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Some thoughts on Edinburgh Fringe 2022

I overdid it at the Edinburgh festivals this August, so much so that I was quietly grateful when the Edinburgh International Festival contacted me to say a performance they had kindly booked me in to see was cancelled due to illness – it allowed me more time to catch up on a backlog of three to four days’ worth of reviews of shows I’d seen, all but two as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The other two were part of the EIF: one was pretentious claptrap, one was utterly divine. ‘The Book of Life’, presented by Odile Gakire Katese – but ‘everyone’ calls her Kiki, was about how the people of Rwanda can recover and thrive after the 1994 genocide, and included music from Rwandan drummers.

Kiki, like yours truly, had felt very welcome during her time in Edinburgh: I genuinely do not share the views of those who have said they experienced racism at the festivals. Even when some drunk bloke yelled something indecipherable in my face as I was walking back to my hotel room after a late night Fringe show, I didn’t think, “Ooh, he wouldn’t have shouted at me if I was hypothetically white”. And anyway, if the Fringe is structurally racist, how is it that there are comedians and performers of all races participating in it, including many repeat participants?

The Fringe can be brutal for anyone. This year, numbers were noticeably down: reports are already coming through that box office takings are around a quarter down on 2019, and I didn’t have any trouble finding a seat whenever I had the opportunity to grab a bite to eat when out and about. There were quite a few last-minute requests to review that I didn’t even have time to acknowledge as I was out seeing up to seven shows daily, and as I was out of practice and had agreed to as many shows as time would allow before coming up to Edinburgh, there was little wriggle room to squeeze in others.

I had exchanges of emails with various publicists as early as late April (some reviewers begin dialogue even earlier) with ongoing planning until the Fringe started and a flurry of e-tickets flooded my inbox. I had a waiting list of shows listed on a separate tab of an Edinburgh festivals spreadsheet I’d set up for myself, and in the end didn’t pick any of them because there was only the one cancellation, and as I said, I had such a backlog of reviews to write up I just carried on typing away.

A theatre company from Cornwall got in touch via Twitter to say they were struggling to get reviewers in for their show. It was proof that simply being at Pleasance Courtyard doesn’t guarantee reviews. The problem was that they’d contacted me on 25th August, and by then my mind was already set on getting ready to file the last few reviews and return to London, which I did on 27th August. And then there were some shows I was invited to review that I simply wasn’t interested in.

By contrast, by chance I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a tweet from Saltire Sky Theatre before a day or two before I left London: the Fringe Society had, apparently, not made any press tickets available for their show. I’ve no idea if this was true. The salient point was that no reviewers were booked in, and as their show ‘Bits ‘N’ Pieces’ genuinely appealed, exploring the dangers of drug stigma and misinformation, I replied to ask them to email me and I’d see what I could do.

One publicist wanted to know if I could do any of the shows I’d requested press tickets for any earlier, as it was ‘too late’ in the Fringe to review the said shows when I said I wanted to. Others, however, continued to try to highlight shows that they would have liked me to see, an indication, perhaps of how difficult things were even for big-name PRs. But, you see, I’d been listening to stand-up comedian after stand-up comedian talk about mental wellbeing and self-care, and it would have been quite remiss of me not to pay at least some attention to what they had been saying, and there was no point, having already over-committed myself, to add yet more pressure.

There are things that will stick in the mind for a long time – Jake Lambert’s comedy hour, which I saw on a Saturday evening, had latecomers streaming into the room as late as twenty minutes after the published start time, and watching him deal with them all, bringing them up to speed whilst not losing the attention of the rest of us, was a phenomenal achievement. Angela Barnes pointed out the irony of her doing a speed awareness course on Zoom. NewsRevue 2022 was a laugh, with ‘The Ones Who Still Mask’ to the tune of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and ‘Maybe This Truss’ to the tune of ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret.

Then there was a show that wasn’t even trying to be funny, ‘Divas: From Stage to Screen’, the only show I managed to find time to return to (and only just), banger after banger after banger, with zero commentary, zero chat, zero audience interaction. For a Fringe show, it was very different, and for me, very sublime. Alexander S Bermange worked harder than most when it came to flyering his own show, ‘I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical’ – our paths crossed most days, and however rushed we both were, he always took the time to thank me for tweeting about his show, including it in a ‘shows to see’ post on LondonTheatre1, and later during my time at the Fringe, another five-star review of that show.

A couple of lessons learned – seven shows a day for days on end is impressive in some ways but in others is quite stupid. For next year I’m thinking of putting in a ‘Middle Sunday’, loosely based on what the Wimbledon Championships used to do, having no matches halfway through the tournament. For me, it would constitute a day of no shows to clear the review backlog and just have a rest. I also enjoyed having a cooked breakfast every morning (something I didn’t have in previous years, where I stayed in student accommodation – halls of residence are rented out during festival season) so I’m sticking with that for next year. KM Central, named for Kenneth McKenzie (there was nothing about him at the hotel’s reception or in the info pack I was given), was indeed central, but I’ve found a (marginally) cheaper option for next year – the Ibis Hotel on South Bridge.

Travelling to and from was interesting – this year, I’d bought myself a larger suitcase and just threw everything into that with no need to worry about space. With rail strikes continuing, there was a chance I wouldn’t make it, and I seriously contemplated forking out to get a taxi all the way – a bit of Googling led me to believe it could be done for far less than a grand. On the journey up the train developed a brake fault which meant we were ‘de-trained’ (that is, told to leave) at Finsbury Park, and board a subsequent service – certain trains were making additional stops at Finsbury Park to pick us up. But it was standing room only, until a fellow passenger went out of his way to make sure I got a seat that became available at Northallerton, in North Yorkshire. I already have my refund, in full. The journey back was far smoother, and I even managed to book an Addison Lee to my front door (their service usually claims to be ‘fully booked in your area’). As for sleeping for a week after the fortnight I’ve just had, I don’t need to: I’m already recharged.

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