Our first Edinburgh experience

I’d spent weeks poring over the Fringe catalogue (it’s massive, if you haven’t seen it) and the Fringe website, trying to pick out the best performances for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to attend – and, on the whole, I think I did pretty well. 20 shows in 3 days was ambitious, but we succeeded in seeing 19 of them. The elusive 20th was just a bit too late on our first night, considering we’d been up since 5:30am, to get three trains to hit Waverley station by 2pm. I’m satisfied with that hit rate.

We stayed at the Carlton on North Bridge, a hotel that has very fond memories for us, as it was the first place we’d stayed at in Edinburgh when we were but green and callow youths in the mid 1980s. It’s a good choice for the Fringe as it’s really central – no more than about 15 minutes walk from 80% or more of the venues. But boy, do they charge like wounded bulls during Festival time. Our three nights cost over £900 for b&b. Stupid price really, but this morning we walked past the central Ibis hotel and even they had room only rates starting at £219 per night. Edinburgh at Festival time is expensive/elitist/rip-off-city (you choose).

By contrast, the shows themselves are really cheap. Many are free (and then you make a donation on the way out, depending in your level of generosity/ how much you enjoyed it/ how guilty the performer made you feel. Those that aren’t free are rarely more than £12 or so, and, if you pay £25 to become a Friend of the Fringe, many of the shows are available at 2 for the price of one. Our 20 shows cost us roughly £290, including Friends membership, which works out at an average of £7.25 each per show. That’s pretty amazing value.

I’d planned our three days meticulously (as is my wont) so the dozens of flyers we accumulated didn’t influence our choices of what to see at all. However, next time (and there definitely will be a next time) we’ll go for longer (a week?) and keep one day completely unbooked, to be filled with the shows that the flyers (and their enthusiastic flyer-givers) convinced us were worth seeing. I’ve got wads of flyers for shows that all look great, and it’s a source of some frustration that we’re headed back doon sooth on the train (from where I am writing, gentle reader) with those shows unseen (by us). I just hope those lucky patrons who will see them enjoy them.

We’ve been to Edinburgh many times before but were completely unprepared for the Festival Vibe. It’s so different at this time of year. Crowds are thronging, of course, but there’s a youthful exuberance everywhere, as all these hopeful young people, freshly arrived in town, are finally getting the chance to show us what they’ve spent months planning. They want to spread pleasure; they want to communicate their message; I’m sure a few at least will hope for great reviews to further their career prospects. The whole place is riddled with positive energy – and it’s completely wonderful.

Social media gets friendlier too. In the time between booking the shows and taking the post-shows train home, I’ve followed (on twitter, not stalked them back to their digs) many of the performers and companies we’ve seen, and many have started following me. We’ve exchanged loads of good natured banter that could (just *could*) develop into longer lasting online friendships. I have too many really good friendships that started online to underestimate the Power of the Tweet. It’s all a source of Good.

But, when all is said and done, it’s all about the shows, darling. And I have to say, with a couple of minor exceptions, the quality has been of a standard much greater than I would have expected. I’ve done some short, running blogs about the shows we’ve seen and for the most part I’d really have liked to have taken more time to write about each individual show in greater detail – but alas there just hasn’t been the time. But if I think back to the brilliant acting we’ve seen (The Curing Room, Trainspotting, Away From Home, Frank Sent Me), the elegantly crafted writing we’ve enjoyed (First Class, Lace Up), the style and panache of the performers we’ve witnessed (Travesti, Salon Mika, Russell Grant), and the sheer fun of the comedy we’ve shared (Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, Spank, Quint Fontana), then it’s clear that the variety and quality of what we’ve seen has been outstanding. Yes, a couple were under par, and one was downright disgraceful (Best of Burlesque should be prosecuted under the Trades Description Act) – but, really, it’s been a joy.

If there was one thing that hit me most, artistically speaking, it was how the many plays that take no more than an hour or so really validate and keep relevant the concept of the one-act play. You don’t often get to see them on the commercial stage – maybe as part of a double bill, but on their own they’re too short to make an evening out last. At the Edinburgh Fringe they’re the perfect length to fit one of your artistic slots, and they’re very rewarding. First Class, Lace Up and Frank Sent Me all came in at under an hour but were all riveting and engrossing stories. When you write a play that length, there’s no time for irrelevances or padding. Nothing unnecessary is included, nothing is wasted. You have to concentrate, you have to work with the cast to savour the real meat of each text. But what a rewarding activity!

The other thing that surprised us about ourselves was our ability to sit in the front row and get picked on. We didn’t do it hoping to be picked on, far from it – but as a repercussion of sitting in the front row so that you got a good view, it became a matter of unimportance. Dancing with Russell Grant and Mika (from Salon Mika), exchanging badinage with the Spank hosts, reciting poetry with Paul Savage, being called a “silver fox” by Paul Ricketts (is that really what I am?) all became part of the fun and not something to be feared. We learned a lot about ourselves as a result.

I made one or two errors in scheduling, not quite allowing sufficient time to get from one venue to the next, because I didn’t factor in performances over-running, or the extreme slowness of progressing through certain streets crammed with idle dawdlers on a Saturday night. I hadn’t realised how the main centres (Assembly, Pleasance, Udderbelly, etc) had within them a number of individual venues that meant you could basically spend an entire day in the same venue seeing ten or more performances. But I’m wiser now, and I know how to tackle the 2015 with even more ruthless precision – and I might even build in a little time to eat and have an afternoon nap too.

Thanks Edinburgh, it’s been real. And thanks to all those casts, technicians, writers and musicians who made our three days into an Edinburgh Disneyland experience. Even lining up to get into a venue reminds you of queuing to get on a ride. Sheer self-indulgent pleasure. I loved it! I’m not normally one for regrets, but I wish we’d discovered the Edinburgh Fringe earlier!