Edinburgh Festival 2013: More than just fringe benefits

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As Edinburgh gears up for its annual melting pot of dazzling arts events, Alice Jones picks her highlights of the month ahead

The postboxes were painted gold in Edinburgh last August, in honour of local hero Chris Hoy's triumphs on the Olympic track. But for the 22,457 performers who took their wares to the Fringe, 2012 was not a golden year. The Games effect meant that even big-name comedians like Richard Herring were playing to half-empty rows. Box-office takings fell by 1 per cent – only the second time in more than a decade that ticket sales had fallen from the previous year. The last time was 2008, when a calamitous new ticketing system was installed.

Still, it means that in 2013 there is everything to play for. Even in an “off” year, the Fringe office reported 1.8 million tickets sold in the space of the month, which does not include the 800 or so shows on the Free Fringe, nor offerings from the Edinburgh International Book and Art festivals. To be in Edinburgh in August is still to be in the midst of the biggest arts event in the world. And it is getting bigger. In 2013, there will be 2871 Fringe shows in 273 venues across the city.

As usual, there's something for everyone. Arias for babies? You'll want Scottish Opera's Baby O, for 6 to 18 month olds (Paterson's Land, 11.30am). Or how about Pinocchio “with a dubstep barbershop mash-up soundtrack”? You'll find that at Pleasance Dome at 1pm. There are plays about Anna Politkovskaya and Yulia Tymoshenko, Scottish independence and GCSEs, space travel and tennis. The world's biggest “air band” (no instruments, lots of flailing), an interactive version of the cult 80s gameshow Knightmare and, inevitably, a comedy take on Lady Mary and co in Upstairs Downton (The Hive, 5pm) are all there.

There are new venues, too, in the shape of Underbelly's Topside, a new studio at the back of the Festival Theatre, Paterson's Land, which will showcase new work from some of Scotland's leading companies, and the National Portrait Gallery, which will host a series of comedy gigs. Some of the best work of recent years has been found at Summerhall, the Forest Fringe and St Stephen's. Leave at least half a day free to explore what's on there. And ignore the Free Fringe at your peril. Peter Buckley Hill's venture is now so big – around 500 shows this year – it has its own imitators, and a host of brilliant names on offer for however much you feel like paying.

The key to a good Edinburgh is a fine alchemy of planning and flexibility. Book ahead for the shows you really want to see, but keep gaps in your schedule for the word-of-mouth hits. On a good day, you could start at 9am with a bacon roll and the latest from David Greig or Sabrina Mahfouz at the Traverse, then roll down the hill to Charlotte Square in time to catch Kate Atkinson at the Book Festival, dash down the street to the Assembly Rooms for The Shawshank Redemption on stage and fit in an hour of teatime stand-up at The Stand from Lucy Porter, Sarah Millican or Stewart Lee.

After dinner, you might choose Valery Gergiev conducting at Usher Hall, a dance marathon at Paterson's Land, or more likely than not, more comedy. Head over to the Pleasance Courtyard and take a chance on whichever show still has tickets. With so many comedians, you're unlikely to be disappointed – but if you are, the beer garden offers its own consolations.

Should you start to feel jaded by this schedule, I recommend a dip into one of the city's excellent galleries – paintings can't talk, which can be a blessed relief after a few days of stand-up – or take a hike up Calton Hill or Arthur's Seat. From there you can enjoy the views and thank your lucky stars that you're not Vicki Weitz, a performer who, from 1 August, will set off from the Royal Mile every morning at 7am in order to run 26 marathons in 26 days – all in the name of art and the Edinburgh Fringe.

Comedy

Bridget Christie

Bridget Christie has been going from strength to strength over the last few years. Now, with a Radio 4 series and a deal to write a book about 21st-century feminism under her belt, she is sounding off on the f-word and tackling tricky subjects such as Beyoncé as female icon and BIC's pens for women. A rare, quirky and immensely likeable talent. The Stand, 3 to 25 August (thestand.co.uk)

David Baddiel/Alexei Sayle

Two old-timers take up the mic once more. Baddiel's first stand-up show in 15 years sees him ruminating on his brushes with the fickle beast of fame, from Russell Brand's wedding to “Three Lions”. Sayle, meanwhile, hasn't done a full show for 17 years – but early reports suggest that his show, in which he directs rage at politicians and comedians alike, should teach the younger generation a thing or two about alternative, engaged stand-up. Baddiel: Assembly George Square, 31 July to 11 August (assemblyfestival.com); Sayle: The Stand, 13 to 25 August (thestand.co.uk)

Sarah Millican

The cosy but lethal stand-up is back with a brand new hour of material. Home Bird will see Millican tackle domestic bliss – from sobriety to cat ownership – with her customary shrewdness. The Stand, 1 to 25 August (thestand.co.uk)

Adam Hills

A favourite on the circuit for years, the Australian comedian has hit mainstream success thanks to his affable turn hosting Paralympics show The Last Leg on Channel 4. His new show, Happyism, promises more of the same laid-back charm and silliness. Assembly Hall, 15 to 25 August (assembly festival.com)

Daniel Simonsen

The Norwegian winner of last year's Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Newcomer returns with his sophomore effort. Not an easy watch, but his mix of odd anecdotes and clowning makes his one of the most compelling voices of the moment. Pleasance Dome, 31 July to 26 August (pleasance.co.uk)

Rob Delaney

The American comedian only has to tweet to sell out a show, so his appearance at the Fringe for two nights only is a hot ticket. He looks like a regular suburban dad, but his material – about cooking babies, sex and his own brushes with addiction and death – is far from safe. McEwan Hall, 20 & 21 August (underbelly.co.uk)

Bo Burnham

The American wunderkind, now 22, stormed his last visit to the Fringe in 2010. Since then he's had a show on MTV and has been working on an anti-High School Musical movie with Judd Apatow. His return to the stage will include his customary rapid-fire rant-poems, some piano and lots of laconic swearing. Pleasance Courtyard, 9 to 19 August (pleasance.co.uk)

Thrice

In 2011, sisters Lizzie and Sarah Daykin performed at the Fringe as Toby, a double act who struggled to keep a lid on sibling rivalries. Now they've thrown a third wheel – rising star Nathan Dean Williams – into the mix to become Thrice. For those who like their sketches to come with a dose of darkness. Underbelly, 1 to 25 August (underbelly.co.uk)

Theatre

Eh Joe

Michael Gambon stars in this one-man play about an old man forced to confront his past by a ghostly disembodied female voice (in this case, Penelope Wilton's). The play is one of a series of Beckett rareties to be performed at the International Festival, in a strand that adapts his TV, radio and fiction works for the stage. Royal Lyceum Theatre, 23, 27, 29, 31 August (eif.co.uk)

Making News

Last year they lampooned the government in Coalition. Now Labour councillor Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky are tackling the BBC in crisis. Phill Jupitus plays the director general, trying and failing to keep his journalists – including stand-ups Sara Pascoe and Liam Williams – out of the headlines. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, alive or dead, is entirely intentional. Pleasance Courtyard, 31 July to 25 August (makingnewstheplay.co.uk)

Chalk Farm

Kieran Hurley's play/rave Beats was one of the undisputed highlights of last year's Fringe and marked the young theatre-maker out as one to watch. His latest follows a mother and son in the aftermath of the London riots. Underbelly, 1 to 25 August (underbelly.co.uk)

The Shawshank Redemption

The Fringe's big theatre ticket for 2013 – an adaptation of everyone's favourite film about a wrongly convicted man. Omid Djalili stars as Red, opposite Kyle Secor, Ian Lavender and Owen O'Neill, who has also adapted Stephen King's novel for the stage. Lucy Pitman Wallace directs. Assembly Rooms, 1 to 25 August (arfringe.com)

Holes

A plane crashes on a tropical island; the only survivors are three conference organisers and a teenage girl. Bafta winner Daniel Rigby (Eric and Ernie, One Man, Two Guvnors) leads a great comic cast – Mathew Baynton, Katy Wix and Bebe Cave – in this new play from the brilliant Tom Basden. The show takes place at a “secret seaside location”, with transport provided from George Square. Meet at Assembly George Square, weekends 4 to 25 August (assemblyfestival.com)

The Events

David Greig's newsworthy new play considers the aftermath of an atrocity within a close-knit community. A local choir will provide the soaring soundtrack. Traverse, 31 July to 25 August (traverse.co.uk)

Three Lions

For the month of August, David Cameron, David Beckham and Prince William will be found lurking in a Portakabin around the back of the Pleasance Courtyard. William Gaminara's comedy takes a behind-the-scenes look at what really happened behind the scenes of England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Pleasance Courtyard, 31 July to 26 August (pleasance.co.uk)

Forest Fringe

A very welcome return to Edinburgh for this mini-festival which lost its home, in the Forest Cafe, in 2011. Now with a new base in Leith, highlights for 2013 include Motor Vehicle Sundown, a play that takes place in the back seat of a car, new work from Tim Crouch, and I Wish I Was Lonely, a play about our obsession with mobile phones. Drop in any time between 11am and 11pm, though, and you're bound to find something worth watching. Tickets are donation only, but can be reserved in advance in person. Out of the Blue Drill Hall, Leith, 16 to 25 August (forestfringe.co.uk)

Stuart: A Life Backwards

Skins writer Jack Thorne has adapted Alexander Masters' much praised autobiographical novel about his friendship with a homeless man, Stuart. Perrier winner Will Adamsdale plays Alexander. Topside, 31 July to 26 August (underbelly.co.uk)

Dance

LA Dance Project

The company of Black Swan choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, makes its UK debut with a programme of Forsythe, Cunningham and Millepied's own Moving Parts, a new piece featuring music by Nico Muhly and costumes by Rodarte. Edinburgh Playhouse, 24 to 26 August (eif.co.uk)

Dance Odysseys

Scottish Ballet and Scottish Dance Theatre stage a long weekend of works from contemporary talents including Christopher Hampson, Edouard Lock, Henri Oguike and Twyla Tharp. Performances at the Festival Theatre run from noon to night-time with special offers for all-day tickets. Festival Theatre, 16 to 19 August (www.eif.co.uk)

Menage a Trois

Originally commissioned as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Claire Cunningham's inventive work is a romantic ballet for one woman and two crutches, set against a stunning animated backdrop. Paterson's Land, 9 to 25 August (nationaltheatre scotland.com)

Ours Was the Fen Country

Dan Canham is one of the most original talents around, who has worked with DV8, Kneehigh and Punchdrunk. His follow-up to 30 Cecil Street fuses dance and theatre in a lyrical homage to East Anglia, based on interviews with locals, from parish councillors to eel catchers. Dance Base, 19 to 25 August (stillhouse.co.uk)

Music

The Poet Speaks

In a major coup for the International Festival, Patti Smith and Philip Glass will team up live on stage for a homage to Allen Ginsberg. Smith will perform the Beat poet's work as well as some of her own writings, accompanied by Glass on piano and a projected collage of paintings and photographs. The pair will also appear in conversation at midday on 13 August. And on 10 and 11 August, Glass will perform his score to Jean Cocteau's 1946 film La Belle et la Bete with his ensemble. Playhouse, 13 August (eif.co.uk)

Mogwai

Their spine-tingling soundtrack to French zombie thriller The Returned has brought the Glasgow quintet the attention they richly deserve. They headline this night in memory of the Scottish bass player Doogie Paul. King Creosote, Alasdair Roberts, James Yorkston and Ian Rankin also appear. The Assembly Rooms, 8 August (arfringe.com)

Sadie and the Hotheads

A chance to see Lady Cora's more sultry side. The Downton Abbey actress Elizabeth McGovern brings her folk/country ensemble to the Fringe for a series of late-night gigs (11.45pm) in the Freemasons' Hall on George Street. New Town Theatre, 17 to 25 August (newtownedfringe.com)

American Lulu

Olga Neuwirth's new version for Scottish Opera and the Opera Group updates Berg's original to the American civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. Placido Domingo's protégée, Angel Blue, sings the lead. King's Theatre, 30 & 31 August (eif.co.uk)

Whatever Gets You Through the Night

Cora Bissett (Roadkill) has teamed up with David Greig and Edinburgh band Swimmer One for this multi-disciplinary evening featuring the cream of Scottish musical and literary talent telling stories, all of which take place in Scotland between the hours of midnight and 4am. Expect lovelorn ballads mixed with paeans to deep-fried Mars bars. Queen's Hall, 20 to 25 August (edfringe.com)

Art

Peter Doig

The artist was born in Edinburgh, but grew up in Canada and then lived in London for 20 years. No Foreign Lands will be his first major exhibition in his native land, concentrating on works from the last 10 years – lush, colourful paintings of his travels around Trinidad and Germany, London and New York. Scottish National Gallery, 3 August to 3 November (nationalgalleries.org)

Jeremy Deller

Currently representing the UK at the Venice Biennale, Deller reunites with his long-time collaborator Alan Kane for a new show at Bonnington House in Wilkieston, 25 minutes outside the city centre. The pair will take over the country estate with their “Steam Powered Internet Machine”, Deller's trademark banners and a steel band playing Joy Division. They have even designed the teapots in the gallery cafe. A free shuttle bus will run from George Street to the venue during the festival. Jupiter Artland, 3 August to 15 September (jupiterartland.org)

Gregor Schneider

The German artist, renowned for his terrifying installations, takes over the basement of Summerhall for the duration of the Fringe. Süßer Duft Edinburgh 2013 (“Sweet Scent Edinburgh 2013”) will transform the space into a series of dark rooms and corridors promising “a far from comfortable but also unforgettable experience.” Expect nudity – and to be very afraid. Over-18s only. Summerhall, 2 to 31 August (summerhall.co.uk)

Witches

From Blake to Rego, this spooky exhibition brings together 500 years of witches and witchcraft in art. Paintings are grouped in themes including “Unnatural Acts of Flying” and “Hideous Hags”. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, to 3 November (nationalgalleries.org)

Books/talks

Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize winner launches MaddAddam, the final novel in her dystopian trilogy (the others being Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) at the Edinburgh Book Festival. As well as the main event on 24 August, she will appear five more times over the bank holiday weekend, discussing The Blind Assassin, Scottish horror and in a storytelling head-to-head with Neil Gaiman. Charlotte Square Gardens, 24 to 26 August (edbookfest.co.uk)

Terence Blacker/Steve Richards

A chance to catch two of The Independent's most esteemed columnists off the page and in person. Terence Blacker makes his Fringe debut with My Village and Other Aliens, a humorous journey in story and song through the place he calls home. Elsewhere, chief political commentator Steve Richards brings back his Rock'n'Roll Politics for a second year of razor-sharp insights, anecdotes about Clegg and Cameron and maybe a little lobby gossip. My Village and Other Aliens, 2 to 26 August, Zoo Southside (zoofestival.co.uk) ; Rock 'n' Roll Politics 2, 1 to 26 August, Assembly George Square (assemblyfestival.com)

Rupert Everett

His two volumes of memoirs, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins and Vanished Years, contain all manner of outrageous showbiz gossip and exploits, from stalking Ian McKellen and partying with Madonna. He is certain to be even more scandalously entertaining in person. Charlotte Square Gardens, 18 August (edbookfest.co.uk)

Sunday Assembly

The atheist church service set up by comedians Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones now attracts “godless congregations” of 600 to its East London home and is expanding to America. In Edinburgh they will host three Sunday lunchtime services at the city's Bingo hall, offering a mixture of songs, sermons and opportunities to “live better, help often and wonder more”. New Empire Bingo Hall, 4, 11, 18 August (sundayassembly.com)

Salman Rushdie

The author of The Satanic Verses talks to John Freeman, editor of Granta, about his career and his memoir, Joseph Anton. Charlotte Square Gardens, 10 August (edbookfest.co.uk)

Late nights

The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society

This night, described by Stewart Lee as “the sort of comedy night they say no-one puts on anymore” has grown from ramshackle beginnings into one of the most experimental and exciting around. Regulars include Bridget Christie and Sara Pascoe, while Harry Hill, Kevin Eldon and Josie Long have been known to pop in. The Stand, 11.30pm, Tuesday, Wednesdays, Thursdays, 6 to 22 August (thestand.co.uk)

The Horne Section

Alex Horne's comedy-jazz fusion keeps on getting bigger and better. This year they are taking over the giant purple upturned cow at 10.30pm with more music, silly games and the best quality guest stars on the Fringe. Ambitiously, they are also performing a family-friendly gig at 10.10am in the same venue between 6 and 10 August. Udderbelly, 10.30pm, 3 to 25 August (thehornesection.com)

Cassette Boy vs DJ Rubbish

Cassetteboy's slickly edited videos of soundbites from Nick Clegg to Nigella Lawson are YouTube sensations. He now teams up with DJ Rubbish for a late-night mash-up in the Dome, promising mixes of Madonna and MasterChef and, improbably, Jeremy Paxman rapping with 50 Cent. Pleasance Dome, 12.30am, 2 to 25 August, selected nights (pleasance.co.uk

The New Wave

The Invisible Dot has a knack for spotting the most exciting new acts on the circuit, which should make its late-night offering a class act. Brilliant young talents Claudia O'Doherty, Liam Williams and Jamie Demetriou headline alongside some of the Dot's previous protégés and guests including Simon Munnery, David O'Doherty and Daniel Simonsen. Pleasance Dome, 11.20pm, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 to 24 August (pleasance.co.uk)

The Wrestling II

Stand-ups do wrestling. For real. The last bout, organised by former teen wrestler-turned-comedian Max Olesker was the talk of the Fringe, winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award Panel Prize and Chortle's No 1 event of 2011. Now it returns for a second Spandex-clad evening. Brendon Burns and Andrew Maxwell will commentate, Nick Helm will MC and Tom Rosenthal (Friday Night Dinner) is among the stand-ups showcasing their dropkicks and noisy thuds. Pleasance Courtyard, 11pm, 13 August (pleasance.co.uk)

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