Choosing what to see at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a stressful process for a lot of people, particularly my Dad. Throughout August he emails me saying things like: “We want to go and see four- or five-star theatre show at 3.30pm on Sunday 12th August at the Pleasance Dome, or within a five-minute radius, and it can’t be like that dreadful boxing one that won all the prizes you sent us to last year. Do you have any suggestions?”
By this point, I’m usually seeing lots of shows for The Scotsman and, as a result, have lots of recommendations. However, I can’t remember when or where any of them took place because venues, times and titles are a jumbled mass of numbers and letters rolling around my head like lottery balls. So I just email him a single word: the name of my favourite. It has really stuck in my mind and I’m pretty sure will win all the prizes. Why wouldn’t it? It’s by the company who did that wonderful boxing play.
It’s around this time of year that lots of lists come out called things like ‘Top 20 things to see at the Edinburgh Fringe if you can’t be bothered to read the programme’. They predominantly suggest you go and see shows by companies or individuals who have done good stuff in the past, similar to the way banks only lend to people who can already prove they have lots of cash. These shows are ‘a safe bet’. However, safe can mean predictable and, in some cases, disappointing. For instance, you’re unlikely to appreciate a harrowing expose of sex trafficking, no matter how well done, if what you really want to see is a musical starring ex-soap stars.
Reading the Fringe Guide for yourself avoids this. It means you will be more likely to find and see what you want; less likely to have to buy your ticket now (or last week). However, it’s a time consuming process. I know, because I do it every year. It’s boring! Don’t even try and read more than ten pages without a break. But, in the end, it is worth it. Out of the hundred or so shows I see each year most of the ones I choose are good, and the ones I like best are often on few people’s lists except my own.
In 2008, I was one of the first and only critics to see Little Bulb’s debut show Crocosmia, performed in a hotel room. There were two other audience members. Their last show, Orpheus, sold out Battersea Arts Centre. A picture of their current one, Squally Showers, tops the Guardian’s ‘to see’ list. In 2007, I saw one of the first performances of the recently formed 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. It went on to win multiple awards and tour the world. The company didn’t have critics at their follow-up show in 2011. They didn’t need them.
Seeing a great show before anyone else is brilliant. You can take your time and choose where to sit, you won’t have someone else’s head blocking your view because there is no someone else, and the cast will probably chat to you at the end because they’ll be so grateful you came. “Why did you come?” they’ll ask, impressed that you’ve managed to find a venue listed 5km off the edge of the festival map. “Oh, I just read about you in the Edinburgh Fringe Guide,” you’ll breezily reply. None of this is going to happen when they’re selling out the National Theatre and appearing on BBC Breakfast.
While you will never again have the chance to see Little Bulb or 1927 in a quiet, unassuming atmosphere uncluttered by expectation in the way I originally did, reading the Fringe Guide will increase the likelihood of you having a similar experience with another currently unknown company.
But be warned, the Fringe Guide is a bewildering place: hidden gems are submerged in a cauldron of false advertising and unsubstantiated claims. In order to find the really good stuff, you’ll need to weed out the really bad stuff. To help, I’ve created a dictionary of the kind of terms you’ll come across here – words and phrases describing shows, and what they really mean:
Edinburgh Fringe Guide Dictionary
You will probably end up on stage.
There isn’t a stage
Talk about your life with a strange man.
A strange man will try to snog you
A classic dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century
A pointless new setting for a familiar old tale
A rollercoaster ride of emotions
Lots of people crying for no obvious reason
Talking about issues
America student company
Cheerful, rich teenagers on holiday
Play written in 2003
Play written in 2011
Ban the Bomb
Play written in 1963
Don’t go if you like Brecht
Weird and confusing
Play by someone no older than 25
Saying other people’s words for them
Giving people a voice who don’t have one
Writing other people’s words for them
Science meets theatre
Someone like Brian Cox
Theatre meets art
Someone like Tracy Emin
Suitable for under 4s
Don’t go on your own if you’re 43
Suitable for over 14s
Don’t go on your own if you’re under 4
Starts at 1am
Five stars (audience member)
The critics gave it two
Five stars (unnamed source)
Everyone hates it
Five stars (well-known critic)
You will be left feeling mildly disappointed but predominantly smug
Won a prize in 2002
And hasn’t won one since
The critics loved it
We care what other people think
The critics hated it
Fuck other people
Adapted from a radio play
Was better as a radio play
Is on the telly
And should have stayed there
A play about tuition fees
Created by people who don’t want to pay them
A lot of hard work has gone into it
It’s not very good but please be sympathetic
You will only see this play at the Edinburgh Festival
There will be a Q&A afterwards
No one will ask questions except the director
You will laugh until you cry
You may cry but not in a good way
You will cry until you laugh
Could be interesting
If you still can’t face the idea of reading the Fringe Guide and were really hoping this blog would be another list of recommendations for shows from someone who has yet to see any of them, please continue reading.