The Edinburgh Fringe is 64 years old this year but there are few signs of impending retirement - or indeed of it growing old gracefully. For walking sticks and bus passes, read rather interactive promenade shows, roaming the city guided only by an iPod, and puppetry on board a vintage Routemaster.
The world’s largest arts festival has got, well, larger. The Fringe 2010 has 2,453 shows in 259 venues, up from 2,098 last year. Some 21,148 performers will flock to the city – seemingly, to congregate in the exact same spot on the Royal Mile - for the month of August, their efforts generating around £75million for the Scottish economy.
Numbers aside, the combined festivals are spreading their tentacles ever further across Auld Reekie. New venues this year include The Pleasance at Ghillie Dhu, in a three-storey former casino next door to the Caledonian Hotel and the Assembly’s magnificent new tent in Princes St Gardens. The main venues still dominate, of course, but with the Assembly celebrating 30 years, the Gilded Balloon, 25 and Zoo, 10 in 2010, they’re evolving, with a scattering of site-specific works for adventurous audience members looking to escape the Portakabins of the Pleasance courtyard or the Traverse basement. There’s a Tempest on board a barge and a revival of pioneering local heroes Grid Iron’s Decky Does a Bronco in a children’s playground while for Roadkill audiences will be transported from the Traverse to the tenement flat of a young Nigerian girl who has been sex-trafficked to Scotland. There are shows by the sea (The Invisible Dot Club), in the back of camper vans (Laura Muggridge’s stand-up for an audience of five, Running on Air ), in a bridal store ( Your Dream Wedding ) and in the Aga shop ( At Home with Mrs Moneypenny ). Even the city’s telephone boxes have been co-opted as storytelling venues.
This August, a typical (if frenetic) day could involve catching a specially commissioned breakfast play from Simon Stephens over a bacon roll at the Traverse, debating the ethics of the slap with Christos Tsiolkas at the book festival, crossing town to call in at Martin Creed’s new exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery before lunch, then zigzagging up the Mound to catch Simon Callow in Shakespeare – the Man from Stratford in the Assembly Hall. Then it’s over to Cowgate from some spoken word from Ross Sutherland, a talk from the mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato at the Hub before settling in for an evening of stand-up at The Stand (Stewart Lee, perhaps, or Sarah Millican) or the Pleasance Courtyard (too many to mention) before ending the night with a midnight reprise of Tim Key’s Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning show from last year, or some jazz-infused comedy with Alex Horne at the Pleasance Dome, a party at the Forest café and finally a late-night mixed bill at the Underbelly or the Gilded Balloon.
Or it could involve none of things – there is no typical day at the Edinburgh festival. Part of the joy comes from simply sticking a pin in the programme, or dashing to the Courtyard and buying a ticket for the only show left on the board five minutes before it starts. It’s rare to escape entirely unscathed: there’s always a production of Faust which turns out to be entirely performed by hand-puppets, or a student company’s ham-fisted attempt at kabuki Kafka. But the beauty of the Fringe is that shows rarely last more than 55 minutes – if you don’t like it, there’ll be another one along in a moment.
That said, with 344 pages in the Fringe brochure alone, a little guidance might help. Since comedy makes up 35% of the programme, it’s as good a place as any to start. Guaranteed good times will come from veterans Stewart Lee and Richard Herring and in the 30th anniversary year of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, former winners Phil Nichol, David O’Doherty, Laura Solon and Brendon Burns are all must-sees. Cult comedy hero Kevin Eldon ( Brass Eye; Big Train ) is bound to draw curious crowds for his first Fringe show. Television fans will similarly flock to see The Mighty Boosh ’s Rich Fulcher in his solo incarnation as Eleanor, the tour whore and Arj Barker (aka Dave from Flight of the Conchords ), making his first foray on the Fringe since winning the Best Newcomer award in 1997. Jack Whitehall’s second outing is sure to attract interest and column inches, 19-year old YouTube sensation Bo Burnham, too. And Paul Foot, already a circuit firm favourite, will pick up a few curious Boosh fans thanks to his famous director, Noel Fielding.
Sketch comedy fans are well served by The Penny Dreadfuls, Idiots of Ants and a slimmed down Pappy’s, while new act The Real MacGuffins are generating good buzz. I can’t wait to see how Jonny Sweet (Best Newcomer 2009), Mike Wozniak, Tom Wrigglesworth, Nick Mohammed, Daniel Rigby, Adam Riches and Tiffany Stevenson shape up after promising shows last year. And of those making their full-length debuts, Jess Ransom, Zadie Smith’s rapper/stand-up brother, Doc Brown, award-winning comedy hip-hop group Abandoman and Sophie Black (ex-Fat Tongue) are high on my list. Novelty comes in the shape of Comedy in the Dark – exactly what it sounds like, at the Gilded Balloon, with a great roster of names.
There are always a few unexpected faces in the programme. The most tempting of these is star of The Wire and Treme Clarke Peters in Five Guys Named Moe at the McEwan Hall. He’ll also act as the Narrator in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait at Usher Hall. Elsewhere Alex Zane and Gyles Brandreth will both try out stand-up comedy, Abi Titmuss will appear in John Godber’s rugby classic Up ‘N’ Under and Radio 1 DJs Scott Mills and Nick Grimshaw attempt rival one-man shows.
In theatre, as well as new work from exciting Fringe favourites such as Les Enfants Terribles, Frantic Assembly, Little Bulb and Belt Up, the Wooster Group will return to the EIF with Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre and fellow New Yorkers Elevator Repair Service tackle Hemingway. New Scottish writing comes in the shape of Ella Hickson’s Hot Mess , in the city’s coolest nightclub, Hawke + Hunter, Alan Bissett’s “one-woman play” The Moira Monologues at the National Library of Scotland and Cora Bissett’s (star of last year’s Midsummer ) Roadkill in a tenement. The Traverse will need to go some way to beat last year’s excellent season but a promising programme includes Enda Walsh’s Druid , Richard Milward’s Apples and DC Jackson’s My Romantic History , as well as Daniel Kitson, Ontroerend Goed and Grid Iron.
There are plays about sex trafficking ( Roadkill and the Emma Thompson-produced Fair Trade) and pole-dancing ( Stripped ). There are plays about Lockerbie ( Lockerbie: Unfinished Business ), and 7/7 (Molly Naylor’s spoken word Whenever I get blown up I think of you ), Guantanamo Bay (High Tide’s Lidless ) and Georgian refugees (Alecky Blythe’s do we look like refugees?!). There’s even The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy. Sporting highlights will be Beautiful Burnout, set in a Glasgow boxing gym, and TheatreDelicatessen’s Tour de France drama Pedal Pusher. And, as always, there are musicals aplenty – Obama Mia, Lovelace: a rock musical and Hamlet: the musical!, to name but three.
And that’s not to mention the book festival which has readings from Philip Pullman, Seamus Heaney, Hilary Mantel and cult author Leanne Shapton as well as appearances by Norman Foster and Joseph Stiglitz. Or the visual arts programme with blockbusters Impressionist Gardens at the National Gallery and Dali, Magritte and Miro at the Dean. And musical highlights run from Carl Heinrich Graun’s Montezuma (with libretto by Frederick II, King of Prussia) to Brett Dean’s opera of Peter Carey’s Bliss at the EIF and from Dizzee Rascal to Beirut at the Edge festival.
A final tip: seek out the Holy Trinity of the Five Pound Fringe, the Free Fringe and the Forest Fringe (also all free). Their programmes this year are bigger than ever before, going from comedy with Marcel Lucont and Elis James to theatre from Rotozaza and Little Bulb. Last year Peter Buckley Hill, founder of the Free Fringe won an Edinburgh Comedy Award. The name of the award? Spirit of the Fringe – says it all, really. Take a chance - and enjoy.
Just the ticket: 20 things not to miss at this year's festival
Much missed on the Fringe in 2009, Josie Long (Perrier Best Newcomer in 2006) is back after a year off with 'Be Honourable!', a show about political activism, talking to strangers and breakfast blogs. It's always a pleasure to spend an hour in her charming company. Tickets are capped at £9, too.
Just the Tonic at the Caves, 5 to 29 August
Set in a Glasgow boxing gym, could this be 2010's 'Black Watch'? Its pedigree is promising – a co-production between National Theatre of Scotland and physical theatre company Frantic Assembly with a script by Bryony Lavery, who has good form for event theatre with 'Kursk' and 'Frozen'.
Pleasance Courtyard, 4 to 29 August
The Turner Prize-winning artist (above) is all over the city. Down Over Up is a show of new work – stacks of planks, Lego towers and pieces based on musical scales – relating to the unveiling of his public sculpture, a resurfacing of The Scotsman Steps in marble from around the world, later in the year. He'll also accompany his 'Ballet (Work No 1020)' for five dancers, with his band.
Down Over Up, Fruitmarket Gallery, 30 July to 30 October; 'Ballet (Work No 1020)', Traverse, 8 to 15 August
A rare public outing for the writer who won the Booker with 'Vernon God Little' in 2003, plus a chance to hear extracts from his third novel, 'Lights Out in Wonderland', before it's published in September.
Charlotte Square Gardens, 22 August
Disco, disco, disco, disco. Once again covered in Mercury nomination glory, Dizzee Rascal (above) brings his summer-party grime to the Edge Festival and Edinburgh's largest gig venue.
Corn Exchange, 26 August
Fast becoming a Fringe staple, the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed have previously encouraged festival-goers to speed date (last year's 'Internal') and sit blindfolded in a wheelchair ('The Smile Off Your Face'). Their latest (above) returns to the themes of their 2008 hit ('Once and for All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen') and deals with teenage angst. For any age but not for the faint-hearted.
Traverse, 17 to 29 August
Lyrical, profound and very funny, Daniel Kitson's blend of theatre, comedy and gorgeous language is always a magical Fringe must-see. His latest, 'It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later', is billed as being "about everything and nothing". Sounds about right.
Traverse, 10 to 29 August
The Sun Also Rises
The most exciting show on the EIF programme this year is this world premiere from the innovative New York theatre-makers Elevator Repair Service. The company who specialise in experimental interpretations of great American novels – their 'Great Gatsby' lasts eight hours – now tackle bullfighting and Ernest Hemingway's first great novel.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, 14 to 17 August
Frisky and Mannish
The word-of-mouth hit of last year, the pop cabaret duo (above) graduate from 'School of Pop' to 'The College Years' for 2010. Expect hilarious musical parodies, delirious audience participation and some glitter.
Underbelly, 5 to 29 August
One year on from the great German choreographer's death, her company bring 'Agua', one her most joyous works, set in the rainforests and on the beaches of Brazil, to the Edinburgh International Festival.
Playhouse, 27 to 29 August
The Invisible Dot
The rather secretive but always wonderful Invisible Dot have a brilliant line-up across the city's venues – last year's Edinburgh Comedy Award winners Jonny Sweet and Tim Key; Alex Horne's late-night jazz show; a three-sided football tournament on the Meadows and a show in a secret location by the sea. And, most intriguingly, they've dotted five phone boxes across the city: dial a number, pay a pound and listen to one of 30 top Fringe names tell you a short story.
Various venues, 4 to 30 August (Theinvisibledot.com)
By mid-August, there's nothing better than escaping the frenzy of the Royal Mile and the Pleasance Courtyard and getting out of the city for an afternoon. Jupiter Artland, set in 80 acres of woodland in Wilkieston, has permanent works by Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and Marc Quinn. This year's new commissions come from Nathan Coley, Jim Lambie and Cornelia Parker, who has created a 9m-high steel sculpture of a gun, inspired by Gainsborough's 'Mr and Mrs Andrews'.
To 12 September
The 'Thick of It' star is back in Edinburgh for the first time in five years. A compelling, wiry stage presence, he attacks everything from UGG boots to the BNP his latest show. Prepare for "daftness, whimsy and smartarsery".
Assembly @ George St, 16 to 30 August
A book-festival favourite, the Nobel Prize-winning poet will read from his new collection, 'Human Chain', which has been nominated for the Forward Prize.
Charlotte Square Gardens, 24 August
A day or night hanging out in the Forest Café is now a must for anyone looking for the next big thing. See brand-new work by Little Bulb Theatre, Rotozaza and spoken-word artist Polar Bear, or take part in William Shatner karaoke. New late-night parties and site-specific "adventures" should attract even more dedicated followers. Oh, and it's all free.
Forest Café, 9 to 21 August (Forestfringe.co.uk)
It seems hardly feasible that this is the comedian's Edinburgh debut. Much-loved for his work in 'Brass Eye', 'Big Train' and 'Nighty Night', among other television classics, he's bringing a series of characters to the Fringe for his first Fringe hour.
The Stand, 6 to 30 August
Billed as 'Glee' meets 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre', this "revenger's musical" has a cast list that reads like a Who's Who of comedy and theatre: Danielle Ward has written the book while Colin Hoult, Sara Pascoe, Doc Brown and The Penny Dreadfuls are among the performers.
Assembly @ George Street, 8 to 29 August
An intimate evening with the dazzling mezzo soprano (above). The programme of early music includes precursors to Monteverdi such as Caccini and de Ribayaz and accompaniment from the viol ensemble Private Musicke.
The Queen's Hall, 16 August
Doon Mackichan, star of 'Smack the Pony' and 'The Day Today', brings a powerful one-woman show about dark days and the disintegration of her marriage to the Fringe.
Gilded Balloon, 4 to 30 August
The American indie-rockers make their first UK visit for more than a year, touring their eagerly awaited new album, 'Tomorrow Morning'.
HMV Picturehouse, 25 August
First time plucky: new comic talent on show
Sara Pascoe: Sara Pascoe vs Her Ego
She appeared in TV shows such as 'Free Agents', 'The Thick of It' and 'Being Human', so much attention will be paid to this clever, sometimes dark comedian. Sara Pascoe (above) started out in the sketch group Newsrevue in 2006 and her stand-up show has notched up a number of critical accolades, as well as decent placings for awards such as the Funny Women competition and So You Think You're Funny?
Pleasance Courtyard, 4 to 30 August (not 16)
Gary Delaney: Purist
Marketing himself as anti-whimsy, and therefore swimming against the Fringe tide of recent years, Gary Delaney is a no-nonsense gag merchant whose one-liners are of the highest order. One such example comes from last year's Twitter Comedy Club venture: "I'm 20 hours into my sponsored semaphore marathon; unfortunately, I'm starting to flag quite badly."
Pleasance Courtyard, 4 to 29 August (not 16)
Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words
The 19-year-old American musical comedian won YouTube fame in 2006 with his homemade compositions, such as "My Whole Family (Thinks I'm Gay)". He has since worked with Judd Apatow and appeared in the 2009 stand-up movie 'Funny People'. Bo Burnham has visited these shores before but this is his Fringe debut and one that promises a potent mix of music, poetry and stand-up.
Pleasance Dome, 7 to 29 August (not 9 & 10)
Greg Davies: Firing Cheeseballs at a Dog
Already known for his work with the anarchic If.comedy award-nominated act We Are Klang, and for his role as the seemingly omniscient sixth-form head Mr Gilbert in Channel 4's 'The Inbetweeners', this is Greg Davies's debut solo Fringe show. 'Firing Cheeseballs...' celebrates the pointless over the complex, and will be layered with his forthright, dry and slightly sarcastic wit.
Pleasance Upstairs, 4 to 29 August
Doc Brown: Unfamous
The first solo Fringe show from Doc Brown (below) is another milestone on his journey from rapper to comedian, which has recently seen him appear in the sitcoms 'Rev' and 'Miranda'. 'Unfamous' will describe why the brother of the novelist Zadie Smith moved away from sharing stages with the likes of Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse to playing hot Fringe venues instead.
Pleasance Courtyard, 4 to 30 August (not 16 & 30)
Holly Burn: Living and Dying
Absorbing if uneven, and both ridiculous and rewarding at the same time, Holly Burn's mix of character comedy, stand-up and sketches is uniquely bonkers, capturing the spirit of Fringe experimentalism. Previous shows have seen Burn lead an audience to a memorial for her dead dog; another saw her invite them into her house for a site-specific spectacular that was mystifying and mirth-inducing at the same time.
Just the Tonic Caves, 5 to 29 August
Jessica Ransom: Ransom's Million
A regular on TV sketch-show hit 'The Armstrong and Miller Show', Ransom has also worked with highly inventive live acts Steve Mould, Gemma Arrowsmith and Adam Riches. This solo venture offers an intriguing multi-character study of the life- changing possibilities £1m could bring.
Pleasance Courtyard, 4 to 30 August (not 25)
Henry Paker: Henry Paker's 3D Bugle
The cartoonist and comedian Henry Paker started out in 2006 and has since won both the Leicester Comedian of the Year Award and Laughing Horse New Act of the Year. Part of 2008's Fringe showcase The Comedy Zone and 2009 Fringe collective The Hotel, Paker is now ready for a showcase of his clever and amiable comedy, which has been in demand on TV shows such as 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks', 'Mock the Week' and '8 Out of 10 Cats'.
Five Pound Fringe: The GRV, 5 to 29 August (not 16)
Darrin Rose: What's Pot Pourri?
A nominee for a Canadian Screenwriting Award for comedy in 2009, and for a Canadian Comedy Award as Best New Comic in 2007, Darrin Rose has prepared his ground in the UK by appearing at The Comedy Store in London, where his easygoing but perceptive eye for the everyday won him new fans. That good will should transfer north of the border.
Just the Tonic Caves, 5 to 29 August
Abandoman: Pic 'n' Mixtape
Abandoman's charisma and pacey musical skits dominated this year's final of the influential Hackney Empire New Act of the Year award. As winners of that, and the subsequent Musical Comedy Awards, the duo will hope for further success with a show that promises to build an album of "the greatest songs never written" from audience suggestions.
Pleasance Courtyard Cellar, 4 to 29 August (not 17)
www.edfringe.com; www.eif.co.uk; www.edinburghbookfest.co.uk