There is nowhere like Edinburgh in August. The buzz around the old streets, the mass of people crammed into the Royal Mile, the thousands upon thousands of comedy shows and theatre and art. It’s intoxicating and thrilling and exhausting and I really miss it.
There are various different ‘hubs’ around the city where a gathering of venues can be found. Underbelly, Gilded Balloon and Assembly George Square amongst them, but for me the finest is Pleasance Courtyard. It’s a great open air space, their craft beer bar was unrivalled and the venues are amongst my favourite in the city.
I always get lost in Edinburgh. Every time. But it’s easier to navigate when sober.
The more absurd the name of the close or street the more awkward it tends to be, the steeper a climb/descent. Fishmarket Close is a real bastard.
The wood-fired pizza van on Hunter Square has long been a fesitval favourite of mine for its haggis pizza. This year they introduced a black pudding slice. Amazing.
Don’t be afraid to see some ‘free’ shows. Some of them can be excellent. Others can be terrible, but that’s the risk you take.
Best ‘free’ show at this year’s Fringe: Ahir Shah.
Also don’t be afraid to take flyers (it is often impossible to avoid taking them) and consider changing your plans to go to the shows. Often I would interact with those handing out the flyers – usually they are the performers themselves – and ask them to tell me one thing about their show. It can result in a great conversation and often help you find a hidden gem.
I adore improvised comedy, but it is sooooo hard finding a good improv show.
Sitting in the front row of a standup show is terrifying. I was landed there twice – at Tom Ward’s show and also for Sarah Kendall – and ended up becoming involved in both. I thoroughly enjoyed my interaction with Tom Ward, while I was selected at the beginning of Sarah’s show to read perhaps the few most pivotal lines of her set.
Speaking of Sarah Kendall – her’s was probably my favourite standup set at this year’s Fringe. Such a wonderful storyteller.
I approve of The Advocate’s decision to replace Goose Island IPA with the Innis & Gunn IPA. Very tasty wee pint, that one.
There was a joke in Ahir Shah’s set about the prospect of Scottish independence which didn’t get much reaction, and he noted that he forgot he was at the Edinburgh Fringe where there probably wasn’t a Scottish person in the room. Thinking about it, I can’t recall encountering many, if any, Scots during my four days in Edinburgh.
I don’t understand the purpose of the giant wheel at Princes Street Gardens. I understand – and hope – that it’s only there during the festival, but it detracts so much from the grandeur of the place.
No two days in Edinburgh are the same. Sure, they are all made up of twenty-four hours, and each day will typically present the same challenges of navigating the beautiful, frustrating cobbled streets, but otherwise no two days are the same. On Tuesday, buoyed by a pair of bright blue sky days, I took the decision to venture out into the Fringe coatless – as I had done since arriving in the city. I almost immediately regretted my decision upon stepping out of the Staysafe hostel onto Blackfriars Street and feeling the familiar chill of a grey Edinburgh morning. It wasn’t too late to retreat and seek the insurance of a coat, but I had committed to my decision and didn’t want to add another five minutes to my wait for breakfast. The afternoon rainstorm at George Square would easily render this amongst the most foolish decisions made by me at the 2016 Fringe.
The previous frontrunner in that category was, of course, the election to see Monkey Poet at Banshee Labyrinth and it was with no lack of trepidation that I returned to Scotland’s Most Haunted Pub for my first show that afternoon. A Deuchars IPA goes a long way to easing most fears, however, and it took mere minutes of Peter Brush’s set to banish them completely. He has a very disarming self-deprecating style which is quite clearly modelled on Woody Allen, as he later confirms when he talks about being inspired by Woody’s early standup, screenwriting, directing, acting and prose writing…everything but his sex life, basically. His material focusses a lot on the dreams of youth – both literally and figuratively – and relies heavily on wordplay and the audience doing a bit of work to reach the punchline in their mind. It was my favourite free show of the Fringe.
Proving that no two days at the Fringe are the same – or that it is easier to find your way around the city when sober as opposed to heavily drunk – I had no difficulty locating Bristo Square as I moved to spend the bulk of my third day at another of the festival’s largest collection of venues: Gilded Balloon and Assembly George Square. Here at the Gilded Garden I enjoyed a couple of Festival Ales prior to taking a chance on a show which I had been leafleted on yesterday – Notflix, an improvised musical based on audience suggestions of films they have recently watched. This was a fun hour with a talented cast – one of whom had featured in yesterday’s Impromptu Shakespeare – though again, as happens with an hour long improv, the story began to fall apart the longer it went on,
The heavy late afternoon rain led to me seeking refuge under a canopy with a Deuchars IPA at Assembly George Square as I awaited three shows at the studios. Thrones! The Musical Parody was sold out and hugely entertaining, though as a lapsed fan of the hit fantasy show I dare say much of it was lost on me. Sarah Kendall, on the other hand, provided an hour of immersive and hilarious storytelling as she recounted telling her therapist – who was growing tired of her frequent lies and attempts at using him for material – of the time at school where her desperation to be noticed and liked led to her inventing a story in which she was the victim of an attempted abduction. The story quickly spiralled out of control with the school headmaster and the police becoming involved, but she shouldn’t backtrack because she had become the centre of attention at school. The “punchline” to the story – which I had been dreading after being selected by her at the beginning of the show to read aloud a Google search result – was provocative and quite gut wrenching. From the front row you could see the emotion welling in her eyes. This was easily a Fringe highlight.
Mary Lynn Rajskub offered a different style of comedy, though equally as personal, in her show which detailed 24 hours in which the former ‘24’ star had a troubling experience at a show in Peoria, Illinois, considered cheating on her husband with a yoga teacher, bought a miniature horse, saw her young son rushed to A&E and ended up finding a new level of intimacy with her husband. The set didn’t flow quite as smoothly as all that, but the content was enough to hold the audience, and as a fan of ‘24’ it was a treat to have ‘Chloe O’Brien’ before me questioning whether it is cheating if only the tip goes on.
With the Pleasance Dome closeby and so not even nearly as awkward to locate as on Sunday night I chose to end the night with one of my favourite experiences from the 2015 Fringe, where I watched Colt Cabana and Brendan Burns do commentary and comedy on bad wrestling matches. At the Blue Moon bar prior to the show I did my own bad comedy having remembered from my first visit there that the barmaid would likely ask me if I would like a slice of orange in my drink. I told her that sounded “a-peel-ing.” It garnered just the right amount of sympathy laugh. Upstairs Daniel Sloss joined Cabana and Burns on stage for an hour of bad wrestling. I can’t think of anything better to do when super drunk on a Tuesday night in Edinburgh than watch bad wrestling matches. These were suitably terrible, and the hosts suitably funny to make it all enjoyable. I wasn’t even worried about the fact I hadn’t brought a coat anymore.
But of course, no two days in Edinburgh are the same, and when I decided that I would play the mid-safe option of adding a second layer to my attire on Wednesday morning – a white t-shirt beneath my shirt, rather than a coat – I walked onto a Royal Mile which was basking in late August sunshine, I had committed to the additional layer, though, and I would just have to suffer for my foolishness. Perhaps adopting a more aggressive rehydration strategy would help, I thought, so after breakfast I went directly to The Advocate for a refreshing Innis & Gunn IPA before continuing down onto Blair Street to Cabaret Voltaire for the only five star show on my Fringe schedule. I should note that over two Fringe’s this was my third time in Cabaret Voltaire and the third time in which almost all of the draught beers were off. In the busiest month of the year. At a venue running all day free shows. It’s the only bar I have witnessed suffer this phenomenon in the city. Ahir Shah, though, was superb. A great dissection of the confused and terrifying world in which we live. He is smart, articulate and witty and did a fine job of painting the absurdity of the post-Brexit landscape.
After continuing my aggressive rehydration strategy at The Rowantree on the Cowgate, which became one of my favourite Edinburgh bars this Fringe with its relatively modestly priced Williams Bros offerings (£4.50 for a Caesar Augustus is pretty good by Edinburgh standards,) it was a short saunter to the Mash House to see Cakes by Bilal Zafar, which had received a three star review in Monday’s Times – though I mistakenly told the comic that the reason I was there was because I read a four star review from The Times; he assured me it was three stars and I responded that the review was a good read anyway. He had earlier that day learned that he had been nominated for the Best Newcomer award at this year’s festival and so this was a show of celebration. His show is a remarkable one in which he recounts the tale of his brother using the #banmuslimbusinesses Twitter trend to make a joke that @zafarcakes – Bilal’s Twitter handle – is a cake shop in Bristol which refuses to serve non Muslim customers. Not wanting to be upstaged by his brother, Bilal, who at the time was quite clearly a standup comedian, changed his Twitter profile to substitute the picture of him performing on stage for one of a gingerbread man, the location switched from Manchester to Bristol and the bio which once read “comedian” now read “Halal”. He played along with his brother’s joke. And then he began receiving abuse from various Twitter accounts which believed @zafarcakes (a Twitter handle which came from the common mispronunciation of the letter ‘z’ as ‘j’) to be a Muslim only cake shop. He began to purposefully mis-spell his Tweets after the born and bred Londoner was accused of being a refugee; this only added to the ire. One lady suggested he was on benefits (despite believing him to be the owner of a business selling cakes only to Muslims) and so he responded that he had saved up all his benefits to start a business. Another man was seemingly angry that, as a white man, he was banned from a bakery in which he didn’t want to eat anyway. Others weren’t happy that he presumably didn’t use bacon. In his cakes. It was patently absurd. The EDL became involved and some of these Twitter users were increasingly frustrated that they couldn’t locate this Muslim only cake shop in Bristol, not thinking for a moment that they couldn’t find it because it simply didn’t exist. The punchline came when one of Bilal’s primary antagonists was revealed to be a season ticket holder at Manchester City – a football club owned by one of the richest Muslim businessmen in the world, if not the richest. Cakes was definitely worth the four stars The Times didn’t give it.
A couple of rehydration pit stops at Brewdog and The Advocate followed prior to the Absolute Improv! show on Niddry Street, which was alright but merely a starter for my main course – not only of the day but the entire Fringe. I’ve seen David O’Doherty every year that I’ve been coming to Edinburgh, and this year he had been promoted to the festival’s largest venue at Assembly Hall on The Mound. His Casio keyboard act follows the same formula every year, and every year it is charming and delightful. His jokes always feel off the cuff and irreverent. You know that if you’re ending your Fringe experience with David O’Doherty you’re ending it on a high note. Edinburgh may change from day-to-day, but year-on-year this is a supremely fun show.
Good improvisation is tricky to find at the Fringe; both in terms of improv comedy shows and the ability to improvise a change in your schedule. When you are walking the streets of the city through the day, being handed leaflets by a relentless barrage of performers offering “free comedy at six” or a “five star show,” it is natural that at some point you are going to find yourself seduced. Who wouldn’t be tempted by a glossy leaflet offering laughs and fun on minimal information? It’s basically how Brexit won.
My desire for improvised comedy at this year’s Fringe led me to make such a schedule change yesterday. My day was already planned to start with an improvised performance of a play in the style of Shakespeare – Impromptu Shakespeare at Just the Tonic. Their set-up was an inventive twist on the typical routine of asking the audience for suggestions: everyone on arrival was asked to pick from a bowl a couple of plastic orange balls, with each ball having a word or two written on them. Mine had “with child” and “a gift”. The audience was then asked to throw their balls towards the stage, aiming for the wide open trousers of the large actor. Six balls were then withdrawn from the comically-sized trousers and they would set the scene for the Shakespearean play. That was about as much fun as this show became, however, and the actual performance teetered from mediocre to boring, with not much in the way of laughs between. Which was a shame, because the premise is good.
The improvised schedule change came somewhere between seeing an excellently re-enacted performance of Woody Allen’s 1960s standup routine at Frankenstein and eating a slice of haggis pizza at Hunter Square. I was handed a leaflet for a show by UCLA Edinburgh offering improvised comedy in the form of a court case. The show was at six o’clock, when unfortunately I already had another free show in mind to check out at Banshee Labyrinth. However, I was already on my way to the aforementioned bar – which styles itself as “Scotland’s most haunted pub” and is a festival favourite of mine – and there were still a couple of hours until either show started; it wouldn’t be a great imposition to alter my schedule. So I continued along to Banshee Labyrinth and it is indeed an eerie place — I could swear that I witnessed dozens of spirits around the bar. There was a show titled “Monkey Poet with Roger Cumsnatch” about to begin and I decided to substitute that for my other show at this venue, enabling me to go along to the UCLA performance. Here a bearded, apparently homeless, northern Englishman performed as what he described as the outrageously foul character “Monkey Poet” – he wasn’t outrageous, or even close to it – followed by his upper-class snob character “Roger Cumsnatch” who would read poems about his dislike of the poor and ethnic minorities. It was terrible, and not even offensive – which made it worse. The idea was supposed to be, I think, that Monkey Poet was some loveable working class comedian who wasn’t getting a break because guys like Roger Cumsnatch are wealthy and educated and so get all the work. The comedian seemed to have a particular dislike for Jack Whitehall, who I’m guessing is the Roger Cumsnatch to his Monkey Poet. But Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges aren’t Roger Cumsnatch and they do just fine. Difference being that they are good at what they do: this guy isn’t. He’s just angry.
My improvised change hadn’t paid off so far, but sometimes you have to make bold decisions and see where they take you. Besides, I was getting another improv comedy show to meet my desire. “The People Versus…” asked the audience to write on two separate pieces of paper the name of a defendant in a court case and the name of the trial. I scrawled Eddie Fasthands Jnr in the case of “The man who fired the one o’clock gun too early.” I really hoped it would be pulled from the jar, but instead we got The Pope in the case of “The church which was robbed.” Not hugely original, but I suppose these guys can only work with what the audience gives them. The performance was largely enjoyable and there were a couple of talented improvisers in the group of five; although like most improvised shows have the risk of doing it began to fall apart a bit towards the end.
My second night at the Fringe concluded with a return to Pleasance Courtyard, which as always was buzzing with activity. I found myself sitting in the front row for Tom Ward: Sex, Snails & Cassettes, and fortunately I was drunk enough to become involved when called upon. This was a fun, energetic show which had plenty of nostalgia and laughs. It was a fine way to end a day which had become largely improvised – for better or worse, proving that good improvisation is difficult to get right at the Fringe.
There was a pleasant contrast in transporting from the west coast to the east on Sunday afternoon. As I was leaving Oban the clouds were grey and grumpy, the rain was falling and I was sober; by the time I arrived at Edinburgh Waverley nigh upon five hours later the clouds were white against a warm blue sky and I was mildly inebriated. This is my favourite weekend of the year, albeit this year it is going to spill into midweek.
I adore the Edinburgh Fringe. The manic mayhem of absurd street performers on every turn, the thousands and thousands of shows from international stars to free acts in the dark basement of a bar halfway down one of the Old Town’s many steep cobbled hills. The pop-up bars and pop-up pizza trucks and street food of all stars and stripes. It is mesmerising and breathless.
Having checked into my hostel on Blackfriars Street I made my way through the throngs of people snaking slowly along the Royal Mile in every direction, dodging between face painted street performers, acoustic musicians and fliers to Brewdog for a pint of hipster craft beer and an opportunity to construct a plan for the night ahead. I realised upon walking down the exceptionally steep Fishmarket Close that, certainly when drunk, it is much easier going up those cobbled streets than it is walking down them. My footsteps were loud and a whole lot faster than anticipated, and fortunately the whole thing didn’t end in farce.
Wings on Fishmarket Close is very much a restaurant which does what it says on the sign. If you enjoy chicken wings this is the place to go. They only had outdoor seating available on this occasion, so I was able to enjoy a pint of Black Isle Blonde whilst watching a series of tourists attempt to negotiate the tricky cobbles. I felt an amount of empathy with their ordeal. The menu in wings consists of various different offerings of sauce and spiciness – which are rated 1-5, with five being the hottest. There are dozens of options. I ordered three portions, with each portion having around six chicken wings, which I feel is enough for any man. The “slow burner” is always my favourite. It is one of two 5’s on the menu, and always tastes better at the time than it feels the next day.
I had two shows booked on Sunday night. The first of which was Darren Walsh: S’Pun at Pleasance Courtyard, which is one of the busiest hives of the Fringe with many bars and venues. On my first day at the Fringe in 2015, whilst standing outside at this very venue, I was approached by Darren Walsh as he was handing out fliers for his own performance. He handed me one and asked me to give him any word and he would make a series of puns based on that word. Looking around I could only feel inclined to remark on the cobbles, at which he “cobbled together” a few puns which were impressive enough for me to vow that I would go and see his show. I never did — and Darren Walsh ended up winning last year’s award for the best joke of the Fringe.
So I was intent on making amends this year and ensured that his was the first show I saw. As much as I adore puns – and anyone who has ever spent any length of time in my company will know this – an hour of them is pretty difficult to endure, particularly when only around 30-40% of them are funny. There were some neat visual aides in this show, though the game show aspect of it was a little overdone and wasn’t worth the pay off it was building to. I left with a sense of what it must be like for others to be in my company, where every sentence and every word has the potential to be a pun.
If there is one thing I excel at in Edinburgh it is getting lost. I booked to see Chris Gethard: Career Suicide at the Pleasance Dome in the mistaken belief that the Dome was mere yards up the hill from the Courtyard. It isn’t. I followed the instructions of Google Maps as best I could to get to the Dome in the small half an hour window I had between shows. These things are rarely straightforward for me as I have a terrible understanding of directions, especially in Edinburgh – and seemingly with this venue in particular, because I recall Bristo Square being a real ordeal to locate a couple of years ago. But I found my way to the Dome with around nine minutes to spare – enough time for me to go to the Blue Moon stall and ask the barmaid if she serves Blue Moon, because I have been thirsting for that particular pint. She said I was in luck because they do serve that beer. It was stupid, but it got a laugh and that’s all that mattered. Apparently Blue Moon is enhanced by the addition of orange peel, which she placed pecariously over the edge of my plastic tumbler. It’s difficult to tell whether it really did enhance the taste, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Chris Gethard’s show is literally about suicide. It’s a tough hour, and laughs are hard to come by with such a serious subject, but it is bold and it is heartfelt. His personal experience is numbing as he talks about therapy and anti-psychosis medication and the moment he first told his mother that he was having suicidal thoughts. The jokes tend to come with the side effects of his medication and his reliance on The Smiths to see him through tough times in his life. There is, apparently, an interesting contrast between American and British audiences whereby they tend to find the story of his realisation that he is an alcoholic and his seeking help for it uplifting and applause worthy, whilst we barely flinched. We also seem to regard Morrissey as “a bit of a cunt.” If you have ever listened to and enjoyed Gethard’s podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, as I do, then this show makes a lot more sense. I never thought that I would leave my first night at the Fringe enjoying and hour of suicide and depression more than an hour of relentless puns, but that is what happened here.
I must have walked up and down this street, and countless others like it, dozens of times over the weekend. It would explain why my calves are squealing in agony today.
As Marcus Brigstocke observed, Edinburgh is a city where you can set out to go somewhere and walk uphill, and on the way back to where you came from you somehow still find yourself walking up a hill!
Log fired haggis pizza. That is all. Once I discovered the existence of this it was pretty much all I ate.
I feel like I’m saying this an awful lot lately, but going to the Fringe alone made me really crave the company of another person. I mean, I kinda like the freedom of doing things by myself, but I can’t help but think that there were so many great things I might have missed because I didn’t have the input of someone else.
David O’Doherty’s song about how Lance Armstrong ruined his life between 1999 & 2005 was probably my highlight of the weekend.
Starting drinking at 11.30 on a Sunday morning was both a novelty and a bad idea.
From my strictly non-scientific research, I would gauge that the majority of festival-goers are not Scottish.
Probably the best thing about the Fringe is accidentally discovering something great, especially when the act looks completely bonkers. In The Banshee Labyrinth on Saturday evening I saw “Rythmn Method”, which was a group of comedic musical poets comprising of The AntiPoet and Mark Niel – with the latter apparently being the official Poet Laureate of Milton Keynes. They turned out to be very enjoyable Saturday evening entertainment, despite their appearance.
Avenue Q was well worth the wait.
Having thought about it, I now think that Edinburgh is less like Lord of the Rings and more Game of Thrones.
I can’t believe I’m almost 30 and had never done a weekend at the Edinburgh Festival until now. I’m already looking forward to next year.