August is upon us once more, and that means it’s time for Edinburgh. The world’s largest arts festival transforms the Scottish capital into a thronged, bustling funhouse, where anything can happen – and usually does.
The Fringe, originally a sideshow to the main event (now called the Edinburgh International Festival) but these days far bigger, celebrates its 61st year this summer with its usual bewildering array of shows offer. Whatever your taste, it’s sure to be catered for. And here’s a staggering statistic to prove the point: if you watch every show back-to-back – that’s more than 28,000 performances – you’d be occupied for nearly six years.
Theatre, in all its forms, comprises around a third of total Fringe activity. To wade through your options, you’ll find the Fringe listings programme indispensable – and available at the very reasonable price of zero pounds. Pick one up in the city, or get it posted to you beforehand. Of course, as all the superlative-laden promo blurbs are written by the show promoters, it can still be difficult to know where to spend your money. Obviously, something that’s billed as “a fantastic new musical about income tax, featuring the songs of Chas and Dave” might be easy to avoid...
Don’t be put off. It’s very much part of the spirit of the festival to get a little lost - instead of rightfully taking your place in the front row of a drag queen sing-along cabaret revue, you somehow mistakenly end up with a new-found appreciation of experimental, one-man puppet versions of Measure for Measure. In Finnish. For example.
Even the best Fringe experience involves seeing a few duds, one or two wincingly awful comedians, and whiny pre-pubescent scout troops belting out off-key renditions of the Beatles’ back catalogue, but don’t be afraid to speculate. You may just find a hidden gem or two. To start you off in the right direction, we’ve compiled our list of “top picks”. Though it’s hardly exhaustive, it covers a range of styles, so you’ll undoubtedly find something for you. And, we reckon, more than a few of these will be good enough to warrant lives beyond Edinburgh…
For more up-to-the-minute coverage of the Fringe as well as the Edinburgh International Festival, you can visit our partner website, Edinburgh-Festivals.com. And do feel free to share your own tips and travel logs with other theatregoers on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum.
Life can only be lived to the limit in this production by the acclaimed Paines Plough. Climbing to dizzying, tingling heights, three friends push themselves and each other to extremes. When death is an ever-present possibility, life takes on an entirely different complexion. Always worth seeing, Paines Plough, collaborates with the Drum Theatre Plymouth on this intense work.
Traverse 1, 5-26 August (not Mondays), times vary. £16/11
Athol Fugard’s new play receives its European premiere after a successful New York run. It has won over 30 major theatre awards already and is likely to pick up more here. The play chartwg the playwright’s own early relationship with renowned South African actor André Huguenet.
Assembly @ George Street, 3-27 August (not 23), 3.20pm. £13/£11 (weekends), £12/£10 (weekdays)
This is the world premiere of David Greig’s new play, set at the crossroads of the Middle East, in the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. Issues of culture, language and love are explored in what promises to be an absorbing piece, put on by the Traverse Theatre Company, the new writing specialists which have already have a long and fruitful working relationship with Grieg to date.
Traverse 1, 5-26 August (not Mondays), times vary. £16/£11
In an adults-only show, Fecund Theatre presents an explosive and challenging love story revolving around S&M. Think Closer with no punches pulled and far more visceral. Sure to be thought-provoking and passion-stirring.
Mysterious @ Assembly Universal Arts, 2-27 August, (not 15), 7.15pm. £12/£11 (weekends), £11/£10 (weekdays)
Following last year’s widely-regarded Talk Radio, the Comedians Theatre Company returns with if.comeddy stand-up winner and Stage Best Actor Phil Nichol playing a murderous policeman in American Tracy Letts’ jaw-dropping black comedy. Nichol meets his match in Lizzie Roper’s trailer park-trash fast-talker.
Pleasance Courtyard, 4-27 August. £12/£11 (weekends), £10/£8.50 (weekdays)
Could it be this year’s Black Watch? It’s hard to say but, with the National Theatre of Scotland on top form, it’s certainly worth a punt. This adaptation of the novel by Luke Sutherland, who also contributes live music, is created and performed by Tam Dean Burn. The story about the “miraculous” power of sex carries a warning – to be viewed by those aged 16-plus only!
Traverse, 2-26 August, times vary. £14/10
For music fans everywhere, and anyone who feels that the iPod has destroyed the appreciation of the album, this show is for you. A celebration of the life and work of legendary radio DJ John Peel, who passed away in 2004, this play looks back at the growth of his career from his early days at the BBC. Set in the studio and his office, predictably overflowing with records, writer and director Paul Hodson examines Peel’s long-standing friendship and collaboration with his producer John Walters.
Mysterious @ Assembly Universal Arts, 3-27 August (not 13, 20), 5.40pm. £14/£12.50 (weekends), £12.50/£10.50 (weekdays)
Malcolm McKay adapts Max Arthur’s bestselling First World War book Forgotten Voices for the stage, starring Matthew Kelly and Belinda Lang. Having used genuine oral testimony of survivors, five characters tell their all-too-real memories in a poignant, moving tale showing all sides of war. The play comes to Edinburgh after a London run at Riverside Studios and ahead of a national tour.
Assembly @ George Street, 2-27 August (not 7, 14), midday. £15/£13 (weekends), £12.50/£11 (weekdays)
Another Comedians’ Theatre Company offering is this bio play of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, a turn of the century Australian bush poet and soldier. Famous for his adventures in the back country, he later faces a court martial for suspicious events in the Boer War, where this play takes up the story. Nice to see stand-ups flexing their acting muscles so ably.
E4 UdderBelly, 2-27 August (not 14), 1.40pm £14.50/£13 (weekends). £12.50/£10 (weekdays)
Comedian-turned-Jerry Springer director Stewart Lee – who’s also on stage this year with his 41st Best Stand-up Ever! show at the E4 Udderbelly - has also turned his trademark wry wit to devising a book launch for Samuel Johnson and James Boswell 200 years after their famous travels.
Traverse, 7-26 Aug (not 20), 10.30pm. £16/11
Another must for adventurers at heart. GM Calhoun has adapted the expedition diaries of Arctic explorers Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen in their incredible race for the South Pole. Adrian Lukis and Jamie Lee are the intrepid duo.
Pleasance Courtyard, 1-27 Aug (not 8 & 15), 1.10pm. £10/9
For a perfect example of what the Fringe is about, go and see the Flying Carpet Theatre. As an example of physical theatre with a dash of comedy, you can’t do much better. After 2005’s awesome The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo, expect to be dazzled once more. An office drone becomes many things throughout the course of just one day – but don’t worry what it’s about, just see it. If you like it, also check out their other show, Extropia at the Pleasance Dome.
Pleasance Courtyard, 4-27 August (not 14), 2.20pm. £10/£8.50 (weekends), £9/£7.50 (weekdays).
Tim Crouch’s new promenade offering tells the story of a search for a new heart, acting alongside Hannah Ringham of the Shunt Collective. Set amongst an art gallery exhibition by Alex Hartley, these two guides will make you explore the inter-relationship of life and art in an ambitious and wide-ranging work.
Fruitmarket Gallery, 3-26 August (not Mondays), 8pm/10pm. £16/£11
If challenging, different, avant-garde or international theatre is your thing, then you’d best head over to the Aurora Nova on St Stephen’s Street. Leitmotif is a collection of short collaborative works performed by Andrew Dawson, in which he’s turned his body into a working canvas for other artists to use. Other pieces worth catching here include Get Your War On, examining pop culture; Lacrimosa by Polish group Song of the Goat; a marionette version of the Battle of Stalingrad, and Astronomy for Insects by the Fringe First-winning Russian ensemble blackSKYwhite.
Aurora Nova, 2-27 August (not 7, 14), 6.05pm. £13/£10 (weekends), £12/£9 (weekdays)
Not so much offbeat for content as for timing, Paines Plough has just the thing to give a theatrical kickstart to your day. The prolific Mark Ravenhill (The Cut, Citizenship, Shopping and F**king) has written 17 short plays, which will be premiered at 9.30am on successive days throughout the festival. Each morning, a new acting and directorial team will be culled from other shows around the Fringe. Your ticket price includes breakfast – yum!
Traverse 2, 7-12, 15-19, 21-26 August, 9.30am. £7
Originally from Australia, Certified Male delves into the secret lives of men today in comic style. Involving music and dance, the cast includes TV favourite Les Dennis. While you shouldn’t expect a definitive riposte to the power of The Vagina Monologues, this promises to be a good-natured treat for men and women alike.
Assembly @ St. George’s West, 3-27 August (not 14, 21), 1.30pm. £12/10 (weekends), £11/£9 (weekdays)
Completely, irretrievably mad. This should be seen if only for its uniqueness. Three crazy Germans destroy a Vauxhall Astra with a variety of power tools and other implements, in the process creating a sonic symphony orchestra. This “car crash concert” features everything from Tchaikovsky to (appropriately) Motorhead. Not suitable for car lovers.
Pleasance Courtyard, 1-27 August (not 14), 5.30 pm. £15/£12 (weekends), £14/£11.50 (weekdays)
If you missed its UK premiere season at the Roundhouse in London, you don’t want to make the same mistake twice. This latest high-octane, high-flying show – featuring music, water, strobes and nudity - from the Argentine creators of De La Guarda more than lives up to its name (which means “brute force). In Edinburgh, a new 1,200-seat venue has been specially built to house it. Be sure to dress casual!
The Black Tent, Ocean Terminal, 2 August-1 September (not 6, 13, 20 & 28), times vary. £25/17
Described as “the most important American play since Angels in America”, writer and performer Daniel Beaty’s one-man show brings over 40 characters to life in just over an hour. Taking a hypothetical modern-day appearance of a slave ship in New York as his jumping-off point, Beaty imbues his tale with incredible energy and life, and asks what it means to be free.
Assembly @ St George’s West, 3-27 August (not 6, 13), 6.45pm. £12/£11 (weekends), £11/£10 (weekdays)
History may well come to judge the Rwandan genocide as one of the worst ever, particularly due to the non-intervention of the West. The true story of one survivor is told here. Immaculée Ilibagiza was forced to hide from rampaging death squads for 91 days in a single room with seven others. Her family were killed, yet this play shows her forgiving those who murdered them. This poignant and harrowing one-woman play, which sold out its New York run, is performed by Leslie Lewis Sword.
Teviot Gilded Balloon, 4-27 August (not 13, 20), 3pm. £9/£8 (weekends), £8/£7 (weekdays)
Where Emergence-See! looks at slavery, and Miracle in Rwanda at ethnic cleansing, Truth in Translation turns its focus towards another racial atrocity: apartheid. The optimistically-named “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” - set up to hear testimony from both sides – involved a large number of interpreters, representing the tribal and linguistic diversity of South Africa. This play tells their stories and looks afresh at the end of the old regime.
Assembly Hall, 2-27 August (not 13, 20), 2pm. £17.50/£15 (weekends), £15/£13 (weekdays)
New York’s highly energetic Aquila Theatre Company brings its brand of Shakespeare to Edinburgh as part of a European tour this year. This is a breakneck Romeo and Juliet with a twist, repeatedly crossing back and forth between the traditional and the modern. A compelling take on the classics.
Assembly @ George Street, 7-27 August (not 13, 20), 2.15pm. £14.50/£13.50 (weekends), £13.50/£12.50 (weekdays)
The Polish avant-garde outfit Teatro Biuro Podrozy aren’t for everybody. Audiences can find themselves turned off, lost, or completely bewildered. However, as an all-round visual and aural experience, these guys are exceptional. This version of the Scottish Play involves stilt-walkers, fire-breathers and plenty of noisy physicality.
Old College Quad, 5-27 August (not 16, 17), 10pm. £11/£8
Imagine the characters from Hamlet trapped in the world of Pinocchio, as scripted by Samuel Beckett, and you’ll be some way towards appreciating the weirdly beautiful and haunting theatre created by the Italian team of Natalia Capra and Gianpiero Borgia.
Cowbarn, 3-26 August (not 13), 3.15pm. £12/£10 (weekends), £10/£8 (weekdays)
The aptly-named company Sexy Boys and Girls presents a tongue-in-cheek musical adaptation of the soft-focus 1978 porn film classic. Billed as Legally Blonde meets American Pie, the show has toned down the flesh in favour of copious laughs. Written by Susan Schwartz in 2001, the musical comedy has toured extensively, but it’s been given a fresh going over for its Edinburgh bow.
E4 UdderBelly, 2-27 August (not 13, 20), 5.45pm. £14/£12.50 (weekends), £12.50/£10.50 (weekdays)
If you can’t resist getting friends round for the annual Eurovision Song Contest TV marathon, you won’t want to miss this party. Join your glamorous hosts Boyka and Sergei in sunny, safe, secure Sarajevo as they introduce an evening shimmering with high spirits, outrageous performances and approximately five tons of sequins. The fact that you can vote for each performance’s winner – via text message - adds to the interactive fun. Judges, no nul points this time please!
Pleasance Courtyard, 2-27 August (not 14 &21), 9.45pm. £12.50/10 (weekends), £11/9 (weekdays)
This comedy has already generated loads of column inches and small wonder considering its subject matter and numbers including “I Wanna Be Like Osama”. It promises to “incite violent applause and a new cult following”. Is it a satire too far? Or will a high-kicking chorus line soften the blow?
C, 1-27 August. £10.50/9.50 (weekends), £9.50/8.50 (weekdays)
The former Prime Minister warrants not one but two musical satires celebrating his decade in office. If you’re fed up with Gordon Brown already, here’s your nostalgia ticket – all you need is to decide which word order you prefer with your title. Tony! The Blair Musical is care of White Rose Theatre and Tony Blair: The Musical is mounted by Io Theatre Company.
Stuart Denison shortly will be launching a "from the coalface" Whatsonstage.com blog next week, in which he’ll take in myriad shows, including many of those above, but also sharing his experiences helming his own festival production of Faustus. Additional “top pick” contributions by Terri Paddock.