So August 2020 comes to an end, the first August since 1947 without an Edinburgh Fringe. (Actually it wasn’t called the Fringe (with a capital F) until the 1950s but it was certainly in 1947 that, for the first time, small theatre groups began, as it were, to hang on to the coat tails of the Edinburgh International Festival.)
And boy, didn’t it grow! In 2019 there were in excess of 3,840 shows giving, altogether, 3,012,490 performances. Three million performances! Just wow!
I reviewed at the Fringe for 15 years, starting in 1997 and usually spending two weeks in Edinburgh, seeing, on average, six shows a day. It was – shall we say? – exhausting, and there came a time when I found it too much and regretfully had to put away my reviewer’s pen.
But in 2020 the Fringe, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival and the Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo, all of which take place in August, were cancelled because of Covid-19. And what a huge blow that must have been to the city’s economy.
Some of the EIF, Fringe and Book Festival events went online, of course, and could be seen by people all over the world, but it’s not the same, particularly in respect to the Fringe. Nothing online can reproduce that Edfringe experience.
The city itself is wonderful, from the Georgian townhouses in their wide avenues, crescents and squares in the New Town to the ancient tenements, closes, stairways and streets passing over other streets on bridges of the Old Town. And the hills! Edinburgh is built on hills and nothing can prepare you for the fact that, if you want to go from A to B, you will not only have to go uphill but by some strange, mystical Edinburgh magic, to go from B to A you will also have to go up one or more bloody hills!
And online can’t deliver anything like the real Fringe experience: the real panic when you come out of an Old Town venue and realise you’ve booked your next show in half an hour in the New Town; sitting in the Underbelly Vaults being dripped on by condensation from the ceiling; trying to struggle through the ten million or so people who thrust flyers into your hands as you try to hurry (joke!) along High Street; when you’re sitting in an audience of two and the show is so awful you just want to get up and leave but there’s no way of doing so unobtrusively…
Oh those really, really bad shows! They are so much a part of the Fringe experience that, if you get through a whole Fringe without seeing at least one, you’ve either got fabulous judgement or you’re just very lucky.
Let me tell you my worst ever show at the Edinburgh Fringe story.
A friend of mine (let’s call him Jack to protect the innocent) had a show on at C in Chambers Street and he was handing out flyers as I passed on my way to the last show of my Fringe that year. We chatted briefly but I said I had to dash and he said he was also going to see another show so we said goodbye and off I went, arriving at the venue a little early. It was a new venue to me and couldn’t see a bar or café so I just waited in the street. A voice from inside called out, “Can you give me a hand?” and another answered, “Can’t. I’m on box office.”
“You don’t think anyone’s going to come to see this rubbish, do you?” the first voice replied.
Just as my heart was sinking into the depths of my boots, Jack arrived. This was, it appears, the show he was seeing.
To cut a long story short, we were the only audience members in a one-person show in which almost everything – writing, direction, performance – was just dreadful.
As we left Jack said, “It’s alright for you. All you have to do is write a review. I’m having dinner with the director’s parents next week.”
In fact, my review gave no stars and read, “X has the most comfortable seats of any Edfringe venue I have ever been in.”
But that’s the dark side. It’s not all like that, or the huge number of people who flood into Edinburgh every August wouldn’t turn up and I certainly wouldn’t have continued reviewing for as long as I did.
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There are some amazing Fringe shows. Some are by regulars like Pip Utton and Guy Masterson who never seem to be able to put a foot – or even a toe – wrong, and some are by writers who, post-Fringe, burst into bloom nationally, or by companies which, after establishing a name for themselves in Edinburgh, continue working throughout the UK – and even internationally – for many years afterwards.
There’s a great joy in emerging from the darkness of an often frankly scuzzy hole of a venue having seen an absolutely amazing piece of theatre or watching a play performed in Polish or Russian and realising the language simply wasn’t a barrier. Nothing online can remotely reproduce that pleasure!
Then there’s all the peripheral stuff: banana and Nutella crêpes while sitting outside at the Gilded Balloon Teviot; meeting fascinating people purely by chance – one year I just happened to share the same table at said Gilded Balloon with Scottish comedian Janey Godley’s daughter and she was as fascinating and entertaining as her mother; enjoying Danish Pastries and a glass of white wine in the Pleasance Courtyard; eating Lorne Sausage sandwiches while walking along Rose Street; watching extracts from shows in High Street; a quiet moment reading a good book in the sun (it does shine in Edinburgh occasionally!) in Princes Street Gardens.
One of my favourite (and last) memories of the Fringe is hurrying through the crowds in Nicholson Street with Guy Masterson who’d decided I should see a show he was producing that wasn’t on my ‘to see’ list (I wasn’t even reviewing on this, my last trip to Edinburgh), with me eating a hot Scotch Pie (I love Scotch Pies!) and him a massive garlic sausage! It was like Moses dividing the Red Sea!
I’ve got used to not being at the Fringe but to have a year in which there’s been no Fringe Programmes to browse through and no Fringe reviews to read has been a bit miserable. And I’ve just learned today – and this came as a real shock – that the Jasmine Restaurant opposite the Royal Lyceum, which was for me the best Chinese restaurant I’ve ever been to, where the British Theatre Guide’s London editor and I used to meet for our farewell meal before I headed to Waverley to catch the last train back to the North East, closed two years ago, joining the wonderful seafood restaurant Creelers in Hunter Square which departed quite some time ago.
My Edinburgh cup is well and truly empty.
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