Edinburgh in August. The city heaves, every basement, lecture theatre or church transformed into a venue for theatre, comedy, circus and really weird performance art. There are over three thousand shows during the month, from school kids doing Shakespeare to Broadway hits arriving for the ‘proper’ Edinburgh International Festival, off the back of which the Fringe initially sprung up back in 1947.
I’ve been going to the Fringe nearly every year since I was 16, moving from broke teenager blagging into shows to a reviewer scribbling furiously away. I love it, but it can be overwhelming even as a seasoned vet; for first-timers or city-breaking weekenders, it’s easy to feel you’ve not quite tapped into the festival spirit, missed those elusive buzzy shows or failed to make the most of the city.
So below, some tips gleaned from many a damp summer spent “doing Edinburgh”.
How to see some actually good shows
It would be possible to see scores of shows and never a dud – but it’s more likely, I’m afraid, to see a lot of dross and little dynamite. Book a few tickets in advance to ease the paralysis of too much choice when you arrive, and to stop yourself feeling thwarted when stuff sells out after a good early review. Pick up a free programme at arts venues up and down the country and book a few big names you know: headline comedy acts include everyone from Bridget Christie to Marcus Brigstocke, Jason Byrne to Josie Long, Sarah Millican to Stewart Lee.
For theatre, being led by venue is no bad start: almost anything at new writing haven the Traverse, and the excellently-programmed Summerhall, should be worth a punt. At the Traverse, Rob Drummond’s In Fidelity, which features a live date in a show about love, should be fascinating, while Adura Onashile’s Expensive Shit about a nightclub toilet attendant also sounds promising. Summerhall are revisiting two brilliant shows – the most heart-warming play you’ll ever see about depression, Every Brilliant Thing, and Tim Crouch’s meta masterpiece Adler & Gibb – but I’m excited for new offerings from young female theatre makers, including RashDash’s Two Man Show exploring masculinity and gender, and Shit Theatre’s take on ‘generation rent’: Letters to Windsor House.
Also worth checking out is the Forest Fringe, which has its own separate, beautifully curated, experimental programme – and it’s free! Other tips include Henry Naylor’s Angel at the Gilded Balloon – about a female ISIS fighter – and Blush, a look at revenge porn and shame from one-to-watch writer Charlotte Josephine at Underbelly Cowgate.
But shows often only gain momentum once the festival is underway. To find these ‘buzzy’ things, follow reviews – with a degree of scepticism, as the innumerable star-laden freesheets can be dodgy. National newspapers help, but for more comprehensive coverage by experienced reviewers, also check out the Scotsman, Fest, The List, Time Out, The Stage, Exeunt, and What’s on Stage (full disclosure: I write for some of these).
Really, the best thing to do is have a nice chat with the person next to you in a queue – you can’t beat word-of-mouth for throwing up a hidden gem.
Embracing the famous ‘spirit of the Fringe’
Do catch some Edinburgh institutions. Late‘n’Live no longer really deserves its reputation as a bear pit for comedians – but it still attracts a raucous crowd, running from 1am till 5am. If you’re feeling tough, push on through for another classic, the breakfast plays at the Traverse, where you get a roll and coffee included. For guaranteed cabaret joy, try Camille O’Sullivan, who’s been dubbed ‘Queen of the Fringe’. See something in the Famous Spiegeltent venue, just because it’s a beautiful jewel-box inside. And there’s always the Lady Boys of Bangkok…
There are also those “only in Edinburgh shows”, where canny companies realise a weird venue is a way to stand out. Try Wrecked, which macabrely takes place inside a car that’s just been crashed; party at Electric Eden, a rave-up of a show in a disused building, or visit Red Like Our Room Used To Feel at the Forest Fringe for a one-to-one encounter with poetry and a glass of port.
And the most important thing to do? See one show on the spur of the moment, just because someone sold it well to you on a street corner and you have nothing else to do that hour. Look out for ticket deals, and feel free to haggle: there’s no harm in cheekily asking for two-for-one tickets when someone gives you a flyer… many companies just desperately want an audience.
What else to do in Edinburgh
It is important to eat and sleep. But sometimes, when running between shows or pals, that’s difficult; I’ve done days on end subsisting on flapjacks and cider. Here are some places that can help: Mosque Kitchen is an Edinburgh legend for its hearty, affordable plates of curry. Life-saving stuff. More comfort food (bangers and mash; pies) is available at Mums, while Red Box noodle bar will remind you what a vegetable looks like while still being a speedy option. Cosy pub The Auld Hoose is justly famous for its nachos: we’re talking one plate between six here…
For a pick-me-up, Black Medicine is a cool coffee shop, or make like a tourist and visit the Elephant House Café where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. And don’t miss Mary’s Milk Bar, home of some of the best ice cream north of the border.
Drinking is, obviously, a crucial part of any fringe experience. It’s easy to end up hanging around the bigger venues, who know the value of a good courtyard bars bedecked with twinkly fairylights and slightly rubbish street food. But bear in mind that the Pear Tree also has a big beer garden, and should the weather prove inclement, The Gilded Balloon’s library bar is a staple, while Brass Monkey have giant beds to lounge upon. The Royal Oak is teeny, but there’s usually live traditional music in the corner.
When it all gets a bit much, take a hike: Arthur’s Seat will definitely be busy (although going up there to see the sun rise is something of a rite-of-passage), and rambling around Holyrood Park and the Crags will blow the cobwebs off. For a more laid-back option, just head to the Meadows – a pleasant central park for drifting off in.
Other survival tips from a fringe veteran
OK, I learnt this the hard way: leave high heels at home. The cobbles, the hills, the weather and the whisky will all conspire against you. In fact, practicalities always end up trumping style. There’ll be at least one day that feels like it got lost on its way to November, but when the sun comes out, damp basements and overcrowded tents will suddenly steam you inside your tights like a sweaty haggis. Basically, wear layers that can be rapidly thrown on or peeled off in a portaloo. And always, always carry an umbrella.
Try not to walk down the Royal Mile. It will be full of slow-moving tourists, bad street theatre, and a rainforest’s worth of flyers for really rubbish shows. It’s like Covent Garden on a Saturday, except everything’s made of tartan.
Do download the Fringe app, but also rip out the map from your programme as a back-up. There are 464 venues on the Fringe; it gets confusing. Check the name of the venue, and check it again: several are dangerously similar, although you’ll discover you can run from Pleasance Courtyard and Pleasance Dome in five minutes.
Edinburgh Time is also something that needs to be adjusted to. It’s entirely standard to go into a show at midnight. And you’ll need a drink and a blether about it afterwards, and suddenly it’s 2am on a Tuesday and you’re considering that walk up Arthur’s Seat… Basically adjust your settings so that breakfast happens after midday, and you’re hitting your stride about 11pm.
The best way to experience Edinburgh? Embrace the madness, cram in as many shows as you can, and sleep on the train home.