worth a look at the Traverse, because again it's the Traverse. If you're looking for only-in-Edinburgh experiences, try 1000 Miniature Meadows ("to participate, you will need access to a smartphone with WiFi or data and a pair of headphones"), Klanghaus: Darkroom ("performed in total darkness for one person"), Blub Blub ("mysterious live music will be combined with miniature sets and props that pop out of trunks"), Shadow Kingdom ("four hundred shadow puppets are used to create a live animated movie") or When Kurt Met Thora ("Thora Hird encounters Kurt Cobain ahead of Nirvana’s infamous appearance on TOTP").  Fred Deakin of Lemon Jelly is going to try and recreate his favourite club nights in Club Life, which could be fun. Justin Butcher of Scaramouche Jones fame is back with The Devil's Passion, once again directed by good old Guy Masterson. Junk Monkey, you already know. And for those of us who read the paper Fringe programme cover to cover, the final two events listed seem like some sort of threat: You Are Going To Die and Your Children Will Follow. (The former is "performed entirely naked," for those only-in-Edinburgh people.)

So that's a pretty hefty set of recommendations for a festival we're not even going to. But we're aiming to be back in 2024, by which time hopefully Edinburgh will have found a solution to its accommodation crisis. At least we can say that despite a shiny two-page advert in the middle of the Fringe programme, this is not that solution. Spirit of the Fringe, my arse. Again.


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