Edinburgh Fringe 2023: #FillYerBoots
Birthmarked, starring Brook Tate. Photo credit: Paul Blakemore.
Well, it was different this year. The ‘100 second challenge’ hadn’t rematerialized in George Square (participants are invited to hold a firm grip on a handlebar for 100 seconds – their feet are not touching the ground for this time – and should they succeed, £100 is given to them). Some shows had returned to the Fringe, which were either the same or modified versions of the same show – I squeezed a couple of those in at the end of my stay in Edinburgh, but my focus (as ever, I suppose) was on seeing shows I hadn’t seen before.
This doesn’t mean I won’t see comedians I’ve seen before: Simon Evans might be a surprising repeat to-go for some, given his output on GB News (which I’ve never watched, so can’t comment on), and I somehow managed to convince, through no deliberate effort on my part other than saying what I was going to see that evening, another critic to join me for Ed Byrne’s Fringe show. They were quite fed up with shows about dead fathers, having seen quite a few, and didn’t want to see another one. They didn’t: Byrne’s show was about his dead brother.
Ed Byrne: Tragedy Plus Time, at Assembly Rooms
Rhys Nicholson, an Australian comedian, wasn’t at this year’s Fringe, the only performer I’ve seen at each of the previous four Fringes I’ve been to, and neither was Jake Lambert, whose comedy shows I’ve enjoyed for some time – there are quite a few short videos on his Instagram if anyone wants to have a peek. This does, of course, leave space to check out who else is Fringing, and I loved Melbourne-based Michelle Brasier’s show about her experiences with an online scammer. Elliot Steel’s show, Love and Hate Speech, had some previous punters pass out after a particularly graphic story about an injury down below which required surgery down below. It’s not a show that would (I don’t think) ever be broadcast but that’s the thing about the Fringe – the comedy simply is better than the comedy on telly.
“Are you interested in Shakespeare?” a flyerer asked me as I was sat in the courtyard at Surgeons Hall. Well, I am, but with 3,000+ productions to choose from at the Fringe, I’m not inclined to bother with, to take one of many examples, Hello, The Hell: Othello – Othello and Iago can go ahead and live “an endless, repetitive life in Hell” if that’s what apparently happens after Shakespeare’s play ends, but frankly there are more appealing shows than that. Perhaps I’m turning into the kind of purist that I often rail against in my reviews, but I doubt that’s going to be any better than watching a Bard play in the first place.
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is still not something I am keen on seeing (‘standard’ seats are from £35, and presumably to get a half-decent view I’d have to fork out at least double that). However much I try to plan in advance, there are always last minute changes, and there were four shows that cancelled on me, and I used the extra time to catch up on reviews. I refused an flyerer who tried to invite me to The Arsehole – it transpired they were actually whipping up support for The Ice Hole: A Cardboard Comedy. Diction, diction, diction!
For all the good work publicists do (my own planning this year started as early as May, although I am aware of some critics in Scotland who get invites as early as January) it’s always good to be able to squeeze something in on the basis of a personal recommendation. No Love Songs at the Traverse Theatre was as extraordinary as I was led to believe it was. While the producer and the publicist behind Boy Out the City sent me separate invites, I only decided I would try to see it off the back of a recommendation from the actor Fra Fee. I didn’t find out until I googled ‘Declan Bennett’ (the guy who wrote and stars in Boy Out the City) afterwards that Fee is the boyfriend Bennett speaks so fondly of in the show!
This was the first year I stayed in a ‘proper’ hotel at the Fringe – previously I’d stayed in student accommodation, but my preferred options weren’t available when I tried to book for 2023, so I plumped for the Ibis Hotel on South Bridge. The lifts didn’t break down once the whole time I was there, and I couldn’t fault the customer service. I was able to put a sign on the door if I didn’t want housekeeping bothering me if I was bashing out reviews, the temperature controls on the shower worked as temperature controls should, and if I was really losing the plot, I could either watch a bit of telly in my room or pop down to the bar. I learnt the art of bringing a bag downstairs for the breakfast buffet, as it got quite busy sometimes, and there’s nothing like an unlimited breakfast, which was very useful if I was darting about seeing so many shows there was little time to stop to eat again until much later in the day. I loved that place so much I’ve already booked it for 2024.
There were plenty of memorable moments, including the front of house staff member at Pleasance Courtyard who, after I failed to get rid of a very persistent flyerer who wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer, continuing to hold out a flyer for me to take, yelled, “No flyering in the queue line!”, and a man in the audience at the Assembly Rooms who found much humour in other people’s dithering over the unreserved seating arrangements. Some people took so much time deciding that by the time they reached a decision, there were no longer able to be seated all together.
The easiest Fringe operators to work with were Assembly and Summerhall – I don’t usually see a lot in the latter, because it’s a bit of a trek to get to. The Underbelly press office this year were difficult, a marked change from previous years – at one point only sending through an e-ticket (which, in my book, is the point at which a press booking is confirmed) within 24 hours of a performance, by which time I’d said ‘yes’ to one of the many other review requests in my inbox, so couldn’t make it. Assembly had also, once again, put all the media resources – images and press releases, available online, so I wasn’t chasing for bits and pieces for any shows in their venues.
“How many?” is the commonly asked question. I saw sixty-four shows in total in thirteen days, four of which were part of the Edinburgh International Festival. Sixty-two reviews were filed. In 2022, I decided to catch Sunshine on Leith the following year because I noticed how happy the audience filing out of it was (I arrived early at the venue for the show after it), and I’m pleased I did. One of the first shows to ever try to persuade me to see their production, on my first visit to the Fringe in 2017, was Out of the Blue, an a cappella group comprised of University of Oxford students. “We will sing and dance for money,” a rather posh young lad told me. Thinking he already had more money than me anyway, I said I’d think about it, took the flyer, and walked on. Ever since, I’ve heard good things about them, and so it’s firmly on my radar for 2024. Flyerers: take heart! It might be years before someone sees the show you’re promoting.