Getting the best from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, by the Telegraph newspaper
Drumma, a popular band seen at festival time. Photo by Christian Bickel.
1) Bring the right clothing
If you don’t like the weather in Edinburgh, so the saying goes, just wait 10 minutes – and that’s no exaggeration. Just because the sun is blazing one moment in the Scottish capital, it doesn’t mean that rainfall of Old Testament ferocity isn’t seconds away, with raindrops hitting the ground with such a whump that they can ricochet half way up the inside of your trouser-leg.
If you get wet in Edinburgh, chances are you’ll stay wet all day and end up smelling like a year-old J Cloth – and bear in mind that most of the time you’ll have no choice but to queue in the open air. So, to keep trench-foot and pneumonia at bay, crack open the Gore-Tex and invest in a sturdy brolly, but also wear layers: some of the smaller rooms, even at the leading Fringe venues, are used as blast-furnaces off-season.
2) Don’t forget to eat
The combination of Scotland’s easygoing licensing laws, the proliferation of watering-holes in Edinburgh and the city-wide party atmosphere in August can make it all too easy to neglect solids. There’s no real excuse, though. George Square – which this year looks like taking over from Bristo Square as the epicentre of the Fringe – is increasingly festooned with stalls that can prove real life-savers.
If you’re over in the New Town, two very reasonably priced Hanover Street establishments demand a visit: the basement trattoria Bar Napoli is an Edinburgh insitution with charmingly brusque Neapolitan service and many big-name performers among its regulars, while the vegetarian food at Henderson’s is so healthy that have one lunch there and you may never need to consume another vitamin again.
3) Be ambitious but realistic
It’s certainly possible to see 10 hour-long shows in a day but do you think that’s wise? Chances are that come the next day – having probably shelled out between £100 and £150 for the tickets alone – you’ll struggle to recall a single one of them. Three-to-five shows per day is a good target, and bear in mind that theatrical productions often take place in the morning, whereas most comedy – especially by the bigger and/or better performers – tends to come after dark.
4) Leave enough time
Aim to turn up at least 10 minutes before shows start: queues form early and zealously, especially at Free Fringe venues. (There are no tickets for the latter: if you’re the 31st person to turn up for a show at a 30-seat venue, you won’t get in. )
If you have consecutive shows in the same venue (but in different rooms), try to allow at least 10 minutes between them; for shows in entirely different venues, a minimum of 15 minutes; and, if you’ve got to get across town, leave at least 40 minutes. (Bear in mind, too, that at busier times of day your feet may even be a speedier means of transport than a taxi. )
For one thing, turning up at shows a sweaty heap isn’t much fun, still less so at the more sweltering venues. For another, stand-ups often pounce like hawks on latecomers. Thanks to my trying to sneak in just a few minutes after curtain-up, I’ve been the butt of almost entire hour-long sets by both Jason Byrne and – in his early days – a then unknown Michael McIntyre. Ouch.
5) Consult the ‘sold out’ boards
All the main Fringe venues have them. They can be horribly frustrating on the day you see them, of course, but they’re an excellent guide as to which show(s) to buy tickets for the next.
Set off early: arriving at a show in a sweaty heap isn’t very much fun, and stand-ups often pounce like hawks on latecomers.
6) Talk to people
Nowhere in the world is word of mouth more important than at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. News about acts (both terrific and awful) spreads like wildfire, and the more people you talk to, the better-informed you’ll be. Besides which, everyone’s up for a chat: the Pleasance Courtyard on a sunny day – assuming such a thing arrives – is a particularly easy and convivial place for an impromptu natter with fellow Fringe-goers over a beer, and the hot-dogs generally on sale there can hit the spot if you haven’t time for real food. You’ll meet the odd loony in your travels, of course, but that’s all part of the fun.
7) Don’t miss out in week three
The Foster’s Edinburgh Festival Comedy Awards shortlists, for both the main prize and best newcomer, are always announced around lunchtime on the final Wednesday of the Fringe. So, if you’re a) still in Edinburgh then, b) still alive, and c) fancy catching the Next Big Thing in stand-up, keep your ear to the ground on the day in question – Twitter is ideal – and don’t sit around once the names are announced. The venues aren’t big, and tickets for the nominees’ shows fly of the shelves once the news breaks. The winners are announced at a lunch on the final Saturday.
8) Don’t get confused
The Assembly production company used to be based at the Assembly Rooms – but no longer. Those grand Georgian rooms, on George Street, are now an outpost of the Stand, on York Place; and Assembly-branded shows now take place in the unlovable cluster of concrete edifices in George Square, on the far side of town.
To make matters odder still, in recent years there’s been a Spiegeltent in the George Square Gardens outside the Assembly shows, whereas the Famous Spiegeltent has been based in George Street, outside the Stand shows at the Assembly Rooms. Could hardly be simpler, eh.
9) Get out of it
If you’re going to be spending a week or more chugging around the Fringe, you may run the risk of losing your mind, however delightfully. As marvellous tonics for the relentless hussle and bustle, a classical concert amid the very un-Fringey grandeur of the Usher Hall just off Lothian Road (part of the Edinburgh Festival) is highly recommended, as are the Water of Leith walk and a visit to the verdant oasis of the Royal Botanic Garden at Inverleith Row. Arthur’s Seat, in Holyrood Park, is also a famously fine place for a low-key climb, a feat most commonly achieved come August after a bath of alcohol.
10) Go off-piste
A smart new theatre on a famous old site, the new Traverse, one of the Fringe’s best venues. Photo by MaybeMaybeMaybe.
The ‘big four’ Fringe comedy and theatre venues are: the now-relocated Assembly, the Pleasance, the Gilded Balloon and the dank, multi-tiered cavern that is the Underbelly. (The Udderbelly, now in George Square, is an outpost of the latter. ) While you probably do stand a better-than-average chance of finding high-quality shows at this quartet, it’s a mistake to limit your attention to them alone.
For one thing, they have between them only two of the four finest actual rooms for live stand-up (the Pleasance Cabaret Bar and Queen Dome: the other two are the Tron, just off the Royal Mile, and the identically subterranean Stand One). Moreover, the firecely independent Stand always draws some of the very best comedy acts in town, while Just the Tonic, at the even danker Caves, down on Cowgate, has ever-stronger line-ups these days. For theatre only, the Traverse (near the Usher Hall) is still in a league of its own, and it has a fine bar, too.
There are, of course, scores of other Fringe venues scattered across town at which to catch some of the year’s 3, 314 productions (in 2015). Planning is of course essential if you’re to catch the shows you’ve got your eyes on. But, faced with such a bewildering choice, taking pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey punts can sometimes be the most rewarding approach of all to the wonderful, maddening, exhilarating Edinburgh Fringe.