Until last week, I had never been to Edinburgh before. I had never even been to Scotland (at least, I had never been old enough to remember going). Most crucially, I had never been to a fringe festival. Suffice to say, I was thrown in the deep end.
For those who don’t know what a fringe festival is, I’ll lay the scene for you.
It’s about sharing performance art. It’s about new writing, new companies, new fresh-faced performers, and new ideas. Often, it’s a way for performers to test out what they’ve been developing and try to get some attention on it. It’s not just theatre; there’s magic, comedy, dance, spoken word. Diverse performers from all over flock to one area, descending on the streets like reverse seagulls, desperate to shove their flyers into your hands. They’ll do anything to get bums on seats (usually for a much more affordable price than mainstream theatre), and your job as a visitor is to wade through the street performers and leaflets and find something you like.
It’s exhilarating and refreshing to be surrounded by so much art yet not enough time to possibly consume it all. Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the biggest international festival of its kind. In fact, it’s so big that the only cultural events surpassing its ticketing sales are the Olympics and the World Cup (thanks for that fact, Wikipedia). This year, there were 3646 productions, with 53,117 total performances across the month of August. This wasn’t even the biggest year that the Edinburgh Fringe has had…Wow.
So, what makes it so special? Well, anyone can perform. Unlike most festivals, the Edinburgh Fringe Society solely provides support to performers in terms of registration, advertisement, advice, etc. In no way do they control who, or what, performs. You may have read that this year, comedian Jerry Sadowitz’ fringe show was controversially cancelled due to ‘unacceptable’ material. However, it’s really important to note that the show was cancelled by the hosting venue, and not by the Fringe Society itself. The whole idea of fringe festivals is to champion the arts, making them accessible to performers and viewers alike. Whilst Edinburgh Fringe Festival is clearly struggling to maintain this from a financial standpoint (more on this later), the core values are, at its heart, still there. So, in this article, I will be discussing some of the shows I was lucky enough to catch this year, whilst evaluating the ingredients of fringe itself.
Love Them to Death, by Max Dickins – 4 *s
The first show I caught was Love Them to Death at the Underbelly, written by Max Dickins and directed by Hannah Eidinow. Based at a primary school, the hour-long play focuses on the relationship between two women: an overprotective mother of a constantly sick child (Helena Antoniou), and a sceptical school attendance officer (Claire-Louise Cordwell). As an audience, we are constantly manipulated by the text to switch perspectives, questioning whose story is really true. Is the school attendance officer negligent, and actively placing boundaries to prevent the struggling mother from receiving support for her child? Or is the mother abusive, a case of Munchausen’s by Proxy, and intentionally seeking harmful treatment for her son? It’s a play with no clear-cut answer.
I was actually lucky enough to be trained by the director, Hannah, when I studied at LAMDA, so I have to confess some bias here. Regardless, I can certainly vouch for her incredible ability to help her actors bring the best out of the text at hand. When matched with Dickins’ fantastically nuanced writing, every sentence became punctuated with a second hidden meaning beneath it. The tension between the actors was uncomfortably real. I couldn’t help but want to start asking the questions myself. It certainly made for a thoughtful and impacting play; I could imagine it being housed at the Manchester Royal Exchange, or the National Theatre.
It does bring me to the first item on my Fringe ingredient list: support. Whether supporting a director you once trained with, or a fellow member of a community you belong to, watching Fringe theatre is all about support. There are simply too many shows, with not enough time. Planmyfringe.com calculated that over the 25 festival days, the maximum number of shows anyone could possibly watch would be 311. That still leaves 3,335 shows to miss! So, it goes a long way to let your heart lead you a little, and to show some support for the people, companies, or playwrights that you particularly like.
Hiya Dolly! by Vince Licata – 4 ½ *s
If Love Them to Death is a play I can imagine seeing at the National Theatre, then Hiya Dolly! is one I can see running at the Young Vic or touring more intimate theatres around the country. Deliciously charming, whimsical, and original, the musical play centres around the lives of the scientists who created Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. As soon as I saw the show listed in the Fringe programme, I knew I had to pencil it in.
The story of Dolly the sheep was more than just science and media mania. There was romance: two members of the scientific team actually ended up getting married! There was also tragedy, as one of the leading biologists, Keith Campbell, unfortunately committed suicide later on in his life. So much is not known about the lives of these scientists; it’s about time somebody told their tale. As surprising as it is that the story hasn’t been snatched up by Hollywood already, the team behind Hiya Dolly! definitely served justice to the real-life characters. It was one of the best shows I saw at the festival.
My only criticism of Hiya Dolly! was the length of the play. I won’t hold that against it, though; almost all the plays at the Fringe were around 1 hour in length. It would be impossible to get the audiences in, otherwise. I just hope that, with Hiya Dolly!’s success at the festival, the team feel confident to extend it into a full-length play and start touring it. If they did, I do believe it would win the hearts of theatre goers everywhere.
Still, isn’t this what Fringe festivals are for? Hiya Dolly! is a clear example of why we need spaces to trial creative work. Many of the shows and performers at the festival were bursting with potential yet missing something. Perhaps the ideas weren’t fully realised yet, or they just needed the positive reviews to garner them some funding. Fringe provides opportunity to promote and experiment with ideas. After all, how can a comedian know what works without seeing if the audience will laugh? How can a writer know if their play about science will actually capture any attention, unless they give it a test run first? Famously, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag initially gained its critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, before later being picked up by the BBC to transform into an award-winning sitcom. Countless similar successes born out of fringe theatre prove its worth – if I had to place a wager, I’d say that Hiya Dolly! would be next.
The wonders of free fringe (oh, and parents)
Time for a little personal background: I’ve wanted to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for years. It’s been on the bucket list for a long time. This trip was actually the generous gift of my parents, and without them, it probably wouldn’t have been viable. Which leads me to an important point: Edinburgh Fringe Festival is no longer financially accessible. Gone are the days of rocking up last minute to perform, or cramming in as many shows to watch as possible. With accommodation so in demand, prices are extortionate. Maybe out of popularity, or maybe to cover performers’ own extreme costs, ticket prices have been slowly creeping up. The festival has become a luxury to attend, or a huge dig into your back pocket.
In enters the PBH Free Fringe Festival.
Whilst Edinburgh Fringe Festival has been operating for 75 years, the PBH Free Fringe Festival is a baby by comparison at 26 years. It is by no means a small side affair, however. Such is its popularity with both performers and audiences that it has its own dedicated programme, and a whole host of centrally located venues offering their spaces for free. This year, the Free Fringe facilitated more than 6,000 performances on over 30 stages. Before rocking up in the city, I only had a vague sense of there being some ‘pay what you can’ shows, but I had no idea that I would leave with some of my favourite performances being free to attend.
It was luck, really, that my boyfriend and I were staying only a couple of streets from The Voodoo Rooms. Unassuming from the outside, it quickly became our favourite late-night haunt. Once you venture up the staircase leading inside, you’ll discover several different hidden away rooms and bars. It was in one of these hidden away rooms that we attended our very first cabaret, a pick of the finest performers across the Free Fringe invited to share extracts of their work.
The Magic Faraway Cabaret with Mister Meredith, PBH Free Fringe – 4 *s
From burlesque to comedy, magic to musicians, The Magic Faraway Cabaret had it all. The show was hosted by the fabulous Mister Meredith; his passion for the Free Fringe was pulpable, and his ease and wittiness with the audience curated a fantastic atmosphere within the packed, ‘speakeasy’ room the show was hosted in. He was the perfect mix of entertaining and approachable. Many of us were new to cabaret, but he took us under his wing with an adoring supportiveness. I particularly enjoyed his interluding taster sessions, where he prepared the audience for upcoming acts by teaching us what reactions are appropriate. For example, his top tip for burlesque? Remember it’s a conversation. It’s no fun if you don’t engage. (At that point, it’s just creepy). And the trick for magic? Indulge the performer with plenty of ‘ooos’, and don’t be afraid to get picked on.
My boyfriend and I had so much fun that we actually returned on our final night, feeling like we ought to end our Fringe experience with an homage of sorts. For us, The Magic Faraway Cabaret represented what the Free Fringe is all about: sharing of passion, and accessibility. Our tentativeness of free theatre was completely stripped away. It served as a stark reminder of the importance of accessibility within the arts. Without financial accessibility, little room is left for exploration. Stripping away financial barriers provides opportunity to embark on new experiences, as well as negating unnecessary pressure to get your trip to the Fringe ‘perfect’. Really, it’s what all fringe theatre should be.
So, thanks to the PBH Free Fringe, we had our first experiences of burlesque (something I could only describe as ‘eye-opening’) and stumbled across a range of performers and shows that we would not have considered watching otherwise. Our favourite of these was ‘Fringe Legend’ David Alnwick.
Nightmare Magic, by David Alnwick – 5 *s
Disclaimer: I’ve never really been interested in magic. Nor has my boyfriend. However, it didn’t take long for David Alnwick to convince us to reconsider. His short set at the cabaret was so charming; not only did he seriously impress us with his skills, but he made us laugh harder than any comedian at the Fringe managed to do. Intrigued, we knew we had to catch one of his full shows.
Impressively, Alnwick wasn’t just performing one set show at the Fringe: he was performing two completely different sets every day. We decided to opt for Nightmare Magic (primarily because his other show started at 12, and we struggle to even wake up before that time). Like the cabaret, Nightmare Magic was hosted in the speakeasy room of The Voodoo Rooms. Emboldened by Mister Meredith’s advice, we bravely sat in the front row. As we waited for the show to start, we flicked through our (free) programmes, reading the sinister short story inside. All the while feeling stared at by the teddy bear hanging by a noose. Creepy.
The premise of the show was to uncover what magic used to mean to people, before it became ‘harmless’. Alnwick didn’t just use magic as a trick, but also as a tool to tell a story, and a tool to educate. The result was like a burrito of conflicting ingredients: unsettling, but funny. Intellectual, but entertaining. You would think that a burrito like that wouldn’t taste so good, until it proves to be one of the most delicious meals of your life.
I’m no expert on magic, but the experts reviewing his shows have given consistent, countless 5-star reviews, and I think there’s a reason why Alnwick is revered as something of a ‘Fringe Legend’. It takes a lot for a performer to not just capture the attention and imagination of their audience, but to truly transport them to another time.
As an audience member, I left dumbfounded by the talent. As a fellow performer, I left impressed by his integrity.
I would have happily paid £15 and up to see Nightmare Magic, but I didn’t. Why? Because the show was free. Don’t get me wrong, there was a donation bucket at the end (and the queue getting out was slow because every single person was fumbling for their wallet). Still, the principle impressed me regardless. Here is a performer so genuinely passionate about their art that they’re performing multiple separate shows per day, on top of joining in events like the cabaret, and all for free. Here is a performer giving out free programmes at a free show, detailing the team that helped them create their work, and thanking the audience for their support. Here is a performer whose eyes light up talking about the history of their art and has created a show that leaves people previously uninterested now completely bewitched. I’d say they should get the guy on a Ted Talk, but I checked the programme, and that’s already scheduled in for him later this year.
Integrity is everything in a performer, and nowhere in the performing arts industry is it rifer than at fringe festivals. And as important as accessibility is, there is no point having access to performers who won’t inspire, educate, or excite you. Fringe theatre is all about freedom and exploration, and it is artists with integrity, like Alnwick, who lead the way in creating an environment that champions that.
Frank Sanazi: Das Vegas Nights 4 ½ *s
It’s the discussion of freedom that brings me to my final show on the list: Frank Sanazi’s Das Vegas Nights. Don’t overthink the name, it really is exactly how it sounds! A bizarre blend of Frank Sinatra and Adolf Hitler, Frank Sanazi dazzled us with dark humour to the tune of ‘Third Reich’ (That’s Life) and ‘Meinway’ (My Way). Occasionally, he was even joined on stage by the likes of ‘Dean Stalin’ or ‘Spliff Richards’. I have to say, Das Vegas Nights was probably one of the best constructed shows I saw all Fringe. Every moment was intelligently linked to the next, with the audience kept on their toes; the novelty was sustained throughout the hour set, instead of quickly growing old and tasteless.
To be honest, I’m not usually a fan of offensive comedy. I think too many comedians are offensive for the sake of being offensive, using their profession as a scapegoat to say harmful things without any kind of meaningful commentary beneath it. However, I do believe that the health of a society can be measured based on its art. If nobody is mocking somebody else, whether that’s a politician or a celebrity, then something has gone terribly wrong.
Frank Sanazi is definitely not a performer for everyone, although I think a lot of people would be surprised by how enjoyable his comedy is. Still, I couldn’t help but reflect on why we have become so afraid of satire in recent years. I imagined Hitler sat beside us in the auditorium, watching with absolute fury and humiliation as modern generations mocked and laughed at his ideals, senseless hate, and mannerisms. As my boyfriend said, what would he prefer? This mockery? Or for people to still tiptoe around his name nearly 80 years after his death? Satire keeps us awake and critical. Without it, we become complacent to extreme ideas, which is exactly how history repeats itself.
Where would the world be without art? Where would the world be without artists? I’d love to say a classic, ‘now, more than ever, we need art’, but I don’t believe that is true. We always need art.
Over the 7 days I spent at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I saw 5 plays, 2 comedy skits, a handful of cabarets, a magic show, and a collection of other bizarre theatrics that couldn’t possibly be segregated into one box. I saw a show about dinosaur impersonators, and a street performer juggling machetes whilst balancing half-naked on top of an upright ladder. I even met ‘Melania Trump’ and listened to her sing ‘Part of Your World’ from The Little Mermaid. Such an assortment of crazy and diverse theatre could only ever exist at a fringe festival. It was fantastic.
Not only was this trip one of the best experiences of my life, but it was an experience that genuinely invigorated and refreshed my artistic and mental health. I’ve come away with a real passion and understanding of the importance of Fringe theatre, and, in this article, I’ve evaluated the key ingredients that I believe represent it.
Ingredient 1: Support. It’s simple, really. Art is fundamental to humanity and supporting the ‘underdogs’ in creative industries is a sure-fire way of keeping our world full of fresh, alternative perspectives and ideas.
Ingredient 2: Space for trial. In order to allow the ‘underdogs’ to shine, we need spaces for trial and experimentation. Not only that, but art isn’t just fundamental to humanity as a whole: it is also fundamental on an individual level. Fringe festivals also encourage self-exploration of art, something that is crucial to our mental wellbeing.
Ingredient 3: Accessibility. So, if art is fundamental to cultural and mental health, then isn’t it crucial to make it accessible for all? Generally, the diversity and accessibility at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was of a pretty high standard. Wheelchair accessible venues were clearly labelled and common across the programme, there were many BSL interpreted plays (the Fringe actually coincided with the Edinburgh Deaf Festival), and the Fringe Society provided free access to ‘sensory backpacks’ to whoever requested them. That being said, a lot more can be done. In particular, more should be done to keep the festival financially accessible. A good start would be discussing the need to implement accommodation price caps across the month, and incentivising venues to charge less in order to bring down ticket prices.
Ingredient 4: Integrity. Like I said previously, integrity is everything in a performer. It is contagious, too! To create meaningful, impacting art, we need integrity, and we need to appreciate how integral art is to our world. Which leads me on to the final ingredient…
Ingredient 5: Freedom of Speech and Satire. I’ve ended my article on Freedom of Speech, because I know it is a topical conversation for artists and audiences at the moment. To me, freedom of speech is a necessary part of democracy, but it does not mean freedom of consequences. By all means, offensive behaviour, whether that’s derogatory language or hate speech, should have social repercussions. However, censoring free speech as a means to avoid offensive behaviour will only serve against us. Art addresses and enlightens our differences in ideals, perspectives, and experiences. It is a necessary part of resistance and social change. Censoring art, whether you like it or not, will only stifle change.
Thank you for reading my article about the Edinburgh Fringe Festival! If you enjoyed this article, maybe check out some of my previous work, like my review on Heathers: the Musical, or Glee & Me at the Manchester Royal Exchange. Contributions to MancMuse are unpaid, so I do also have a Ko-Fi account if you would like to leave a donation/tip.
The previously mentioned PBH Free Fringe relies entirely on donations. If you are interested in donating towards the PBH Free Fringe, they accept donations into their paypal (firstname.lastname@example.org) or directly into their bank account: 90198344, sort code 60-04-24, The Free Fringe Ltd, NatWest Camden Town.