Arts: Edinburgh: a survival guide

David Benedict, The Independent's theatre editor, offers advice on getting the most from the festival

Long before Courteney Cox had sex with Matthew Perry in Friends, she appeared in a TV movie rehash of the film If It's Tuesday It Must be Belgium. Adopting the same quasi-Aristotelian principle of time and place, if it's August, it must be Edinburgh.

There is no other place on earth where you can spend a month feasting from morn to midnight at such a limitless banquet of - to quote Stephen Sondheim - "Pantaloons and tunics/ courtesans and eunuchs/ funerals and chases, baritones and basses/ panderers, philanderers/ cupidity, timidity/ mistakes, fakes/ rhymes, mimes/ tumblers, bumblers, fumblers, mumblers..."

Mumblers? Well, not everything scales the heights of well-honed perfection. Brian McMasters's carefully selected International Festival offers gilt- edged investments in the form of dazzling concerts, opera performances and world-class dance and drama. The Fringe festival, however, is a different ball game. With notable exceptions like the trusty Traverse Theatre, nearly all the other 166 fringe venues operate an open-door policy: get in early enough with the money and you can hire it. Thus the quality threshold is, shall we say, unstable.

But answer me this: where else can you see a self-styled "woman attempting to erect road blocks as her mother sprints towards the black hole of dementia, told with heartbreaking care"? Or see "Salvador Dali brought brilliantly to life in a perpetual motion machine of pure and pulsating pleasure"? Or Journey to Macbeth 99, in which "a pilgrimage from past revolutions in Europe arrives to confront the cycle of terror, bloodshed and civil war... starring Danii Minogue"?

And those are just three, er, highlights from the 1999 theatre programme. However, anyone fancying total immersion - or just dipping a toe - in the murky waters near Leith should pay attention to the following health warning: festival-going can seriously damage your health. So, in order to ensure a hazard-free, holistic sojourn, here is The Independent 10-Point Plan for Edinburgh Survival.

1) Be prepared

14,562 artists will stage 15,699 performances of 1,345 shows, and that's just the Fringe. It may be the size of a phonebook, but spend a morning scouring the free Edinburgh Fringe Programme plus the International Festival Guide. If anything immediately takes your fancy, book now, as tickets have a nasty habit of vanishing with the appearance of even a halfway-decent review.

2) Book good accommodation

Hotel rooms are unbelievably hard to come by at this stage. Anyone knowing a performer may be tempted to camp out on their floor. That's fine for a couple of riotous nights, but living in close confinement with people as tired, sweaty and drunk as you soon pales.

3) Mime alert

Edinburgh is a mime magnet. White-faced personages and otherwise sane actors litter the streets brandishing leaflets in an attempt to lure you to their shows. Just say no. Accept all the paper that is thrust upon you and you could wallpaper your house. For complete safety, dress up in a police uniform as this tends to ensure a wide berth. Alternatively, wear a T-shirt with the legend "Leave Me Alone, I Live Here".

4) Check the seasoning

Once again, The Independent has marshalled a matchless team of witty, insightful sages proferring daily verdicts on the ups and downs of this hyper's bazaar. In a valiant attempt to cover everything, some publications are reduced to hiring anyone with an opinion and a keyboard while desperate companies have a cunning habit of peppering their publicity with quotes, sometimes dangerously unattributed. These are to be taken with a bushel of salt as are some of the named media sources. One show this year proudly advertises "it redefines the art of musical theatre. The best thing I have seen in ages - Radio 1 Belgium." Hmmm.

5) Line the stomach

Edinburgh is delightfully European. This translates as: you can drink all day and all night. And probably will. Take precautions and eat well. Haggis recommended.

6) Fitness

If you keep an eye on the drinking, this is a great place to get fit... sort of. Edinburgh is hilly and with shows on from the early morning to the wee small hours you'll spend an alarming amount of time rushing from venue to venue. Take a watch to check your pulse rate as you skedaddle between carefully timed productions to be there early enough to nab the best seat.

7) Gossip is good for you

The secret of Edinburgh success is word of mouth. News of a good show spreads like wildfire, as everyone sits about in the cafes and bars attached to various venues discussing the 16 things they've seen so far. This citywide party atmosphere leads to instant, easy friendships and is one of the festival's greatest pleasures. Soak up the fun at the Traverse bar or wangle your way into the Star Bar at the Assembly Rooms. Check out the Pleasance, the Gilded Balloon or head upmarket to the new International Festival club, The Hub.

8) Stretch your finances

Even those with limited time and taste, and a fetish for organisation, will definitely wind up seeing more than planned. Although this means you will spend more, it is incontrovertibly A Good Thing. Most shows, especially on the fringe, are cheap, so get over the shock of the new. Those on tight budgets can take advantage of free ticket offers in The Independent.

Remember, too, that not everything is live: in terms of adventurousness and quality, the Edinburgh Film Festival is the finest in Britain. Go to a premiere and become an opinion-maker.

9) Miss you nights

Don't worry if big name comedians are already sold out. Even if you fail to grab a returned ticket, remember the rule: they'll be touring in the autumn. Many of them also turn up on mixed bills. Keep a look out for surprise "Best Of..." nights.

10) Be bloody, bold and resolute

In the real world, being daring in your entertainment can be disappointing. Not here. The unique Edinburgh ambience and abundance should encourage you to throw caution to the winds and check out things you might never otherwise see. What have you got to lose?

Information on all of Edinburgh's festivals can be found at www. edinburghfestivals.co.uk

International Festival (15 Aug- 8 Sep), booking 0131-473 2000;

Fringe Festival (8-30 August), booking 0131-226 5138. Information: 0131- 226 5257

Film Festival (15-29 Aug) Information: 0131-229 2550

Book Festival (14-30 Aug) Information, 09065 500 010

Edinburgh Tourist Information, 0131-473 3800

Edinburgh Accommodation Information, 0131-473 3855

This Monday `The Independent' begins full daily coverage of Edinburgh `99 with reviews, features, interviews, gossip, recommendations and free ticket offers

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