Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Part two

I wasn’t being handed any fliers on Wednesday morning and I couldn’t understand why not.  Ordinarily during the Fringe Festival it is virtually impossible to avoid walking any street in Edinburgh without having a glossy advert for some comedy show or theatre production thrust into your hand by an enthusiastic volunteer who is often dressed in costume.  I had been walking for around an hour and not one person had attempted to sell their show to me, and I was beginning to take it personally. I slowed my walking pace out of hope that it would make me appear less in a rush to get somewhere important and therefore more approachable, but even that was having no effect.  I walked with my arms outstretched a little, in the manner of a monkey, and still nobody was willing to place a flier in my hand. I considered that on this particular day no-one was looking for a single man to attend their shows and I was feeling a little low and put out, so I purposefully walked past the same juggling act a couple of times for confidence.

Wednesday morning had started out with the city’s cobbled streets slick with rain, but by around midday it had dried out and there was a warmth from the sun in the sky.  I decided that I would no longer need the denim jacket I had come out wearing, so I returned to the hostel where I had been staying and stored it in a locker with the rest of my luggage.  This is when it occurred to me that I had been walking around for more than an hour dressed in double denim and I suspected that this was the reason I wasn’t being handed any fliers, though a man wearing double denim should probably be a prime comedy victim.

After watching Peter Brush make a very convoluted and brilliant joke about snails in an awkward manner in a room full of ten people or less, I went out to Pleasance Courtyard where I would spend much of the day and first saw the Irish comedienne Catherine Bohart, who performed a set about being a bisexual Irish Catholic who had recently been diagnosed as having OCD and whose father is a Deacon.  In the small room I was seated next to a woman who shortly after taking her seat reached into her bag for a paper fan, which was a deep red and the sort that stylish ladies would use in the movies. She began to fan herself in an elaborate and exhaustive fashion and it made me wonder if the flushing she was experiencing was in any way related to my testosterone. It made me feel good to think this and I was sitting smugly as Catherine Bohart took to the stage.  As I glanced around the room, which was very compact and warm, I noticed several other women who were using tickets to fan their faces and I accepted that my masculinity probably wasn’t having that much of an effect.

Later, whilst entering another show, the usher called out for “any singles” to fill a seat in the corner, around three rows from the front, which was the last remaining in that particular row.  There wasn’t a rush of people who were attending the show by themselves, or who were at least willing to admit to being alone, and I raised my hand in the air in the most meek way and was directed to walk along the front of the stage to reach this lone chair, as though I was being put on display.

I had some time to spare before seeing Alex Edelman and I decided that I would spend it in the warm early evening breeze in the courtyard with a pint of beer.  Pleasance is one of the major hubs of the Fringe and there was a buzz of activity with audiences lined up outside the numerous venues and people handing out fliers in an effort to sell last minute tickets.  A girl approached me with a handful of such fliers, her hair was a kind of sunkissed hazelnut and she was wearing skinny jeans which were impressively tight fitting and a lime green top which matched the colour of her shoes as well as her handbag.  It struck me that if I was female this is the sort of style I would favour.

The girl with the hazelnut hair offered me a flier for a show in which stand-up comedians perform in the dark.  I took it and asked her how the comedians can see whether the audience are laughing when there are no lights. She laughed in a pained way, as though she really wasn’t wanting to laugh but she couldn’t help but admire the effort made to concoct such a terrible joke.  I took this response as an invitation to ask the flier dispatcher why she thought it might be that I had such a barren leafleting experience earlier in the day. She crinkled her nose, in the way some people scrunch up unwanted fliers, and thought it surprising. We exchanged a silent stare for what might only have been three or four seconds but felt more like a minute and I thought it would be a good idea to ask the citrus styled saleswoman if Comedians in the Dark was good enough for her to consider wasting her time going with me.  She said that she had seen the show earlier in the month but that different comics perform all the time and if she could hand off the rest of her fliers she would go with me.

After the show, which was performed in near darkness, I asked the girl with the hazelnut hair if she would consider having a drink with me.  She declined, citing an early start in her day job the following morning, but invited me to take a short train journey and we could share a bottle of wine at her place.  From Waverley Station her stop was only around ten minutes and it was a place I was not familiar with. Her flat was on the top floor of a building which was in the middle of a high street that was like any other, and she asked me if I would mind sharing a flat with a young dog.  I have formed a bond with many a canine over the years and didn’t consider this a problem, though as we approached her home I felt myself becoming anxious as I realised that now I wasn’t only having to impress her, but her dog would have to like me too. Somehow my attempts at humour and conversation had gotten me this far, but if I didn’t hit it off with the dog then it could blow the whole thing.

As she opened the door a small dog scampered to greet her, and soon its little paws were clambering onto my thighs and I could tell that it was much too cute to hate anyone.  We sat on the couch and she opened a bottle of white wine, which was foreign and as delicious as its name was unpronounceable. The little dog sat between us on the cushions, as though forming a protective barrier until I had its absolute approval to proceed.  As we talked – the girl with the hazelnut hair and I – her dog arched across my lap and demanded that I rub its little pink belly. It was impossible to refuse, and it was probably the first time that I have cultivated a friendship with my ability to scratch.

Some time passed and having removed her own lime green shoes, the girl with the hazelnut hair reached for my laces and insisted that I would be much more comfortable if I wasn’t wearing my boots.  Soon her hand was working its way around an area of my jeans where ordinarily only my hand ventures, and when my penis was released and she was kneeling on the floor between my feet, the dog sat up on the couch next to me, and as its deep black eyes stared at me I began to worry that it might mistake me for a sausage.  Once I had raised this concern the dog was quickly ushered from the room into the hallway, for at least twelve minutes, and whilst it probably didn’t have the capacity to understand what was happening I’d like to believe that the neighbours did.

After the dog was welcomed back into the room and my host had changed into a pair of pyjamas which were much less colourful but every bit as fetching as her daytime wear, I was asked a question which I had not anticipated being asked and which I had never been asked before.

“How would you feel about sharing a bed with a dog?”

I weighed up the options in my mind:  I could either sleep with a girl or I could not sleep with a girl, and I quickly decided that sleeping with a girl would be preferable and that I could live with the dog, which had befriended me as much as I had it.  Following another glass or two of wine we all went to bed, and I had to wonder what the dog was making of all of this. I was a guy who it had met for the first time only a few hours earlier, I had not even bought it dinner, and now I was sharing its bed and bumping bones with its owner.

In the dark of the night I was having difficulty sleeping, partly out of a fear that if I fell asleep I would find that this entire night and this fantastically beautiful woman I was lying next to was a terribly unlikely dream woven by my wild imagination, and partly because at the foot of the bed I could hear the dog licking itself profusely.  When I was finally able to fall asleep I was soon woken by the soft and wet lather of a tongue lapping at my face. My eyes gradually opened and I was considering how this was an unusual but not unwelcome way for the girl with the hazelnut hair to waken me and rouse my attention. She must be ready for some more action, I thought to myself, and it was something that I could get used to.  Then I caught the unmistakable scent of dog food and realised that the dog was right in my face, and that was were it spent much of the night.

An alarm soon rung in the morning and the girl with the hazelnut hair had to be up early for work.  Before getting herself ready she lifted the dog into the hallway and she and I were investigating the integrity of the mattress once more.  She climaxed as the dog urinated on the carpet and it seemed like each of us got something from the experience.  After a cup of tea I asked where I was, how I got here and how I get back to Edinburgh. She explained that the train station was a couple of minutes down the street and that the trains are frequent.  I thanked her and left, hopeful that as the day progressed I would receive some more fliers for my satchel.

 

Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Part one

It never matters where my final destination in the capital city is, every time I arrive in Edinburgh Waverley railway station I have to exit by the steps onto Princes Street so that I can see the Scott Monument, which is not only one of my favourite landmarks anywhere but is also, as far as I am concerned, the best monument dedicated to Sir Walter Scott.

During the month of August in particular, when Edinburgh is host to one of the world’s largest arts festivals, I am almost immediately filled with a tremendous sense of regret over my decision to take the long and unnecessary detour by the Royal Mile, rather than walking out onto Market Street where my hostel accommodation is located directly across the road from the station.  This was the case yesterday, when I found myself trapped behind an endless stream of slow walking pedestrians – the sort of people whose pace would make a tortoise retreat into its shell out of shame – who inexplicably stop to a standstill on the middle of bridges or suddenly change direction to walk straight across your path. My internal monologue was seething, and I couldn’t be sure if I was more annoyed with them or with myself.

The journey from Glasgow into Edinburgh had already soured my mood when the elderly man sitting opposite me and to my left had fallen asleep practically as soon as the train had left Queen Street.  This was a particularly large man and he had the appearance of a novelty-sized helium balloon from a children’s birthday party which had been caught up in a strong breeze and carried onto the seat opposite me on the train, having deflated just enough air so that it had flopped neatly into the seat.  He was asleep the entire way across the country, and when the train was approaching Haymarket station and he had still not stirred, not even for the ticket inspector, I was becoming anxious that it would be my responsibility to waken him.

I was beginning to visualise how I would attract this much older and much larger man’s attention without startling him so much as to cause a cardiac event.  Would a gentle hand on his shoulder be enough to do the job when there was so much of him? What if it wasn’t and I went on to strike him so hard that he awoke in a furious mood and I had an angry mob of commuters baying for my blood, accusing me of assaulting a pensioner and a war veteran?  Then I thought about what I might say to this man if I was able to waken him and he was sitting there in his seat looking up at me, dazed and confused and sleepy. I have always wanted to use the phrase “it’s the end of the line” but have never had reason to do so, because there are so few instances where it can be applied without sounding silly.  This was the perfect scenario to use that line, though, and I suddenly found myself feeling excited and hoping – almost willing – that the pensioner would stay asleep just a little while longer so that I could tap him on his shoulder. “We’ve reached the end of the line, bud.”

As I continued to daydream, a passing stranger reached down, having noticed the trouble that this man had gotten himself into, and he placed his hand on his shoulder.  “This is the last stop,” the good Samaritan informed the elderly man as he awoke, and his delivery wasn’t nearly as cool as I had imagined mine would be. I gathered up my belongings and sighed, feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief that at least I had not caused a heart attack.

After checking into my hostel accommodation I enjoyed a pint of lager at the Jinglin’ Geordie bar, which is approximately halfway up or down Fleshmarket Close, depending on which way a person is travelling.  For my first beer of the Fringe I considered the price of £5 a little steep, although not quite as steep as the steps seemed after drinking the pint.

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The top deck of a green bus, which was parked on Potterrow Underpass, was the venue for the first show I attended.  Chris Betts Vs The Audience had received a four-star review on The List website and the premise was a fun one where the comedian would argue against anything the audience said.  During this show the audience were tasked with debating in favour of legalising public urination and later Chris Betts would argue for the poaching of elephants, while a couple of ‘quickfire rounds’ took place between.  It was interesting to see the lengths people would go to in order to win an argument.

Much of the evening was spent in the Brass Monkey bar, which was close by, and the pints of Innis & Gunn were a slightly more agreeable price of £4.50.  The bar had the atmosphere of being in a persons living room, with its velvet-like red lampshades and the cast of photographs on the walls and the selection of board games which were available to play.  The white trimmings around the edges of the ceiling reminded me of the living room I grew up in and I enjoyed my time there. On the door leading to the bathroom were the symbols for both male and female sexes and inside there were two cubicles and a short urinal, which was enclosed behind white gates, similar to the saloon doors you would see in a western movie.  I had forgotten about this setup when I used the toilet for the second time and exited the urinal into the common handwash area whilst still fumbling with the zip on my jeans. I was momentarily surprised and felt like a very mild sex offender when I encountered a slightly older woman who was standing at the sink. Then I remembered that this was Edinburgh and that things are different on the east coast and I reminded myself that in future I should probably fasten my zip as soon as my penis is safely away.

At the bar in The Advocate I found myself in conversation with a woman who was waiting to order some drinks for her group.  She had pleasing facial features – it was symmetrical, with two eyes, a nose and a mouth, just the way I like a face – though she had a very strong Edinburgh dialect which jarred a little with my senses.  I tried to use alcohol to dull this but it was proving difficult. The woman spoke of her love of the city during the festival, which is in contrast to most locals who tend to despair during the month of August.  “Other people,” she said, “charge £1500 a week to rent their flat but I only ask for half of that.”  The word only hung in the air and she said it like she was doing somebody a favour with some grandiose act of charity, like she was welcoming the homeless into the warmth of her living room or saving the whales.  She threw a shot of tequila down her throat and introduced herself before leaving with a handful of drinks to convene with the rest of her group outside and I thought about everything that had happened.

Not so far away at The Bunker in Espionage, I went to see Cosmic Comedy, which was a show produced by a group from Berlin and featured four comedians performing around ten minutes of standup material each.  Three of the acts ranged from mediocre to terrible and there were no fewer than two jokes about the German invasion of Poland, which happened nigh upon eighty years ago. The fourth act, who was on third, was Josie Parkinson, whose blog (‘Making Of’ ) I have recently started reading and who was the reason I had decided to attend the show.  She was comfortably the most assured of the performers and I found myself laughing at her Tinder experiences and supermarket tantrums. I had been considering attempting to talk to Josie after the show finished, to tell her that I had enjoyed her performance and that I admire her writing. For a brief moment I found myself within speaking distance of her and I considered how weird it might seem for someone to mention such a thing as a blog in public, and the guy she was with was much bigger than I am, so I decided against it and continued walking.

Outside the venue, I was accosted by a girl who was handing out fliers for a show across the street, as almost everyone seems to be doing in Edinburgh.  She was wearing a sheepskin coat which looked very warm and I felt compelled to compliment her on her fashion and to ask her why she was wearing such a coat in August, which is still meteorological summer at least.  She smiled – perhaps out of enjoyment of my compliment, perhaps out of awkwardness – and told me that she has a cold and has been working outdoors for around twelve hours every day. I again made reference to her sheepskin coat and queried whether she felt others would follow her sartorial lead.  This seemed like a good point to leave.

I saw another four-act comedy show which featured a Russian and an Icelandic comedian, amongst others, at Banshee Labyrinth after the midnight hour and I returned to my room at the hostel happily drunk and satisfied with my first day at the Fringe.  I undressed and crawled into my single bed, which was closer to the floor than any bed I have ever slept in, and I fell asleep immediately.  Some hours later, at 6:56am, I was awoken by a housekeeper who had entered my room.  She apologised from her vantage point in the doorway when she saw me semi-naked amongst my sheets, and for some reason I also felt the need to say sorry.  The housekeeper closed the door again and it occurred to me how it really doesn’t take very much to wake a person up.

The night I made the most ridiculous promise I have ever made to a girl

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I visit Edinburgh or how familiar I think I am with the city’s streets, I always manage to walk down the wrong cobbled alley or take some inexplicable misstep which has me up some steep incline far away from my intended destination.  There is something about its quirky collaboration of old and new which leads to eternal confusion.  That I am usually drunk in Edinburgh probably doesn’t do my internal satnav any favours.

In the August of 2014 I was making my third or fourth trip to the capital for the Fringe festival and I had set myself the target of Tweeting my review of each show I saw to #TimesReview with the aim of having one of them published in The Times newspaper.  Each day they had a pullout section devoted to the festival, and within this there was a small column which was devoted to the Twitter reviews of Times readers.  On my first night in Edinburgh I went to one of my favourite bars in the city, Banshee Labyrinth, where I saw Skeptics on the Fringe, which was a collection of shows on science, reasoning and critical thinking.  On the night I attended the show addressed the topic of psychics and I found it interesting and amusing.  I felt certain that my short review of the event would be printed in the following days’ paper, but it never was.

Skeptics on the Fringe – enlightening and funny. Tonight’s show was on psychics, which I could tell was going to be great

By 9.30 on that Friday evening I had enjoyed several beers and I was on my way to see Shit-Faced Shakespeare at Bristo Square.  I had approximately half an hour – maybe even forty minutes to an hour – to find the venue and I was feeling confident as I left Banshee Labyrinth and set off along the Royal Mile with a glossy venue map for guidance.  Some time had passed and after walking up and down a seemingly endless procession of paved hills I was beginning to realise that I had no idea where I was.  Despite being able to find the venue on the map in my hand I could not adjust my bearings to figure out how to get from wherever I was standing to Bristo Square, and time was ticking.

I continued walking, one foot before the other in an aimless drunken haze, and my surroundings were becoming vaguely familiar.  A spring returned to my step and I entered Princes Gardens, which I had convinced myself was on the right route and somewhat close to where I was wanting to go.  In the dusky distance I could see a couple of men wearing fluorescent vests, which I recognised as being the international symbol of good sense and wisdom at any public gathering, and I felt hopeful as I approached them.

I walked up to the stewards and I asked them how I would get to Bristo Square, by this point feeling sure that they would tell me it wasn’t very far from where we were situated.  They glanced at my glossy map, which I had thrust upon them to illustrate that I was lost, and then exchanged blank looks with one another.

“Ummm,” the steward hesitated.  “I dinnae really ken…we’re from Fife.”  His partner was no more reassuring.  “I think it’s somewhere that way,” he said pointing in the direction from which I had just walked.  My shoulders slumped and I was becoming increasingly concerned that I was going to miss Shit-Faced Shakespeare.

I thanked the stewards for what I’m sure they believed was helpful advice and I turned and walked that way.  My steps had taken on a frantic gait and I was practically power walking up the cobbled hills I had minutes earlier walked down with careful caution.  A booze and fear-induced sweat formed on my brow and I was becoming desperate as I once again reached the Royal Mile with the clock running against my favour.  A young couple who were approximately my age were walking towards me and in my haste I put to the back of my mind all of the anxiety and self-consciousness I feel when talking to strangers and I stopped them in the street and asked how I would get to Bristo Square.  The female of the couple spoke with a well-educated southern English accent and she told me that they were walking in that direction anyway and she invited me to follow them.  A deep sense of relief washed over my sweaty forehead.

The three of us set off in a direction which was entirely different to the one I had been following and I found myself struck by the poise of the woman as we became engaged in conversation.  She had the sort of blonde hair that resembled a healthy crop of golden wheat in a field, and she was at least as tall as I am, though when you are drunk and walking downhill these things are difficult to measure.  She asked me what I was on my way to see at Bristo Square and I told her about the excellent review of Shit-Faced Shakespeare I had read in The Times two weeks earlier.  The wheat haired female stranger had read the same article and agreed that the show was very good.

As our conversation developed it was revealed that she was not just some random and very kind stranger who I had accosted on the street, but that she was a performer in a show at the Fringe.  She reached into her handbag and presented me with a leaflet which had an image of Alex Salmond and Vladimir Putin looking like pirates as she told me about News Revue and how it was a Guinness World Record holder for the longest running comedy stage show, how it was in its 35th year at the Edinburgh Festival and how it had helped to launch the career of Bill Bailey and many other comedians.

By this point I had become aware that the male half of the duo had been largely uninvolved in the conversation, and although I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing anything he had to say I was wondering if he was harbouring any resentment towards me for commandeering so much of his girlfriend’s time on our walk to Bristo Square.  I thought about the nature of their relationship and whether a drunk Scotsman who makes a modest living working in a supermarket could win the affection of a striking woman from a man who was surely the director of her comedy show, or at the very least a set designer with skilled hands or a scriptwriter with a sharp wit.  What kind of chance would I have?

We reached Bristo Square with some time to spare before the show was scheduled to start.  It was a large and impressive area with all sorts of different things going on.  The couple were going elsewhere and I expressed my gratitude to them for helping me out of my hopeless situation.  I shook the wheat haired English woman’s hand, and recalling that she was also a reader of The Times newspaper I made one last attempt to win her favour.  I had an opening in my schedule on Sunday evening and I vowed that I would go and see her perform in News Revue.  As is typical of a man who is trying to impress a woman I went on to make a promise which by all measurable standards was unreasonable and unlikely to come to pass, but it sounded flattering and the words had fallen from my mouth in a drunken slur before I could contain them.  I promised her that I would Tweet a review of the show and that it would be published in The Times.

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On Monday morning I rushed to buy my copy of The Times and I went straight to the Edinburgh Festival pullout.  I thumbed through the pages to the Twitter reviews and felt a flutter of excitement when I spotted my name at the head of the column.  Something I had promised a woman – something drunken and ridiculous and implausible – had actually come true, and even though I had no way of knowing if she would ever read the twelve words I had written to win her heart I felt satisfied.  Though a small part of me was wishing that the psychic joke had made it instead.

Post Fringe thoughts & notes

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There is nowhere like Edinburgh in  August.  The buzz around the old streets, the mass of people crammed into the Royal Mile, the thousands upon thousands of comedy shows and theatre and art.  It’s intoxicating and thrilling and exhausting and I really miss it.

  • There are various different ‘hubs’ around the city where a gathering of venues can be found.  Underbelly, Gilded Balloon and Assembly George Square amongst them, but for me the finest is Pleasance Courtyard.  It’s a great open air space, their craft beer bar was unrivalled and the venues are amongst my favourite in the city.
  • I always get lost in Edinburgh.  Every time.  But it’s easier to navigate when sober.
  • The more absurd the name of the close or street the more awkward it tends to be, the steeper a climb/descent.  Fishmarket Close is a real bastard.
  • The wood-fired pizza van on Hunter Square has long been a fesitval favourite of mine for its haggis pizza.  This year they introduced a black pudding slice.  Amazing.
  • Don’t be afraid to see some ‘free’ shows.  Some of them can be excellent.  Others can be terrible, but that’s the risk you take.
  • Best ‘free’ show at this year’s Fringe:  Ahir Shah.
  • Also don’t be afraid to take flyers (it is often impossible to avoid taking them) and consider changing your plans to go to the shows.  Often I would interact with those handing out the flyers – usually they are the performers themselves – and ask them to tell me one thing about their show.  It can result in a great conversation and often help you find a hidden gem.
  • I adore improvised comedy, but it is sooooo hard finding a good improv show.
  • Sitting in the front row of a standup show is terrifying.  I was landed there twice – at Tom Ward’s show and also for Sarah Kendall – and ended up becoming involved in both.  I thoroughly enjoyed my interaction with Tom Ward, while I was selected at the beginning of Sarah’s show to read perhaps the few most pivotal lines of her set.
  • Speaking of Sarah Kendall – her’s was probably my favourite standup set at this year’s Fringe.  Such a wonderful storyteller.
  • I approve of The Advocate’s decision to replace Goose Island IPA with the Innis & Gunn IPA.  Very tasty wee pint, that one.
  • There was a joke in Ahir Shah’s set about the prospect of Scottish independence which didn’t get much reaction, and he noted that he forgot he was at the Edinburgh Fringe where there probably wasn’t a Scottish person in the room.  Thinking about it, I can’t recall encountering many, if any, Scots during my four days in Edinburgh.
  • I don’t understand the purpose of the giant wheel at Princes Street Gardens.  I understand – and hope – that it’s only there during the festival, but it detracts so much from the grandeur of the place.

Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Days three & four

No two days in Edinburgh are the same.  Sure, they are all made up of twenty-four hours, and each day will typically present the same challenges of navigating the beautiful, frustrating cobbled streets, but otherwise no two days are the same.  On Tuesday, buoyed by a pair of bright blue sky days, I took the decision to venture out into the Fringe coatless – as I had done since arriving in the city.  I almost immediately regretted my decision upon stepping out of the Staysafe hostel onto Blackfriars Street and feeling the familiar chill of a grey Edinburgh morning.  It wasn’t too late to retreat and seek the insurance of a coat, but I had committed to my decision and didn’t want to add another five minutes to my wait for breakfast.  The afternoon rainstorm at George Square would easily render this amongst the most foolish decisions made by me at the 2016 Fringe.

The previous frontrunner in that category was, of course, the election to see Monkey Poet at Banshee Labyrinth and it was with no lack of trepidation that I returned to Scotland’s Most Haunted Pub for my first show that afternoon.  A Deuchars IPA goes a long way to easing most fears, however, and it took mere minutes of Peter Brush’s set to banish them completely.  He has a very disarming self-deprecating style which is quite clearly modelled on Woody Allen, as he later confirms when he talks about being inspired by Woody’s early standup, screenwriting, directing, acting and prose writing…everything but his sex life, basically.  His material focusses a lot on the dreams of youth – both literally and figuratively – and relies heavily on wordplay and the audience doing a bit of work to reach the punchline in their mind.  It was my favourite free show of the Fringe.

Proving that no two days at the Fringe are the same – or that it is easier to find your way around the city when sober as opposed to heavily drunk – I had no difficulty locating Bristo Square as I moved to spend the bulk of my third day at another of the festival’s largest collection of venues:  Gilded Balloon and Assembly George Square.  Here at the Gilded Garden I enjoyed a couple of Festival Ales prior to taking a chance on a show which I had been leafleted on yesterday – Notflix, an improvised musical based on audience suggestions of films they have recently watched.  This was a fun hour with a talented cast – one of whom had featured in yesterday’s Impromptu Shakespeare – though again, as happens with an hour long improv, the story began to fall apart the longer it went on,

The heavy late afternoon rain led to me seeking refuge under a canopy with a Deuchars IPA at Assembly George Square as I awaited three shows at the studios.  Thrones!  The Musical Parody was sold out and hugely entertaining, though as a lapsed fan of the hit fantasy show I dare say much of it was lost on me.  Sarah Kendall, on the other hand, provided an hour of immersive and hilarious storytelling as she recounted telling her therapist – who was growing tired of her frequent lies and attempts at using him for material – of the time at school where her desperation to be noticed and liked led to her inventing a story in which she was the victim of an attempted abduction.  The story quickly spiralled out of control with the school headmaster and the police becoming involved, but she shouldn’t backtrack because she had become the centre of attention at school.  The “punchline” to the story – which I had been dreading after being selected by her at the beginning of the show to read aloud a Google search result – was provocative and quite gut wrenching. From the front row you could see the emotion welling in her eyes.  This was easily a Fringe highlight.

Mary Lynn Rajskub offered a different style of comedy, though equally as personal, in her show which detailed 24 hours in which the former ‘24’ star had a troubling experience at a show in Peoria, Illinois, considered cheating on her husband with a yoga teacher, bought a miniature horse, saw her young son rushed to A&E and ended up finding a new level of intimacy with her husband.  The set didn’t flow quite as smoothly as all that, but the content was enough to hold the audience, and as a fan of ‘24’ it was a treat to have ‘Chloe O’Brien’ before me questioning whether it is cheating if only the tip goes on.

With the Pleasance Dome closeby and so not even nearly as awkward to locate as on Sunday night I chose to end the night with one of my favourite experiences from the 2015 Fringe, where I watched Colt Cabana and Brendan Burns do commentary and comedy on bad wrestling matches.  At the Blue Moon bar prior to the show I did my own bad comedy having remembered from my first visit there that the barmaid would likely ask me if I would like a slice of orange in my drink.  I told her that sounded “a-peel-ing.”  It garnered just the right amount of sympathy laugh.  Upstairs Daniel Sloss joined Cabana and Burns on stage for an hour of bad wrestling.  I can’t think of anything better to do when super drunk on a Tuesday night in Edinburgh than watch bad wrestling matches.  These were suitably terrible, and the hosts suitably funny to make it all enjoyable.  I wasn’t even worried about the fact I hadn’t brought a coat anymore.

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Inside Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 24th August 2016
But of course, no two days in Edinburgh are the same, and when I decided that I would play the mid-safe option of adding a second layer to my attire on Wednesday morning – a white t-shirt beneath my shirt, rather than a coat – I walked onto a Royal Mile which was basking in late August sunshine,  I had committed to the additional layer, though, and I would just have to suffer for my foolishness.  Perhaps adopting a more aggressive rehydration strategy would help, I thought, so after breakfast I went directly to The Advocate for a refreshing Innis & Gunn IPA before continuing down onto Blair Street to Cabaret Voltaire for the only five star show on my Fringe schedule.  I should note that over two Fringe’s this was my third time in Cabaret Voltaire and the third time in which almost all of the draught beers were off.  In the busiest month of the year.  At a venue running all day free shows.  It’s the only bar I have witnessed suffer this phenomenon in the city. Ahir Shah, though, was superb.  A great dissection of the confused and terrifying world in which we live.  He is smart, articulate and witty and did a fine job of painting the absurdity of the post-Brexit landscape.

After continuing my aggressive rehydration strategy at The Rowantree on the Cowgate, which became one of my favourite Edinburgh bars this Fringe with its relatively modestly priced Williams Bros offerings (£4.50 for a Caesar Augustus is pretty good by Edinburgh standards,) it was a short saunter to the Mash House to see Cakes by Bilal Zafar, which had received a three star review in Monday’s Times – though I mistakenly told the comic that the reason I was there was because I read a four star review from The Times; he assured me it was three stars and I responded that the review was a good read anyway.  He had earlier that day learned that he had been nominated for the Best Newcomer award at this year’s festival and so this was a show of celebration.  His show is a remarkable one in which he recounts the tale of his brother using the #banmuslimbusinesses Twitter trend to make a joke that @zafarcakes – Bilal’s Twitter handle – is a cake shop in Bristol which refuses to serve non Muslim customers.  Not wanting to be upstaged by his brother, Bilal, who at the time was quite clearly a standup comedian, changed his Twitter profile to substitute the picture of him performing on stage for one of a gingerbread man, the location switched from Manchester to Bristol and the bio which once read “comedian” now read “Halal”.  He played along with his brother’s joke.  And then he began receiving abuse from various Twitter accounts which believed @zafarcakes (a Twitter handle which came from the common mispronunciation of the letter ‘z’ as ‘j’) to be a Muslim only cake shop.  He began to purposefully mis-spell his Tweets after the born and bred Londoner was accused of being a refugee; this only added to the ire.  One lady suggested he was on benefits (despite believing him to be the owner of a business selling cakes only to Muslims) and so he responded that he had saved up all his benefits to start a business. Another man was seemingly angry that, as a white man, he was banned from a bakery in which he didn’t want to eat anyway.  Others weren’t happy that he presumably didn’t use bacon.  In his cakes.  It was patently absurd.  The EDL became involved and some of these Twitter users were increasingly frustrated that they couldn’t locate this Muslim only cake shop in Bristol, not thinking for a moment that they couldn’t find it because it simply didn’t exist.  The punchline came when one of Bilal’s primary antagonists was revealed to be a season ticket holder at Manchester City – a football club owned by one of the richest Muslim businessmen in the world, if not the richest.  Cakes was definitely worth the four stars The Times didn’t give it.

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The scene from The Mound, Edinburgh.  Remarkably someone looked out at this view over the city and thought:  “It’s spectacular!  It’s splendid!  But what it really  needs is a GIANT FUCKING WHEEL!!”
A couple of rehydration pit stops at Brewdog and The Advocate followed prior to the Absolute Improv! show on Niddry Street, which was alright but merely a starter for my main course – not only of the day but the entire Fringe.  I’ve seen David O’Doherty every year that I’ve been coming to Edinburgh, and this year he had been promoted to the festival’s largest venue at Assembly Hall on The Mound.  His Casio keyboard act follows the same formula every year, and every year it is charming and delightful.  His jokes always feel off the cuff and irreverent.  You know that if you’re ending your Fringe experience with David O’Doherty you’re ending it on a high note.  Edinburgh may change from day-to-day, but year-on-year this is a supremely fun show.

Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Day two

Good improvisation is tricky to find at the Fringe; both in terms of improv comedy shows and the ability to improvise a change in your schedule.  When you are walking the streets of the city through the day, being handed leaflets by a relentless barrage of performers offering “free comedy at six” or a “five star show,” it is natural that at some point you are going to find yourself seduced.  Who wouldn’t be tempted by a glossy leaflet offering laughs and fun on minimal information?  It’s basically how Brexit won.

My desire for improvised comedy at this year’s Fringe led me to make such a schedule change yesterday.  My day was already planned to start with an improvised performance of a play in the style of Shakespeare – Impromptu Shakespeare at Just the Tonic.  Their set-up was an inventive twist on the typical routine of asking the audience for suggestions:  everyone on arrival was asked to pick from a bowl a couple of plastic orange balls, with each ball having a word or two written on them.  Mine had “with child” and “a gift”.  The audience was then asked to throw their balls towards the stage, aiming for the wide open trousers of the large actor.  Six balls were then withdrawn from the comically-sized trousers and they would set the scene for the Shakespearean play.  That was about as much fun as this show became, however, and the actual performance teetered from mediocre to boring, with not much in the way of laughs between.  Which was a shame, because the premise is good.

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The improvised schedule change came somewhere between seeing an excellently re-enacted performance of Woody Allen’s 1960s standup routine at Frankenstein and eating a slice of haggis pizza at Hunter Square.  I was handed a leaflet for a show by UCLA Edinburgh offering improvised comedy in the form of a court case.  The show was at six o’clock, when unfortunately I already had another free show in mind to check out at Banshee Labyrinth.  However, I was already on my way to the aforementioned bar – which styles itself as “Scotland’s most haunted pub” and is a festival favourite of mine – and there were still a couple of hours until either show started; it wouldn’t be a great imposition to alter my schedule.  So I continued along to Banshee Labyrinth and it is indeed an eerie place — I could swear that I witnessed dozens of spirits around the bar.  There was a show titled “Monkey Poet with Roger Cumsnatch” about to begin and I decided to substitute that for my other show at this venue, enabling me to go along to the UCLA performance.  Here a bearded, apparently homeless, northern Englishman performed as what he described as the outrageously foul character “Monkey Poet” – he wasn’t outrageous, or even close to it – followed by his upper-class snob character “Roger Cumsnatch” who would read poems about his dislike of the poor and ethnic minorities.  It was terrible, and not even offensive – which made it worse.  The idea was supposed to be, I think, that Monkey Poet was some loveable working class comedian who wasn’t getting a break because guys like Roger Cumsnatch are wealthy and educated and so get all the work.  The comedian seemed to have a particular dislike for Jack Whitehall, who I’m guessing is the Roger Cumsnatch to his Monkey Poet.  But Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle and Kevin Bridges aren’t Roger Cumsnatch and they do just fine.  Difference being that they are good at what they do:  this guy isn’t.  He’s just angry.

My improvised change hadn’t paid off so far, but sometimes you have to make bold decisions and see where they take you.  Besides, I was getting another improv comedy show to meet my desire.  “The People Versus…” asked the audience to write on two separate pieces of paper the name of a defendant in a court case and the name of the trial. I scrawled Eddie Fasthands Jnr in the case of “The man who fired the one o’clock gun too early.”  I really hoped it would be pulled from the jar, but instead we got The Pope in the case of “The church which was robbed.”  Not hugely original, but I suppose these guys can only work with what the audience gives them.  The performance was largely enjoyable and there were a couple of talented improvisers in the group of five; although like most improvised shows have the risk of doing it began to fall apart a bit towards the end.

My second night at the Fringe concluded with a return to Pleasance Courtyard, which as always was buzzing with activity.  I found myself sitting in the front row for Tom Ward:  Sex, Snails & Cassettes, and fortunately I was drunk enough to become involved when called upon.  This was a fun, energetic show which had plenty of nostalgia and laughs.  It was a fine way to end a day which had become largely improvised – for better or worse, proving that good improvisation is difficult to get right at the Fringe.

 

Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Day one

The scene on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh during the Fringe; Sunday 21st August 2016

There was a pleasant contrast in transporting from the west coast to the east on Sunday afternoon.  As I was leaving Oban the clouds were grey and grumpy, the rain was falling and I was sober; by the time I arrived at Edinburgh Waverley nigh upon five hours later the clouds were white against a warm blue sky and I was mildly inebriated.  This is my favourite weekend of the year, albeit this year it is going to spill into midweek.

I adore the Edinburgh Fringe.  The manic mayhem of absurd street performers on every turn, the thousands and thousands of shows from international stars to free acts in the dark basement of a bar halfway down one of the Old Town’s many steep cobbled hills.  The pop-up bars and pop-up pizza trucks and street food of all stars and stripes.  It is mesmerising and breathless.

Having checked into my hostel on Blackfriars Street I made my way through the throngs of people snaking slowly along the Royal Mile in every direction, dodging between face painted street performers, acoustic musicians and fliers to Brewdog for a pint of hipster craft beer and an opportunity to construct a plan for the night ahead.  I realised upon walking down the exceptionally steep Fishmarket Close that, certainly when drunk, it is much easier going up those cobbled streets than it is walking down them.  My footsteps were loud and a whole lot faster than anticipated, and fortunately the whole thing didn’t end in farce.

Wings on Fishmarket Close is very much a restaurant which does what it says on the sign. If you enjoy chicken wings this is the place to go.  They only had outdoor seating available on this occasion, so I was able to enjoy a pint of Black Isle Blonde whilst watching a series of tourists attempt to negotiate the tricky cobbles.  I felt an amount of empathy with their ordeal.  The menu in wings consists of various different offerings of sauce and spiciness – which are rated 1-5, with five being the hottest.  There are dozens of options.  I ordered three portions, with each portion having around six chicken wings, which I feel is enough for any man.  The “slow burner” is always my favourite.  It is one of two 5’s on the menu, and always tastes better at the time than it feels the next day.

I had two shows booked on Sunday night.  The first of which was Darren Walsh:  S’Pun at Pleasance Courtyard, which is one of the busiest hives of the Fringe with many bars and venues.  On my first day at the Fringe in 2015, whilst standing outside at this very venue, I was approached by Darren Walsh as he was handing out fliers for his own performance.  He handed me one and asked me to give him any word and he would make a series of puns based on that word.  Looking around I could only feel inclined to remark on the cobbles, at which he “cobbled together” a few puns which were impressive enough for me to vow that I would go and see his show.  I never did — and Darren Walsh ended up winning last year’s award for the best joke of the Fringe.

So I was intent on making amends this year and ensured that his was the first show I saw. As much as I adore puns – and anyone who has ever spent any length of time in my company will know this – an hour of them is pretty difficult to endure, particularly when only around 30-40% of them are funny.  There were some neat visual aides in this show, though the game show aspect of it was a little overdone and wasn’t worth the pay off it was building to.  I left with a sense of what it must be like for others to be in my company, where every sentence and every word has the potential to be a pun.

If there is one thing I excel at in Edinburgh it is getting lost.  I booked to see Chris Gethard: Career Suicide at the Pleasance Dome in the mistaken belief that the Dome was mere yards up the hill from the Courtyard.  It isn’t.  I followed the instructions of Google Maps as best I could to get to the Dome in the small half an hour window I had between shows.  These things are rarely straightforward for me as I have a terrible understanding of directions, especially in Edinburgh – and seemingly with this venue in particular, because I recall Bristo Square being a real ordeal to locate a couple of years ago.  But I found my way to the Dome with around nine minutes to spare – enough time for me to go to the Blue Moon stall and ask the barmaid if she serves Blue Moon, because I have been thirsting for that particular pint.  She said I was in luck because they do serve that beer.  It was stupid, but it got a laugh and that’s all that mattered.  Apparently Blue Moon is enhanced by the addition of orange peel, which she placed pecariously over the edge of my plastic tumbler.  It’s difficult to tell whether it really did enhance the taste, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Chris Gethard’s show is literally about suicide.  It’s a tough hour, and laughs are hard to come by with such a serious subject, but it is bold and it is heartfelt.  His personal experience is numbing as he talks about therapy and anti-psychosis medication and the moment he first told his mother that he was having suicidal thoughts.  The jokes tend to come with the side effects of his medication and his reliance on The Smiths to see him through tough times in his life.  There is, apparently, an interesting contrast between American and British audiences whereby they tend to find the story of his realisation that he is an alcoholic and his seeking help for it uplifting and applause worthy, whilst we barely flinched.  We also seem to regard Morrissey as “a bit of a cunt.”  If you have ever listened to and enjoyed Gethard’s podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People, as I do, then this show makes a lot more sense.  I never thought that I would leave my first night at the Fringe enjoying and hour of suicide and depression more than an hour of relentless puns, but that is what happened here.

Notes about Edinburgh

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  • I must have walked up and down this street, and countless others like it, dozens of times over the weekend.  It would explain why my calves are squealing in agony today.
  • As Marcus Brigstocke observed, Edinburgh is a city where you can set out to go somewhere and walk uphill, and on the way back to where you came from you somehow still find yourself walking up a hill!
  • Log fired haggis pizza.  That is all.  Once I discovered the existence of this it was pretty much all I ate.
  • I feel like I’m saying this an awful lot lately, but going to the Fringe alone made me really crave the company of another person.  I mean, I kinda like the freedom of doing things by myself, but I can’t help but think that there were so many great things I might have missed because I didn’t have the input of someone else.
  • David O’Doherty’s song about how Lance Armstrong ruined his life between 1999 & 2005 was probably my highlight of the weekend.
  • Starting drinking at 11.30 on a Sunday morning was both a novelty and a bad idea.
  • From my strictly non-scientific research, I would gauge that the majority of festival-goers are not Scottish.
  • Probably the best thing about the Fringe is accidentally discovering something great, especially when the act looks completely bonkers.  In The Banshee Labyrinth on Saturday evening I saw “Rythmn Method”, which was a group of comedic musical poets comprising of The AntiPoet and Mark Niel – with the latter apparently being the official Poet Laureate of Milton Keynes.  They turned out to be very enjoyable Saturday evening entertainment, despite their appearance.
  • Avenue Q was well worth the wait.
  • Having thought about it, I now think that Edinburgh is less like Lord of the Rings and more Game of Thrones.
  • I can’t believe I’m almost 30 and had never done a weekend at the Edinburgh Festival until now.  I’m already looking forward to next year.