The Ten Fringe Commandments

Originally published in TN2 Magazine as: Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Ten Fringe Commandments. A Heavenly Guide to Navigating the Holiest of Fringes

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Ask anyone interested in the arts what they think of when they hear “Edinburgh” and what will they say?

(Don’t say Trainspotting or Jean Brodie, you’ll ruin my point.)

Yes, that’s right, it’s the Edinburgh Festivals.

For four weeks every August, the city is taken over by the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, though I have yet to attend that one). Both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were established seventy years ago in 1947 and, with the recent news that the Scottish Government has pledged an additional 10 million in funding for the Festivals; they are set to continue for a long time yet. The International Festival was founded in the wake of World War Two by Rudolph Bing and Henry Harvey Wood as a curated festival where high-quality theatre, music, dance and opera productions are brought from across the world to Edinburgh by invitation of the Festival Director. However, Fringe had a more interesting beginning (and arguably a more interesting future), and so it’s the Fringe that I am here to write about. The Fringe had a less official beginning in 1947 when eight theatre companies arrived in Edinburgh, uninvited, to perform at the Edinburgh International Festival. Though they were not there under the official auspices of the Festival, they made use of the already-present audiences and staged their work in alternative venues on…you’ve guessed it…the fringes of the International Festival. These performers set a precedent for others to imitate them in following years and the Fringe grew as a volunteer led event until 1958 when the Festival Fringe Society formed, formalising the Fringe’s existence and has continued to grow since then to become the World’s largest arts festival. To this day the Fringe Society follows the same basic principles of the original Fringe; though they will organise bookings, programmes and co-ordination of the thousands of productions that are staged, there is no vetting process like there is in the International Festival. As they say on their own website, the will include in the programme “anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.”

Despite that torrent of information I just delivered, and the fact that I am a massive theatre addict, until this year I had never been to Edinburgh during festival time, but with both the International Festival and the Fringe celebrating their 70th year in 2017, I chose the right year for my first visit. As I was over reviewing work at the Fringe with the Network of Independent Critics for the last week in August, I had a jam-packed week in which  saw twenty-two shows, wrote many words, and walked many, many miles. I dived in at the deep-end, programme clutched to my chest, and spent a week sprinting from venue to venue up and down the city’s many hills and steps, fuelled by coffee, baked potatoes and a wild enthusiasm for theatre.

It was fantastic.

However, with 3,398 shows running at Fringe this year (and probably as many if not more next year), and the streets filled with excitement, performances, posters and, well, Fringe, it’s easy to find yourself drowning a little in the deluge of flyers, choices and chances, so I have put together a wee list to let you learn from my mistakes and get you acquainted with Edinburgh and the Fringe.

 

The Ten Fringe Commandments:

 

  1. Thou shalt not plan thy Fringe to the very last minute.

(There are always a few gems you may have missed in the programme. Leave yourself time and space to discover new things.)

  1. Thou shalt not narrow thine options.

( Sure, you may not think you’ll like that Morris Dance show about Madonna and existentialism, but you might surprise yourself. The thing you take a chance on may be terrible, but you might just stumble upon the next Pythons.)

  1. Thou shalt sleep.

(This is the voice of experience. You feel invincible at the start and going to that breakfast show after going to that gig that began at 2am seems entirely reasonable, but remember to pace yourself. By the end of a week you’ll be glad you pencilled in time to sleep.)

  1. Man cannot live on hasty snacks alone.

(Same as above. Nature Valley bars are great, but have at least one decent meal a day. If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, cook and freeze a few basic meals in advance, and remember that Edinburgh has a lot of delicious places to eat; leave space in your budget to explore a few of them.)

  1. Thou shalt remember to wear layers and comfortable shoes.

(Prepare for every season and lots of walking.)

  1. Thou shalt check and double-check thy venues.

(You don’t want to be left racing from Pleasance Courtyard to Pleasance Dome at the last minute.)

  1. Thou shalt leave thyself time.

(On a similar note to the sixth commandment, make sure you have time to get between shows and leave yourself some contingency time. I thought it would be no problem to trot the five minute walk between venues in the ten-minute gap between shows, but I forgot that the five minute walk was up a sizeable hill. I could have lit the whole show with the glow from my beetroot, breathless face.)

  1. Thou shalt talk to strangers.

(No, I don’t mean the scary ones down dark alleyways, but chat to the person next to you in the queue at box office or when you’re hanging around venues. Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to discover exciting work you might not have heard of otherwise.)

  1. Thou shalt remember that there is more to Edinburgh than the Festivals.

(With all the festival-ing, don’t forget to take some time out to clear your head. Lots of people decide to climb Arthur’s Seat, but if you’re looking for a less strenuous escape take yourself for a picnic at the Botanic Gardens or have a wander round one of the city’s many museums and galleries.)

  1. Thou shalt enjoy thyself.

(The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world; throw yourself in, enjoy the unexpected, make memories and have fun!)

Now, my young Fringelings, you have a year to prepare. Go forth, write plays, save money, play “Yes, and…,” get excited for Fringe and let these commandments help you on your way.

The Extraordinary Time-Travelling Adventures of Baron Munchausen – Edinburgh Fringe Review

New Town Theatre

27/08/17

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As is the case with anything improvised, it is difficult to review it in the same way as I would another theatre show; the stories I saw on Saturday are not going to be the same as those you might see on the day you see it. However, I can say with confidence that the stories you will see in The Extraordinary Time-Travelling Adventures of Baron Munchausen will probably be hilarious and entertaining.

The trio of performers base their sketches off of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a 1988 film directed by Terry Gilliam), but take suggestions from the audience, which brings an even greater touch of the absurd to the tales than was there to begin with. Using characters such as Magesterious Wizard and Sir Jonah of Wales, the performers deliver confident, quick-thinking performances in which jokes and gags abound.

On the day I attended Jeremy Corbyn was conveniently speaking upstairs, lending himself as material for many topical jokes throughout. Alongside this, the performers retained information they gathered from the audience and, rather than simply incorporating it into the piece at the time that they asked for it, they created running jokes throughout that had the audience joining in conspiratorial laughter as they anticipated the directions of the tales.

Blending smart comedy and daft gags, The Extraordinary Time-Travelling Adventures of Baron  Munchausen is an entertaining production that is as unpredictable as it is absurd.

There May Be Dragons – Edinburgh Fringe Review

Stories Alive

The Hispaniola

26/08/17

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As part of a pair of shows, There May Be Pirates…There May Be Dragons, Eden Ballantyne of Stories Alive presents the exciting story of Gilly and the dragon egg she finds while playing hide and seek. Having found the egg, but not knowing what it is, Gilly takes it home with her, and when a dragon hatches, the adventure begins.

The story is an engaging and dramatic tale that captures all of the excitement of classic fairytales, but it goes one step further. While it captures the thrill of a classic fairytale, it doesn’t leave the adventures to knights or princes, instead, our protagonists are both young girls who decide to take matters into their own hands, and raise and protect the dragon themselves. It is a refreshing story that opens itself out to everyone listening.

Playing the role of Gruff, the troubadour, Ballantyne narrates the story with a magically infectious enthusiasm. Though the production is, for the most part, a simple and pared-back storytelling session, the few props used are truly beautiful and very effective. The main prop used is a dragon puppet, used to portray Crackle the dragon. It is a well made puppet that seems to take on a life of its own under Ballantyne’s direction. Another notable point in the performance is when Gruff calls for children to volunteer to help in acting out scenes from the story. With a light-hearted, low-pressure approach, Ballantyne involves his young audience in the show and lets them share in the excitement of the story.

There May Be Dragons,  is an excellent storytelling show that takes a classic style and format and breathes new life into it in the form of the adventurous characters of Gilly and Brenna.

Shakespeare for Breakfast & Dickens for Dinner – Edinburgh Fringe Review

C Theatre

C Chambers Street

26/08/17 & 27/08/17

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Charles Dickens, author of such novels as Hard Times, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, wouldn’t exactly spring to mind as a cheery soul (though there can be no doubt that he has written some belly laughs dotted through his works), however, C Theatre’s production Dickens for Dinner takes his classic A Christmas Carol and turns it into an irreverent comedy.

After warming their audience with soup on the way into the auditorium (no pleas for gruel here), C Theatre presents a story of Scrooge, failed popstar and confirmed curmudgeon. Narrated by a leather-clad Dickens, this 1980s themed take on the classic novel maintains a surprisingly strong connection to the source material, while seemingly changing just about everything in some way. As in the original, the story revolves around the fact that Scrooge hates Christmas; good luck to anyone who utters the words “Christmas Number One” in his presence. He is visited by the spirits of three famous musicians who remind him of the mistakes he has made in his life and the changes he needs to make to avoid the same purgatorial fate as his late musical collaborator, Shirley Marley.

Full of self-referential gags and clever word-play on Dickens’ original material Dickens for Dinner is by no means a serious literary examination. It is a silly and witty production that serves as a light-hearted introduction to a classic story.

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In a similar vein, C Theatre presents Shakespeare for Breakfast, in which they dissect Macbeth and stitch it back together in the shape of a comedy rather than the tragedy Shakespeare wrote it as. From the very start of the show, when the actors remind us that we cannot call the play or character by its real name and so re-name it McGary, it is clear that this is a production that, rather than indulging in any reverential treatment, will turn the bard on his head and tickle his feet.

The show takes modern references and references to other Shakespeare plays, blending them together to create this humorous tale of McGary’s dastardly attempts to become President of the Thistly Bottom Allotment Society, spurred on by his rather spoiled and power-hungry wife, and some unconventional witches wearing Love Island t-shirts.

Once again retaining the original plot while playing with the finer details, C Theatre create an hilarious production of Macbeth, sorry, McGary, which delights in its own adept silliness.

The Complete History of Europe (More or Less) – Edinburgh Fringe Review

More or Less Theatre

C Chambers Street

26/08/17

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Fitting about 5000 years of European history in to an hour-long show is no mean feat, but Malcom Galea and Joseph Zammit of More or Less Theatre do so with a generous helping of gusto and mischief. The Complete History of Europe (More or Less), takes its audience through a whistle-stop tour of European history, covering events from the Bronze Age to Brexit, dispensing lots of facts (and a little bit of fiction) on the way.

The performers make a strong double act, with Zammit playing the joker, while Galea plays the more straight-laced, long-suffering historian of the pair. Zammit’s character provides gags aplenty as he plays on puns of historical figures’ names, devises ridiculous characterisations and appears in increasingly outlandish costumes. The combination of fast-fact delivery and comedy is reminiscent of Terry Deary’s successful Horrible Histories, though More or Less Theatre provide their own distinctive, theatrical style. The structure of the production, with a large map of Europe in the centre, onto which the performers stick labels of the important events they cover, is simple and open but bright and engaging. Their final song about the European Union is a definite highlight, blending comedy, history and politics in a family friendly song. The self-awareness of the performances suits the style and subject of the production, adding to the comedy with lines such as the one referencing James Watt’s “perfectly serviceable Scottish accent” safeguarding this theatrical history lesson from ever taking itself too seriously.

Even as a grown up, a bit of a history nerd, and someone who studied history all the way through to my Leaving Certificate, I learned some new facts during this jam-packed show; as a family show this production really has something for everyone. The Complete History of Europe (More or Less) is a feast of laughter and learning that’s not to be missed.

Me and My Bee -Edinburgh Fringe Review

ThisEgg

Pleasance Courtyard

26/08/17

bee

Bees are pretty tiny. Humans are pretty big. Even so, we humans depend on bees much than we realise. As Josie, Greta and Joe are here to tell us, without bees (who pollinate 70 of the top 100 crop species that feed 90% of the worlds population) our way of life would change forever; avocado toast would be no more, but millenials still wouldn’t be buying houses because our economies would probably crash as bees unwittingly sustain many of our multi-billion euro industries. But bees are in danger, human actions such as the use of pesticides, mass production of single crops, industrial development, and the increase in global warming all contribute to the decimation of bee populations worldwide.

ThisEgg Theatre Company’s production Me and My Bee takes a serious, though comedy-filled look at the plight of bees in our world. After meeting a bee named Joe, Greta and Josie set up “The Bee Party,” a political party, disguised as a party, disguised as a show, to protect and support bees. They want to win the audience over to joining the party, and in order to do so they have decided to share Joe, the bee’s sad tale of losing the beloved flower he pollinates. Creating engaging characters, including the truly memorable, somewhat power-hungry party leader, Josie, ThisEgg blend their important message with an entertaining performance so, while there is no doubt that the show is intended to educate its audience about the importance of consciously protecting our bee populations, it feels less like a lesson and more like a party.

There are a couple of points at which the narrative progresses a little slowly, but in all the production is energetic and interesting, with simple but effective, bright and colourful lighting and stage design that appeals to the upbeat nature of this political party disguised as a party disguised as a show. The flipchart which is used throughout serves to reiterate the information given in the show and encapsulates the blend of information and entertainment that characterises the production.

Giving each audience member a role as a solitary bee (for example, I was a mason bee in their “focus group”) and presenting them with a party bag of flower seeds on their way out of the auditorium, the production involves the audience in its message and empowers them to act on it after leaving the theatre. Me and My Bee is a production that does not skimp on the gravity of its message while it has fun and ensures its audience does too.

Dr Zeiffal, Dr Zeigal and the Hippo That Can Never Be Caught – Edinburgh Fringe Review

Mouths of Lions

Assemby Roxy

26/08/17

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Have you ever spotted a wild hippopotamus of the “United K.?”

What’s that? There aren’t any hippos here you say?

Well that is where you would be wrong. Dr. Zeiffal (Georgia Murphy) and Dr. Zeigal (Oliver Weatherly) have been studying Hippopotami for years; they have all of the special equipment, their hippo map for tracking sightings, and their special hippo packaging. However, despite tracking many sightings, the problem is, Dr. Zeiffal and Dr. Zeigal have never actually seen a hippo, but they hope that will change as a wild hippo has been spotted right here in Edinburgh.

Dr. Zeiffal (with help from her assistant, Dr. Zeigal) takes her audience of hippo enthusiasts through a lesson on hippopotami and how to catch them. Upon learning that she may finally get the chance to see a wild hippo, it’s panic stations as Dr. Zeiffal, Dr. Zeigal and the audience try to catch a glimpse of the infamous hippo. After putting on their Hippo Google Goggles and learning the hippo signal, the audience is equipped to warn the performers when the hippo appears, but it’s not as easy as all that; Murphy and Weatherly deliver high calibre classic comedy as they frantically chase a hippopotamus around the theatre.

The production is well paced, involving the audience in the action and playing well to the room. Both Murphy and Weatherly have strong stage presence; Murphy delights as the eccentric Dr. Zeiffal, developing a memorably frenetic and enthusiastic character, while Weatherly demonstrates versatility in his performance as he doubles as the haphazard Zeigal and the elusive but sweet hippopotamus.  The direction and the writing both adeptly cater to the younger and older members of the audience, with well-executed physical comedy, verbal jokes and word play providing laughs for all ages.

If you think you know all that you need to know about hippopotami, I guarantee you will find something new in this production; I bet you didn’t know that hippos are terrified of umbrellas, and I’m sure you have never seen an invisible hippo-catching blanket!

Well…you still won’t exactly see the invisible hippo-catching blanket, but you’ll see its effects in this exuberant and entertaining show that is fun for all ages. Dr Zeiffal, Dr. Zeigal and the Hippo That Can Never Be Caught is a hilarious and clever production that uses tried and tested comic techniques to make a fresh and energetic piece of family theatre.