Field Trip: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Edinburgh's Royal Mile

The Everyman Theatre’s Hayley Greggs braces herself for five days of theatre, comedy and rain (!) at Scotland’s favourite festival…

Being an Edinburgh Fringe anorak, my festival field trip really began in June this year, when I picked up my copy of the free Fringe brochure with its 414 pages of theatre, comedy, music, dance, cabaret, spoken word and so much more. Then I devoured it.

The month-long festival is a honeypot for emerging talent, providing writers, performers and creatives with a springboard to develop their work and career in the arts industry. It’s the largest arts festival in the world, and I have a passion for new theatre and nurturing artists – so, for me, it’s the diary highlight of my year.

“My festival begins with a stroll down the Royal Mile, infamous for its street performances and a hotspot for creatives to promote their show”

I’ve been attending the Fringe since 2010, and over that time, I’ve discovered a few favourite venues whose festival programmes reflect a commitment to cultivating theatre makers and supporting the development of new work. None the less, planning my festival schedule is a tricky and daunting business. As I sit on my four-hour train journey from Liverpool to Edinburgh (highlighter pen suspended in midair) I wonder: ‘How many productions can I squeeze into five days?’, and, ‘Can I realistically make it to my next venue in that short space of time (never forgetting the hilly terrain that is Edinburgh)?’

My festival begins with a stroll down the Royal Mile, infamous for its street performances and a hotspot for creatives to promote their show. I collect A LOT of flyers. I head to the Fringe Shop to buy a couple of tickets from the Box Office. The member of staff behind the desk tells me she’s a theatre student with a couple days off at the end of the week, when she’s going to try and watch as much as she can. We exchange our suggestions of festival highlights and my list of what-to-watch grows a little.

Udderbelly, Bristo Square

As it gets dusky, my evening kicks off with some comedy, where I’m greeted by a familiar face: Joe Ward Munrow, whose debut play Held premiered in the Playhouse Studio in 2012. This August, he’s taken some time away from playwriting, making audiences laugh with his new Stand-Up show Misinformation (also at the Liverpool Comedy festival at the end of this month). I leave the show with a couple of extra laughter lines, and round my evening off with a visit to the Udderbelly, Bristo Square (above). Against its outlandish skyline with its giant, inflatable purple cow, the fireworks and celebrations of the Edinburgh Tattoo can be heard. Audiences are lively and performers are getting into their stride; Edinburgh is buzzing.

“Judging by Chris Thorpe’s jam-packed performance Confirmation, audiences were not disappointed”

The Underbelly, Cowgate has an eccentric aesthetic of twisted staircases and faux turf-lined bars. I notice this year’s headline acts include the winners of the 2014 IdeasTap Underbelly Award. Now in its third year, the award is gaining popularity as an essential element of the Underbelly ethos. As I stand on the cobbled Cowgate entrance, gazing up at the festival timetable, I overhear enthusiastic reviews of a new show from the Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme winners and the graduate company of Northern Stage’s 2013 NORTH Residency.

This year Northern Stage (previously housed at St Stephen’s, Stockbridge) moved to a new home at the other end of the city with a bigger capacity, but still against the backdrop of a beautiful community church. Dedicated to supporting theatre makers across the North, this year’s programme was their most ambitious yet and, judging by Chris Thorpe’s jam-packed performance Confirmation, audiences were not disappointed.

Northern Stage teamed up with former church-turned event space Kings Hall, plus national theatre group Paines Plough, whose Roundabout venue was situated just around the corner at Summerhall. It’s the first time I’ve visited the venue and I am in awe. Featuring work from award-winning playwrights such as Dennis Kelly and Duncan McMillan, it’s an intimate, pop-up amphitheatre in the round and it is cool.

Firstly, I grab a ticket for Gareth Farr’s Bruntwood winning play Britannia Waves The Rules (above), directed by new Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Associate Director, Nick Bagnall. Its run at the Royal Exchange Manchester earlier this year was hugely successful and Edinburgh is by no means the last outing for Farr’s work. On my arrival back to Liverpool, Nick tells me that the show is transferring to New York! I think that’s one of the great things about the Fringe; the potential of a second life for a production elsewhere amongst new audiences.

Valentijn Dhaenens in SmallWar.  Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

Year on year, you find themes and trends emerge amongst the festival’s new writing scene. The Scottish Independence and Cameron’s broken Britain seem to have dominated these past few festivals. In addition this year, the World War One centenary is commemorated. At the Traverse Theatre, Valentijn Dhaenens solo show, SmallWar (above), explores the lasting trauma of war on young soldiers. Using song, video projection and drawing heavily on historical diaries and letters, I find it uncomfortably moving to watch.

“There is room to support all kinds of playwrights at different stages of their professional careers during the Fringe”

New writing is at the heart of the Traverse Theatre and it has a rich history of working with well-known contemporary playwrights, such as David Greig, David Harrower and Rona Munro. Yet, with a large auditorium and smaller Studio space, there is room to support all kinds of playwrights at different stages of their professional careers during the Fringe. Even their Young Writers group have a presence in the festival — not taking to the stage but animating the theatre walls with short scripts and scribbling’s of dialogue. Whether on the foyer walls or the mirror in the ladies loo’s, being surrounded by the words of Scotland’s next generation of playwrights is an exciting feeling.

Dead Centre's Lippy. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

While at the theatre, I was hoping to catch the award winning children’s show HUFF from Shona Reppe and Andy Manley yet, to my disappointment, it was completely sold out. Instead, I settled for the ‘grown-up’ shows, buying tickets for unconventional suicide drama Dead Centre’s Lippy (above) and Owen McCafferty’s exploration of marriage, Unfaithful; two very different plays that managed to be completely compelling and moving in equal measure.

“The rain is pouring, but my spirits have not been dampened (just my not-so-waterproof shoes)”

It’s nearing the end of my festival stay. The rain is pouring, but my spirits have not been dampened (just my not-so-waterproof shoes). I’ve got tickets for a few shows at the famous Pleasance Courtyard, each stage with its individual name (including Pleasance Below, Pleasance Above and Pleasance Beyond). There is such a diverse range of work to choose from. I watch all sorts: from imaginative clowning to joyous children’s shows which filled the theatre with songs and belly laughs (from the adults too!), including Liverpool-based Big Wow’s witty and energetic production The Art of Falling Apart. I’m spoilt for choice.

I’m often plagued with theatre guilt in Edinburgh. There are so many great works to see but so little time to watch everything. However, I did make a trip to the Forest Fringe: a beautiful workspace for performance artists and theatre makers, providing all sorts of development support and encouraging risk, experimentation and imagination.

After approximately 22 hours of watching theatre (with a bit of comedy thrown in for good measure), I leave Edinburgh with a heavy heart. Although sad to leave behind the vibrancy, ambition and celebratory spirit of the festival, I look forward to what the next year holds for its artists and their new work.

Hayley Greggs is Literary Assistant at the Everyman theatre, Liverpool.

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival returns 07-31 August 2015

Get updated on Twitter: @edfringe

Main image: Royal Mile dancers, courtesy Lonely Planet

Posted on 22/09/2014 by thedoublenegative