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August 2016

Fun at the Fringe; a long weekend in Edinburgh

Admire the views from atop ‘Arthur’s Seat’; play with medieval weaponry at the castle; scale the treacherous heights of the Scot memorial; these are all the things I intended to achieve on my first trip to Edinburgh.

Instead, I spent five days hidden from the sunlight (please allow my poetic license, after all, this is Scotland!) in dank, underground venues, begging people to entertain me. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!

The streets are crowded by up-and-comers desperate to pass on their flyers (and as much information as they can convey in seconds), along with pop-up venues, street performers and fairy lights. There’s a fine line to be drawn between someone who has taken full advantage of the ‘drink until 5am’ Fringe-specific licensing laws, or an avant-garde performance artist. Anything goes and everything is constantly buzzing.

Edinburgh itself strikes budding photographers with its somewhat labyrinthine, multi-levelled streets; each lined with unanimously ‘ye olde’ buildings and bearing quaintly amusing names from yesteryear. But beyond these thick grey walls lie hundreds upon hundreds of Fringe theatre venues; from a pub, crammed full of garden chairs, to a pungent nightclub corridor, if you can fit more than ten people, you can put on a show.

Owing to my (not always voluntary) frugal lifestyle, I relished the abundance and variety of free fringe performances on offer. As expected, they request donations at the end, but they lack all pressures of forced enjoyment. Sometimes this, unfortunately, leads to an unenthusiastic audience and a comedian perturbed by their lack of response; but, other times, gems can be uncovered in the most unlikely of places.

Surviving, by and large, on word of mouth (unless you nab a copy of the ‘PBH Free Fringe’ programme) here’s a rundown of my free theatrical spoils:

‘The Simpsons taught me everything I know’: ideal for shamelessly fan-girl-ing the iconic show. Yianni Agisilaou teams flawless impressions, with crowd-pleasing quotes and unexpected trivia. Perhaps comedy is less daunting when you know the exact sense of humour your audience is seeking; and we lapped it up!

‘Jollyboat’: pun-tastic comedy musicians. Somewhat inexplicably dressed as pirates, this duo take pleasure in all things nerdy, through song! I can see the Pokemon and GOT numbers flying off the shelves; whilst The Bible, retold through rap, will be scaling straight to the top of the charts!

‘Mothers’: a Cambridge sketch comedy trio, these guys strike a balance between developing their own ‘Inbetweeners’-esque characters and some totally surreal sketch moments. Also relishing in several musical moments, the highlight was a poignant rap: ‘Living at Home’. This hit home which much of the twenty-something audience; observational comedy meets ridiculous, flamboyant flair.

‘Trevor Lock’: bizarrely enough, this hour-long stand up set contained not a single joke, or even attempt at conventional comedy. Purely based on deadpan delivery, brazening out some of the most mundane material, to the surprise and delight of the waiting crowd. Turns out, observational comedy can please the whole audience, when the only observations are set within that very room.

‘Viking Longboat’: shout out random words, throw your ideas into a hat and watch this improv troupe enact your brainchild, in desperate pursuit of a logical storyline. Silly, unexpected and certainly diverse!

‘Brickhead’: this mime comedian’s flyer showed such great promise, but in reality, his show was marred by the pumping salsa sounds from the club downstairs; that and the fact he relied on a single, unfunny movement sequence. We left before giving him the chance to get any better, so, by all means, try it for yourself- if you dare!

‘Positions’: I caught the first performance of this witty two-man play, so they were understandably a little jittery. The tale of a young couple, separated by oceans and language barriers, but together through Skype and choreographed movement sequences. Unfortunately, they too were intruded upon by the sound of an adjacent gig; but try not to let that put you off!

‘Free Footlights’: a mixed bag of student stand ups and sketch snippets. Around eight acts, for the price of one (well, free actually!), with a comedy compere, who often stole the show in between. As expected, some acts were distinctly better than others, across the two days that I frequented the showcase. Personal highlights included a sensationalised and eloquently written tale of “Broken Britain” from Adrian Gray, and some notably silly observations from Rob Oldham.

‘Made to Measure’: my first taste of performative Spoken Word. I braced myself for a preaching poet, with a brick wall back drop, but was gloriously surprised by this comedic duo. They followed a flowing narrative, with observational witticisms and effortless poetry, bringing multiple levels of meaning and emotion to a basic ‘journey to work’ tale. I was sold.

As one might expect from the second largest global gathering, after the Olympics (n.b. Just according to my friend, and unverified), the festival probably wouldn’t enjoy such long term success without a small fee charged by most of the shows. Picking and choosing from the thousands of shows on offer can be mind-numbingly tough, but, the odd sell out certainly makes some decisions for you!

Drawn mostly by recommendations, knowing the cast members, or simply following the crowd, these lucky shows comprise my latest bank statement:

‘Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Gameshows’: a weird combination of political satire and glitzy drag cabaret. A big budget slice was clearly spent on glitter and, although there was a little too much audience participation for my liking, they nailed everyone’s favourite gameshow tropes. Not exactly ‘laugh out loud’, but, certainly cleverness compounded with impeccable impressions.

‘The Leeds Tealights: Tension’: another student sketch group, combining everything from Spanish sitcoms to the ubiquitous Brexit joke (this one particularly outdid many other Fringe attempts I reckon), via stupid outfits and prop comedy. A mental mixture of ‘what should I expect next?’

‘Boys’ by Aireborne Theatre: remember ‘Skins’? Well this is ‘Skins’, but with people who can actually act! Running at just under an hour in total, the piece necessitates exhaustingly high energy and highly-strung emotions from the six-strong cast. They all perform effortlessly and convincingly (which is no mean feat, considering the amount of “alcohol” and “narcotics” the script demands!)

‘Goodbear’: the best way to describe these two former Leeds Tealights is ‘silly’. Their incredibly accomplished sketch show runs fluidly, through their acute control of physical comedy and a seamless soundtrack. The characters presented are as varied as they are wacky, each one adding another layer to the lads’ performative repertoires. It’s a sell-out for a reason!

And finally, if you want to escape the smelly student riff raff, the Edinburgh International Festival runs concurrently to the Fringe. Staged in the “real” theatres, I had a delightful sojourn back into truly accomplished theatre, thanks to having a man on the inside (“yes I will take those free tickets off of your hands.”)

‘Shake’: This retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, almost entirely in French, regained the abundant sense of fun and comedy so often lost in studying the Bard. Sir Toby and the Fool compered the whole event, with musical interludes and even ventriloquism. The whole piece was strung together with multi-roling and on-stage costume changes, not only highlighting the underlying tropes of this cross-dressing tale, but also harking back to the fun and frivolous origins, as well as providing a sense of surprise at the end, which has been lost from the plot across four hundred years of repetition! That is not to undermine the honesty of emotion shown in scenes between the lovers; but this production certainly didn’t need to dwell on the soppy stuff! (As is probably apparent, this show was a highlight for me and my ongoing Renaissance literary love affair.)

Edinburgh has all the offerings of a huge city, in a compact, ‘carry on bag’ fashion. Thus, if you’re lucky enough to have a plethora of theatrical, ‘Fringe-enthusiast’ friends, be they performers or lowly audience members, you’re bound to bump into them time and again,  amongst the hoards of tourists. Thus, this trip was dedicated solely to long-overdue catch-ups and the unending search for new talent. The sightseeing can wait until next year!

London Life: Holidaying at Home

Not far from the suburban bliss of drinking red wine by my garden fireplace, an abundance of surprises line the London streets. It seems a crying shame that I so often skim over many of these wonders, until provoked to explore by a visiting friend demanding a tour guide. It took but a single afternoon to refresh my vision and rekindle my love affair with London Town. Turns out one’s travel bug can sometimes (very occasionally) be satisfied close to home.

It is universally recorded that the minute we Brits sample even a slither of sunshine, the shorts are on and everyone hits the streets. This first became apparent as our path was repeatedly interrupted by an inexplicably huge number of cyclists. Apparently there was some sort of city-wide celebration, all in the name of person-powered vehicles. However many wheels you had, whether you were reclining, upright, or backflipping on a BMX, PrudentialRideLondon was a bizarre people-watching moment (and one that almost convinced me to join in!)

First popping our heads in at St Paul’s Cathedral, we accidentally found ourselves ruining some glorious wedding photos and made a run for it; a picturesque run in fact, across the Millennium bridge, that leads directly into the Tate Modern.

Unbeknownst to me, the gallery had undergone an overhaul. It was a major struggle to find my way to my favourite, dimly-lit, womb-like comfort of the Mark Rothko room. However, this exploration lead not only past numerous iconic artworks, but also to the newly instated tenth floor viewing platform. A stone’s throw from St Paul’s, the Shard and all manner of other weird and wonderfully shaped skyscrapers, the Tate offers a new viewpoint of a view that never gets old.

Continuing along the sunny Southbank, we veered off into Gabriel’s Wharf for some lunch and respite. This cove of shops and restaurants is a trendy, arty haven from the bustling city streets. Whilst still bustling (after all, we were still in the capital on a weekend!) the wharf offers a distinctly different vibe to the streets of London proper. Most notably, it offered me a beer, in a square, under an awning: my very definition of a holiday.

The only thing that could have enhanced that holiday feeling was the very thing that happened next! Mere metres from our quaint lunch spot lay an inexplicable and overexcitable street festival, dedicated to all things Colombian. We sipped Aguila, absorbed the now comforting smells of arepas, empanadas and everything deep-fried and even browsed a market of souvenirs we both already owned from our time as honorary Latinos. The small ‘Colombiamente’ stage housed a lively cumbia band and even the Barranquilla Carnaval Queen herself! Despite being hosted in a distinctly smaller setting than she may be accustomed to, la Reina tried her very best to whip the crowd into a frenzy; luckily for her, a bunch of beyond-tipsy Latinos didn’t take a whole lot of convincing!

On the verge of impulsively booking flights back to our favourite continent, we thought we ought to escape. Little did we expect that, once again, a few steps further along the Southbank lay yet more summer fun! The National Theatre, renowned internationally for being the erudite home of British theatre, was the last place I would have anticipated to find an outdoor stage hosting a camp, drag queen extravaganza!

‘The River Stage’ at the National is staging a different takeover each weekend of summer, and we were lucky enough to stumble into the set from ‘The Glory’, a Haggerston-based cabaret club. Not normally being one who particularly enjoys drag acts, this array of drag queens (and kings!) joined together to surprise and delight me, with a celebration of all things camp and karaoke. The audience were just as flamboyantly attired and giddy as those on stage, making it clear that not everyone had arrived here by accident!

Once the tiaras had been awarded, the show came to a close and we resumed normal touristing. This lasted all of one minute (“Look, there’s the London Eye”) before we were once again engulfed by a foreign and unexpected land: ‘The Wonderground’, to be precise. Apparently, each year the Southbank Centre hosts a circus spectacle, housed in a popup fairyland, not dissimilar to the Wild West; who knew?! The foodie smells, craft beers and twinkly set design transport you far from the Southbank; that is until you notice the looming glow of the London Eye overhead.

Back across the river, dancing to buskers and the chimes of Big Ben, brings you within walking distance of the glorious Porterhouse pub, in Covent Garden. (This was the first actually intentional station of my tour!) Hosting a hundred-odd international beers and a live gig three nights a week, this pub perfectly balances the vibes of ‘glamourous’ and ‘dingy’ and is one of my top spots in town. A little reminder that I was still on home turf.

The following morning saw us brave the crowded streets of Camden (apparently closing the Northern Line did nothing to deter the tourists!) for some fish and chips at a market stall and a lounge on the beach. Whilst this sounds distinctly more like a day trip to Brighton, what we saved on train fares, we spent at the bar on the rooftop terrace at the Roundhouse. Home to the annually beloved ‘Camden Beach’, one can drift off in the sand, to a land of laughter, Ibiza-beats and free Coca Cola; all under the watchful eye of the looming adjacent office blocks, so topless sunbathing is unadvisable!

This weekend reminded a self-confessed travel-junkie of the fun to be had on her doorstep (or, at least, within the reach of her Oyster card!) If you choose to sample some (or all) of the locally brewed and/or Colombian beers on offer, then an outing such as this ceases to be a cheap day out. However, each of the outlandish activities themselves were entirely free and gloriously unexpected. Had I come across any one of these events whilst travelling I would have been sure to gush about them in a blog post; thus I thought it only fair to give my home town a shout out of its own.

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