The ultimate survival guide to the Edinburgh Festivals

As this weekend Edinburgh’s festivals draw to a close, there’s still time to join in the fun

Festival Edinburgh

This weekend Edinburgh’s festivals draw to a close, but there’s still time to join in the fun.

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With over 50,000 performances in a single month, the Edinburgh Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, but add to that the Tattoo, Book, International and Art Festivals and the whole city becomes a stage. From tavern cellars to concert halls, gothic churches and contemporary museums, there’s a venue for every type of performance. What better excuse for a weekend-long pub-crawl?

Here’s Ali Wood’s guide to a weekend of activities during Edinburgh’s festival season…

Friday

8pm: Charlotte Square Gardens, Book Festival

Off the plane and straight into the Book Festival where the chilled folksy vibe of the Speigeltent whips into a maelstrom of sobering poetry. Before you can say ‘Sylvia Plath’ I’m confronted with themes of loss and death. Three exceptional poets, three lives stripped bare. The show’s description? Literary Cabaret!

Tip: Expect the unexpected… and just go with it

Saturday

10am: Royal Mile walking tour

Saturday morning, and it’s the Royal Mile, the beating heart of the Fringe. Jugglers are prepping their batons and buskers tuning their violins. The choirs have started already and the smell of roasted coffee wafts from grand gilded tearooms. Just for fun, I squeeze in a two-hour walking tour through the wynds and closes of medieval Edinburgh, in preparation for a decadent day ahead.

Tip: Take a walking tour to get your bearings. Free 2-hour tours at 144 High Street.

Edinburgh (Getty)
Edinburgh (Getty)

1pm: Chaos of Delight, Fringe

Robin Ince of Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage is first on the list. His job, he explains, is to wait till Brian Cox is turning listeners’ brains to mush, then lure them back with comedy. In other words, he’s ‘a professional idiot.’ And if anyone tells you that’s not a real job, they’re wrong.

The aptly named Chaos of Delight is a breathless, free-dive into everything from his father’s dead mouse to Dali and DNA. Ince flashes from one PowerPoint slide to the next like a toddler let loose with the controls. Each slide surpasses the last, offering a fleeting glimpse of comic genius, whilst Ince, wired and wonderful, is already narrating five slides ahead. No matter how fast he speaks (and believe me, he’s quick) he just can’t catch up with his brain.

3pm: Will Mars, Free Fringe

The Free Fringe encompasses the events you can see without a ticket. Just turn up, listen and throw some money in the bucket. Outside every iconic venue are young promoters delivering Bafta award-winning pitches. Bit of song, bit of dance, a Lady Macbeth suicide… they’ll do anything to catch your attention.

‘You can’t miss this. It’s a masterwork of surrealism!’

‘She really extrapolates the hypocrisy of human nature.’

It’s like Magaluf for grown-ups, only instead of adult games and free shots, you get free comedy and cheap shots (if you’re in the front row).

I take a punt on Will Mars, whose show is in a cloakroom-come-sauna. Dumped by his producer girlfriend for a younger comedian, Smart’s self-effacing, loser brand of comedy has me spilling my pint with laughter. Actually, he’s pretty accomplished (he’s been on TV in America) and hearing about his mid-life crisis is really good fun.

Tip: Leave 2-4 hours in your schedule for impromptu acts that just take your fancy.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Getty)
Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Getty)

5.30pm: Stories from History, Book Festival

I dive back into the 16th century with Victoria Glendinning as she reads from her novel The Butcher’s Daughter. Next it’s Simon Mayo with his first book for adults Mad Blood Stirring. The show is chaired by the adorable Janet Ellis, who hasn’t aged a day since Blue Peter. Afterwards, it’s selfies and signings. I chat with Simon about his Radio 2 Book club favourites, and give Victoria entirely unqualified advice on which of her book covers looks best.

Tip: Meet literary heroes face-to-face, and bring a rucksack for signed hardbacks.

8pm: Midsummer, International Festival

I sprint through puddles to The Hub, a gothic revival church, and get a latecomer seat by the stage. Thank goodness it’s not stand-up.

Like a slice of cheesecake on a rainy day, Midsummer is bursting with sweetness and joy. Helena has a secret – will it stop her finding love? Bob has £15k in a Tesco bag and a gangster hot on his heels. The whole venue becomes a set as the couple sing and dance their way through a comedy of errors, narrated by their charming older selves. Set in Edinburgh with many familiar references, Midsummer is like watching La La Land and Mamma Mia – it’s Prosecco for the soul.

Tip: Highly acclaimed shows sell-out quick. Buy tickets in advance.

11pm: Street theatre, Royal Mile

Still on a high, I stroll along the Royal Mile until my path is blocked by a silent disco flash-mob. Like the musical version of the Walking Dead they slide towards me, one group hollering ‘Bismillah! No we will not let you go’, the other singing ‘let him go’. Then just as I’m about to run away, they burst into laughter and twirl around, shopping bags swinging off their elbows.

It’s almost 11pm and I remember I’ve not eaten. Only Bella Italia is still serving food. 

Tip: Whilst shows go on till 2am many of the restaurants stop serving at 10pm, so don’t forget to eat.

 12pm: Best of the Fest, Fringe

I queue in the rain for the night’s finale, a smorgasbord of Fringe comics. Compere Jarred Christmas does a sterling job of jollying me along – not a single loo-goer is spared. I meet a magic dragon with a performing chihuahua, a psychotic air-traveller, and an eccentric Etonian, who I peg for future shows.

Tip: For a ‘taster’ look for shows with a mixed line-up then book your favourite act the following day.

 Sunday

1.30pm: Jon Culshaw and Bill Dare: The Great British Take Off, Fringe

With shoes still soggy from the night before, I buy an umbrella on Princes Street and head to Edinburgh University Debating Hall to see Jon Culshaw. What a talent! The Dead Ringers star gets every impression spot-on, and he shares an extraordinary tip: to get into character, just put their words to music. Think Trump rapping to ‘Birdhouse in my Soul’ sounds weird? Wait till you hear Blair singing ‘the Wheels on the Bus’ (with actions).

After a blazing start, Culshaw’s show has me on the edge of my seat. However, I gradually slip into the back-rest as the all-male cast of impressions becomes less and less relevant. When he gets to Spitting Image, I’m already thinking about the next show.

Tip: Not all shows are contain new material, but if nostalgic political satire’s what you’re after, this one’s great.

3.10pm: Casus: You and I, Fringe

I queue early and get the front-row for this highly acclaimed performance. As the fledging romance between two male dancers unfolds, tender choreography becomes dazzling derring-do. In gravity-defying madness, and Hulk-like feats of strength, they swing from trapezes and balance on each other’s heads. They climb a pile of chairs balanced two storeys high. ‘No, boys! Get down,’ my maternal instinct screams. I can’t clap. I can’t breathe. The air is tightrope tense… and when they finally leap back down to earth, the audience lets out a collective sigh of relief. Spectacular!

12pm: Various acts, Free Fringe

It’s the witching hour and the promoters are off-duty, meaning the comedians are handing out flyers themselves.

‘It’s fine, I won’t be upset if you don’t come to my show… I’ll be REALLY upset.’

Faces I recognise from billboards and lampposts are hustling for an audience. It’s time to see what they’ve got…

I’m herded into a creaking attic and squashed onto a velvet bench. In traipse four Canadian comedians, one after the other, from behind the twitching curtain. Two are fantastic, two are shattered, and the last looks longingly at the clock. He’s probably remortgaged his house to be here, and three weeks of shaking a bucket is bound to take its toll.

Tip: Late night comedy can be unpredictable, but intimate venues and small audiences make it an unforgettable experience.

Monday

10am: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Art Festival

Just 15 minutes from Princes Street, these huge neoclassical buildings feel a million miles away from the city. I explore vivid works by German impressionist Emil Nolde and contemporary artist Jenny Saville. After huddling in dozens of small spaces, the vast scale of the venues and Saville’s sumptuous larger-than-life nudes are just what I need after a jam-packed weekend.


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For more information on Edinburgh’s festivals see www.edinburghfestivalcity.com