Edinburgh Fringe 2021 – as it happens

Sunday 8th August, 9.00p.m:

And that’s me on the train home. Sorry about the disorganised nature of this visit – circumstances prevented me from doing any sort of proper preparation. I intend to be back in weekend 3, when I will hopefully be better prepared.

Anyway, today I attended the press launch of The Space. For those of you unfamiliar with week zero of a normal Edinburgh Fringe, unlike smaller fringes which have a press launch (or general launch) for the whole fringe, in Edinburgh most of the major venues do their own fringe. This year, the only venue that I know for certain to do this is The Space, which surprises me and one would think at least some of the Big Four would have done something. There again, The Space did their own launch for their own programme at this year’s Brighton Fringe, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they were the keenest.

Unlike my colleague Richard Stamp (currently delegated to Robert Peacock), I won’t be comprehensively listing all of the acts, but there are two that particularly caught my attention. Shook from Twisted Corners productions look interesting, simply because this is the most recent winner of the Papatango Prize. A play about three juvenile delinquents about to become dads, this was set in London but has been transplanted to Scotland. Big coup for a group of that size to get performing rights to such a high-profile play so quickly. I also like the sound of Cambridge Musical Theatre Society’s On Your Bike about a recent addition to the streets: the pedal-cycle takeaway delivery. The excerpt we get, however, is from a date somewhere in the story with the repeated “When comes the bit where it all goes wrong?”

As for The Space itself, I think this venue is at a crossroads. The Space pushed online theatre harder than any other for its online platform, and at the moment it’s anyone’s guess what happens to online theatre next. The Space does also perform and underrated but vital service of giving anyone who wants it a chance to perform. But what is the best way to do this? I shall share these thoughts another day.

Sunday 8th August, 11.30 a.m.:

Now let’s look in more detail about the sell-outs going on throughout the fringe this weekend. Once again, I struggled to get tickets for anything today – I’m not complaining too much considering what I ended up seeing yesterday, but I can’t believe everyone is having the same luck as me. Whatever, this contrasts my early observations where I thought the Edinburgh Fringe 2021 might be a tiny niche pursuit.

Assembly George Square bar area at nightWhilst it’s still true to say that most of the city feels like there’s not a fringe on, the “core” area of the Edinburgh Fringe round Bristo Square and George Square (which is broadly recognised as the hub of the modern fringe) is a different matter. Those of you who saw The Warren in Brighton will be used to this arrangement: lots of outdoor seating spread around picnic tables, and table service for drinks ordered via apps. The weirdest aspect of this is that you can’t go up to the bar to order a drink, but all the food stalls sell food the normal way. In fact, this is a good opportunity to say that there’s a mood here that the Sottish rules on Covid safety as just as confusing and arbitrary as the English ones.

But here’s the catch: the drinking space massively outstrips the performace spaces. It woudl appear that the majority people people turning to the venues are there for drinking and nothing else. Yes, we are getting sell-outs, but only because of the small number of shows to go round. As a result, Assembly, Underbelly and Gilded Balloon are in a similar situation to the one The Warren has been criticised for in Brighton: a business model that is more interested in drinking than performing arts, only the disparity here is far worse. This could be dangerous if this pattern persists, but we won’t know which way we’re headed for a few months yet.

Returning to the sell-outs, the daft thing is that most of the central venues have big gaps in their schedule that doubtless would have sold well had they been filled. Everyone is going to have their own theory of why this is so, but it can’t have helped that so many of the rules the Fringe had to apply to were decided at the last moment. Whatever the reason, the Edinburgh Fringe currently has demand outstripping supply. Admittedly this is better than supply outstripping demand – that would have been a disaster – but it’s far from ideal.

Tomorrow, the rules are relaxed further. We will see what effect this has on the fringe. In the meantime, I strongly advise anyone planning to come to book tickets in advance – you cannot rely on turning up and taking a seat.

Saturday 7th August, 10.30p.m.: – Sinatra: Raw

Quite a lot of observations of the Edinburgh Fringe to catch up with. One bit of news I must report is that Underbelly Big Top isn’t happening after all. I might come back to this later, but from chatting to staff is seems that planning permission was not the final hurdle, and continuing acts of farting about from the both UK and Scottish government led them to pull out.

The other bit of news is that Saturday has been busy to the point where almost everything in the evening sold out. Great news for the acts, probably good news for the venues and fringe as a whole, but bad news for anyone trying to do fringe the traditional way of just turning up to whatever’s one. I was literally down to one option I could find on the fringe website, and having already seen a musical tribute act earlier in the afternoon, I probably wouldn’t have picked this under more flexible circumstances. And then, what do you know, this happens. The moment I’ve been waiting for – for seventeen months, to be precise.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre

Whilst Sinatra: Raw could be called a tribute act, it is actually so much more. I admin that for the first 10-15 minutes of the play, this is what I thought I was in for. Richard Shelton as Ol’ Blue Eyes gives us an opening number before welcoming us to the Purple Room of Palm Springs. It is 1971 and Sinatra is giving a private performance to his nearest and dearest. As well as being a sing-a-like, Shelton is also an anecdote-a-like and I was expecting an hour of Sinatra’s greatest songs and one-liners. But no. Frank hasn’t really got going on his reminiscing yet.

When you think about this, the format of this performance is such on obvious idea it’s a wonder nobody thought of this before. The real point of this performance is a biopic of his life slowly reveal through his banter with his intimate audience. A great idea, of course, counts for nothing without great execution, but that is precisely what is done here. Throwaway comments directed during his song give away deep pangs of regret and sorrow, but it is only when Sinatra begins to talk about his tempestuous relationship with Ava Gardner that he gives away what a damaged individual he was at times.

Even if Shelton had performed a Sinatra set to a conventional tribute act format, this would have gone down to great reviews, because he performs the songs exquisitely and captures his mannerism perfectly. But this could not be a more perfect example of a long-held theory: that to perform songs of heartbreak and loneliness properly, you have to really mean it. The rendition of Angel Eyes is deeply moving after hearing exactly what kind of hurt he experienced to truly feel it. Even the closing of My Way, probably the most done to death song for closing shows, is beautifully performed after hearing his life story.

My only regret? An hour can’t do this justice. The final chapter of Sinatra slowly losing his fellow Rat Pack members, would have been a great addition, and if a longer version does get done, I’d love to hear more. In the meantime, I highly recommend this to everyone. It touches on just about every genre, from music to theatre to cabaret to comedy, and delivers on them all. This runs until the 15th August (not Wed) at 8.00 at Pleasance CICC. See it see it see it.

Saturday 7th August, 4.30 p.m. – Zumba Gold:

Been having a further look at what Edinburgh Fringe 2021 looks like. A lot of interesting findings, but this will take some time to process.

Before that, however, let’s do a first review: Zumba Gold, chosen as a lucky dip (i.e. the thing that happened to be on at the venue I happened to be in at the time I happened to be at it). This is a solo play from Amelia Gann. I actually bumped into her earlier today and asked her how this ended up at the Edinburgh Fringe, seeing as most venues programmed at the very last minute. In her case, she’s already performed for the Pleasance Future earlier in the year (the joint fesitval staged between Pleasance and Vault as a replacement for the cancelled Vault 2021). I suspect this is a pattern we’ll be seeing a lot of, at least amongst the Big Four: programming based on pre-existing links from previous performances, rather like how The Warren Outdoors got going on short notice last year.

But enough of that, on to the place. Amelia plays Cathy, the most ambitious Zumba trainer you’ll ever see. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to make it into the big-time when the type of Zumba you do is “Zumba Gold”, and for the benefit of all of you who still don’t understand what all this fuss is over Zumba and how this differs from regular Aerobics, Zumba Gold is a version aimed as people aimed at people of reduced mobility. In practice, this means senior citizens, and Cathy spends every session putting up with their petty rivalries wishing she was in any other job.

Cathy’s ambitions are wildly optimistic to the point of delusional, but you can’t help feeling sorry for her and rooting for her. Shame blames her dead-end job on a disastrous talent show performance when she was thirteen, but she doesn’t deserve the taunting over suddenly realising her boy band wig made her look and feel like Ellen de Generes. One also has to wonder about the agarophobic partner she lives with now, who seemingly cuts out adverts for opportunities with the expectation Cathy will fail and things remain as they are. But thing are about to come to a head with the village fete, where Cathy hastily arranges her over-60s as a backing dancing troupe for her big moment. We know this isn’t going to go as planned.

I won’t give the spoiler on whether this ends well or how badly it doesn’t, but the only criticism I will give is that, come on, you can’t let the story end there. With a current running time of 40 minutes, surely there’s space for a conclusion. Surely it’s going to take more than the latest setback to make Cathy give up. But this is good start to the fringe, with a good all rounder: an engaging script, a good performance from Ameila Gann covering everything from dancing to deluded ambition.

Saturday 7th August, 10.30 a.m.:

But before we go any further, I need to list my picks of Edinburgh Fringe. Apologies for this being late, but I have an excuse for once. The reason this and all my Edinburgh Fringe coverage has been last moment is that most of the month before has been dominated by me battling to save my own play for a different fringe. Like everybody else, I’ve read endless horror stories of productions being cancelled at the last moment because due to all things Coronavirus, and I almost joined them. Both this and Durham Fringe are topics in their own right, but we have digressed enough already. We are supposed to be listing my picks. Here you are:

Safe choices:

Margaret Thatcher: Queen of Soho
Skank
Watson: The Final Problem
Mimi’s Suitcase [Online]
Northanger Abbey

Bold choices:

Screen 9
Mustard [Online]
WSTL: Epistles [Online]
The Great Gatsby [Inline]

You might like …

Police Cops: Badass be the name
The Importance of Being … Earnest?
Could it be Magic?
Daphna Baram: Unmuted

Wildcard:

Those People: A play About QAnon [Online]

Apart from the online ones (most of which run throughout), I think all of these on the list start later in the fringe. However, if you’re after something to watch now, I can recommend Zumba Gold and Under Milk Wood: Semi-Skimmed, both of which I saw yesterday. Reviews for these coming.

Friday 6th August, 10.00 p.m.:

So I have ventured out to see Edinburgh’s socially distanced 2021, and what strange experience that was.

I’d 20210806172332_IMG_4964.JPGpreviously commented the Edinburgh Fringe 2021 has parallels with Brighton Fringe 2020. One of those parallels, I have learned, is that it over large parts of the city it doesn’t really feel like there’s a festival on. My route to the fringe involved coming up the Royal Mile from the eastern end, but it really felt like an out-of-season Edinburgh. Even when you reached the High Street – you know, the bit famous for being chocka with flyerers – if just feels like a mildly touristy spot of a mildly touristy city. I know that street entertainers are supposed to be allowed back, so I may check against another time when they’re on, but I have to say this looked little different to the pictures I saw of August 2020. The most evidence I saw of a fringe was a pub that had “Fringe venue” written on chalk in the window.

But what about a venue? I went to check the nearest venue to me, Pleasance Courtyard. Again, the most conspicuous part of the journey was the absence of what you’d expect: post after poster of upcoming events. The front of Pleasance Courtyard itself looked a bit more like a venue we know and love, but the most jarring sight was inside. Normally, you’d see a blackboard packed full of shows sold out today. This time – taking up less that half the space – was the scant list of shows today over the entire Pleasance chain (one in the the courtyard and two more at EICC). With the rear courtyard made into a peformance space, the front courtyard was a bar. Again, this would be usually by chocka on a Friday evening – this time, it was fairly sparse, although the few people there were doing their best to make a part out of it.

(More photos here.)

However, I hadn’t yet checked of Bristo Square, home to the rest of the Big Four. But that is a story for tomorrow.

Friday 6th August, 2.00 p.m.:

I am working my day job from Edinburgh today, so I won’t be getting stuck into the fringe until this evening. However, already there’s one side-effect in play. This time round I am staying in student accommodation for only slightly more than I’d normally pay for a pod. Student accommodation has of course been rented out for the Edinburgh Fringe as long as the two have existed, but such is the size of the things that the whole lot got snapped up months in advance at pretty expensive rates. Not this time. This is course feeds into the debate on the size of the fringe – if it was always this cheap to come to the Edinburgh Fringe we wouldn’t be having the endless debate on expense. But that discussion can come later.

One small update from yesterday: we had the final batch of pre-fringe ticket sales coming on line yesterday, and the final number is 783 (as counted by the fringe website – we might also add in some shows announced mid-fringe). This means that Edinburgh Fringe’s reduction is size in 80% instead of 83%. It also extends the lead of Brighton as largest fringe, albeit from a slim lead to a slightly less slim lead. None of these numbers really matter now, but it’s only fair to give a final score.

From this evening, I will see for myself what a fifth-size Edinburgh Fringe looks like.

Thursday 5th August, 11.00 p.m.:

Well, here we are. As late as two months ago I had doubts there would be anything worth going to. For a summary of how we got here and how close this came to a second fringe good as cancelled, head over to my other article posted today: What’s worth watching: Edinburgh Fringe 2021. But Edinburgh Fringe 2021 is here. Just.

I have just arrived and over the next three days I will as always be seeing a few things and reviewing them. But the main thing I’ll be on the lookout for is seeing what a fringe 83% smaller than its last one looks like. Certainly there was little sign of the party atmosphere as I got off the train an hour ago. But I’m really interested in how the venues are adapting to this. The early clues from the venue lists are that the venues are making use of their largest outdoor spaces for purpose-built pop-up venues, bit like The Warren did in Brighton. The Warren managed to do this successfully. Will the Big Four have the same good fortune?

It’s probably fair to say that Edinburgh Fringe 2021 is in a similar position to Brighton Fringe 2020. The expectations of the postponed autumn fringe were little more than to keep things ticking over for a relaunch in 2021. So we can expect Edinburgh Fringe to keep things ticking over for a relaunch in 2022. We won’t know until next year how well this goes – but we might get some indications this year.

Small fringe, but high stakes. A lot rests on the next three weeks.

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