While everyone else flees abroad, some of us find ourselves stuck in Scotland over the summer. Perhaps we have a job here or perhaps (and I know we’re a rare breed) we’re actually from Scotland. Either way, there’s no need to wander forlornly through an empty Union Main Bar until September. Right on our doorstep is the largest arts festival in the world: The Edinburgh Fringe.
Originating as a periphery to the more serious and ‘cultured’ Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe spans the whole of August and has now grown to vast proportions. It is best known for the place where comedians come to make their name but now includes dance, theatre, circus—anything you can make into a show. As a diehard fan of the insanity that is the Fringe and a former venue staff member, I’ve put together some advice for anybody interested in a day trip to Edinburgh over the next month:
Before You Go:
It can be tempting to turn up in Edinburgh with nothing planned, trusting in the magic of the Fringe to drop a day’s worth of activities into your lap. In reality, you are more likely to be paralysed by the sheer number of shows on offer and let the day slip away. Getting hot and bothered by the crowds and watching a few underwhelming street performers is unlikely to feel as if it was worth the journey. To get the balance between spontaneity and planning, I would recommend booking one show in advance. This has the dual benefit of structuring your day and guaranteeing at least one thing you know will suit your tastes. Look up the comedians and performers you like, chances are at least one of them will be doing something in Edinburgh. Bigger names are likely to sell out their Fringe runs, so it’s better to book in advance anyway.
One more thing—please do check when the last train back is. Unless you know someone living in Edinburgh, accommodation during the festival is hard to come by. And while I do know people who spent the night in McDonald’s waiting for the first train to Leuchars in the morning, I don’t think they enjoyed it.
If you are travelling in a group, one of your friends may suggest taking a walk along the Royal Mile just to “see what’s going on”. Do not listen to them. This is a bad idea. While I love the Fringe, the Royal Mile in August is a seething hellscape. Full of tourists shuffling aimlessly or watching street performers, the Mile is best avoided unless absolutely necessary. If you must cross it, add about ten minutes to your journey time just to make it across the road.
Unfortunately, the crowds during the Fringe are something that you will just have to deal with, as walking is the best way of moving around the city centre. Edinburgh has a reasonably priced and fairly comprehensive bus network if you are coming and going from further afield, but the traffic grinds to a halt once you’re into town.
Your tolerance may vary for the army of eager young people handing out fliers across town. My personal attitude is to be polite, take one and move on quickly. I have discovered good and not so good shows by means of flier, but they’re only trying to do their job.
What to See:
This is the hardest section to give advice on. Shows I have enjoyed range from traditional stand-up to an improvised Jane Austen novel. Out of everything I have seen over the last two years, about three quarters were worth recommending, so my advice would be to take some risks. If the audience is willing to go with the performer, there’s a good chance the show will work.
However, there are a few ways to narrow your options down. Word of mouth is always the best way to get recommendations. Ask a friend who’s been to the Fringe already. Failing that, ask a member of staff who works at one of the big venues. They get free passes to their shows so will probably have a good sense of what’s worth seeing.
It is also worth mentioning a phenomenon which has sprung up in recent years: the “free” Fringe. An increasing number of acts are asking the audience to pay what they want upon exit rather than charging an entry fee. This lowers the stakes if the show turns out to be terrible, but my experience with free shows so far has been overwhelmingly positive. The excellent Scottish stand-up Ashley Storrie, for example, will be returning for another free-to-enter show this year. Just make sure you get there about twenty minutes beforehand to guarantee a seat.
Lastly, what better way to pick your Fringe shows than by seeing some of our own, St Andrews-born talent? Perhaps the most intriguing project I’ve heard about so far is BoxedIn Theatre’s the Greenhouse, a Fringe venue purpose-built from recycled materials that boasts an all-day programme of performances and workshops. Longstanding favourites such as the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and the St Andrews Revue sketch group will also be returning. Personally, I’ll be making sure I don’t miss St Andrews’ ukulele band, Ukelear Fusion with their new show “Knowing Me Knowing Uke”. Not only do they put together the most ingenious arrangements of great songs, but they know a good pun when they see one.