Fantastic Fringe: Your guide to the very best of the 2011 Edinburgh Festival

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There are more venues and more performers than ever at this year's festival. As shows spill over into zoos and trains, let Alice Jones be your guide to the biggest and busiest event on the cultural calendar

It's a cliché to say that in August every room in Edinburgh becomes a venue. This year, though, it's truer than ever before. In fact, if you can rustle up a party of 10, The Lounge Room Confabulators will come and perform their black comedy in your flat – as long as it has an EH postcode. Apart from that, there are plays about wedding singers in hotel penthouses (May I Have the Pleasure?), performances in sheds in the Royal Botanic Gardens (The Simple Things in Life) and a dance piece in a cage at the zoo (Enclosure 99 – Humans). Elsewhere, site-specific pioneers Grid Iron have moved in to the Anatomy Department at the University Medical School for their spooky What Remains, there's a poetry recital on-board the train to Glasgow (meet under the departure boards at Waverley Station) and plays unfolding over Skype or on your iPhone, iPod or iPad. Comedy's getting in on the act, too. Josie Long will pop up at the Fruitmarket Gallery as part of Detours while The Boy with Tape on His Face, last year's stand-out hit, will return to his roots and perform on the street for a fortnight.

There are new venues proper as well, bringing the grand total this year up to 258. With the Assembly Rooms closed for refurbishment, there's a new hub of seven venues in George Square (including one in a garage and three spiegeltents in the gardens) and Summerhall opens for business in the former Royal School of Veterinary Studies, where performances will unfold among the horse skeletons in the dissection hall.

All of which is to say that, in 2011, the world's largest arts festival is larger than ever. This year, there will be 2,542 shows (up by 89 from last year), performed by some 21,192 (give or take a few) artists. World-class outfits such as the Belarus Free Theatre and the brilliant New York theatre company TEAM will fly in, as will international comedians including Margaret Cho, Todd Barry, Glenn Wool and Tom Green. The Free Fringe continues to grow with 607 shows this year, while the (free) Forest Fringe continues to surprise and delight.

In several cases, the shows themselves have been supersized, too. Dance Marathon is a four-hour epic which asks its audience members to dance till they drop, while Hotel Medea starts around midnight and continues until dawn (breakfast is provided). In general, though it might not seem possible to weary regulars, the festival day is becoming longer. This year, there are so many cabaret shows – many of them in the wee hours – they've been given their own section in the 360-page Fringe programme. Elsewhere, the Traverse is opening a new late-night hangout, Late and Lounge, while Minima's live scoring of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, performances by Belt Up, Storytellers Club, jazz-comedy hybrid The Horne Section and the champion beatboxer Beardyman are among the alternatives to the usual late-night rowdy stand-up.

This year, there are not so many big names coming to town. John Malkovich is directing a Harold Pinter tribute while Alec Baldwin will provide the ghostly voice of Hamlet's father in the multimedia 3D Hamlet: A Lost Generation. And while the usual round of older stars – Paul Daniels, Lorraine Chase, Nicholas Parsons and Ruby Wax – will be hawking their wares, the main event is always spotting talent on the way up (See Julian Hall's pick of the 10 comedians to watch out for overleaf).

In addition, there's an intriguing Asian-themed International festival, the book festival featuring rare appearances by writers such as Jo Nesbo and Alan Hollinghurst, and the art festival featuring Anish Kapoor, Martin Creed and Julian Opie to name but three.

And that's not to mention the stand-up dedicated to breasts, the misanthropic puppet shows or Alzheimer's the Musical: a Night to Remember! (yes, really). Truly, a show for everyone's taste.

The Edinburgh Fringe runs from 5 to 29 August ( www.edfringe.com)

THEATRE

A Celebration of Harold Pinter

Bringing a touch of Hollywood to the Fringe, John Malkovich directs this tribute. Julian Sands performs Harold Pinter's poems and political writings, combined with anecdotes about the playwright.

4 to 21 August, Pleasance Courtyard

What Remains

A piano teacher conjures up the ghosts of past pupils in an exploration of the human body and the afterlife. Grid Iron are masters of site-specific theatre: this new show takes place in the Anatomy Department of Edinburgh University's Medical School.

4 to 28 August

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

One of the festival's most exciting world premieres, this adaptation of Haruki Murakami's bizarre detective tale is directed by Stephen Earnhart, a former Miramax producer, with a Japanese/American cast, music, film and puppetry.

20 to 24 August, King's Theatre

The 10 Plagues

Marc Almond stars as a man making his way through plague-ridden London in Mark Ravenhill's new musical. Conor Mitchell provides the songs.

1 to 28 August, Traverse Theatre

Young Pretender

The life of Bonnie Prince Charlie as reimagined by the promising newcomer E V Crowe (whose debut, Kin, received warm reviews at the Royal Court last autumn) and the Fringe First-winning Nabokov.

4 to 28 August, Underbelly

1001 Nights

Tim Supple's multilingual, Indian-flavoured Midsummer Night's Dream was a smash-hit four years ago. Now the director has brought together actors and musicians from Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Paris, Morocco and London for a two-part fantasy epic, performed in Arabic, English and French.

21 August to 3 September, Royal Lyceum

Alma Mater

A 20-minute filmic journey through childhood for one from the experimental Glasgow duo Fish & Game. Audience members enter a specially constructed child's bedroom, pick up an iPad and find themselves transported into a "handheld 21st-century fairytale".

5 to 29 August, St George's West

The Simple Things in Life

This sounds lovely – from the ever excellent Fuel. Five artists create five mini shows in five sheds in the Royal Botanic Garden. Visitors choose three "experiences", which range from theatre and dance (from the choreographer of Electric Hotel) to music (The London Snorkelling Team) and carpentry, each extolling life's little pleasures.

19 to 27 August, Royal Botanic Garden

DANCE

The Peony Pavilion

A European premiere from the National Ballet of China and billed as a Far Eastern Romeo and Juliet, this sumptuous spectacle fuses western classical ballet with traditional Chinese dance and designs by Emi Wada (House of Flying Daggers).

13 to 15 August, Festival Theatre

Dance Marathon

Will you be the last one standing? Toronto's Bluemouth Inc. present a four-hour interactive performance/ endurance test, in which cast and audience are encouraged to dance until they drop. Those with two left feet or wallflower tendencies can watch or enjoy a drink at the bar.

3 to 14 August, Traverse Theatre

Scottish Ballet

The resident choreographer of Boston Ballet, with successes at the San Francisco and New York City Ballets under his belt, Jorma Elo is a rising star. For the EIF, he premieres a work set to Mozart's First Violin Concerto and music by Steve Reich. Kenneth Macmillan's Song of the Earth, set to Mahler, makes up the other half of the bill.

26 to 28 August, Edinburgh Playhouse

Agnes and Walter (A Little Love Story)

A bittersweet love story inspired by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with a soundtrack of cinema scores and pop songs, this charming dance fantasy is performed by a cast whose ages range from 28 to 78, and whose credits include Punchdrunk, Kneehigh and DV8.

5 to 13 August, Zoo Southside

COMEDY

Dave Gorman

Making his first Fringe appearance in eight years, the original comedy "quester" behind Googlewhack Adventure and Are You Dave Gorman? is back with a brand new show. This time, he's teaming up with a projector for a PowerPoint presentation with a difference.

3 to 28 August, Assembly George Square

Sarah Millican

Fast making a name for herself on television, this stand-up delivers frank, funny and occasionally filthy observations on modern womanhood in her deceptively sweet Geordie singsong.

12 to 28 August, Assembly Hall

Tim Key

The 2009 Edinburgh Comedy Award winner is back with a new show, Masterslut. In the last year, Key has played Alan Partridge's sidekick Steve and written two books, a film and a radio series, so this could be the last chance to spend an hour with him at the Fringe. Expect short poems, black-and-white films, Soviet lounge music and Kronenbourg.

3 to 29 August, Pleasance Dome

La Concepta

A "restaurant conceptuel", popping up across the city in various locations, from within two large trunks. The comedians' comedian Simon Munnery plays all four members of staff, serving up a surreal 40-minute meal for four promising "all the rigmarole of haute cuisine without the shame of eating" – and lots of jokes.

6 to 29 August, check www.laconcepta.fr for daily locations

Isy Suttie

Better known as Peep Show's Dobby, Isy Suttie writes kooky musical comedy in the mould of a particularly chirpy Victoria Wood. Pearl and Dave is a multi-character tale about an internet romance, with occasional vignettes from the comedian's own love life.

3 to 29 August, Pleasance Courtyard

Humphrey Ker Is Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher!

One third of the Penny Dreadfuls and star of BBC2's improv show Fast and Loose, Humphrey Ker makes his solo debut in this wartime caper, loosely based on his grandfather's experiences as a Second World War commando. The brilliant Philip Breen (Party, Cowards and The Stefan Golaszewski Plays) directs.

3 to 29 August, Pleasance Courtyard

Hot Tub with Kurt and Kristen

Kristen Schaal (aka stalker Mel from Flight of the Conchords) and Kurt Braunohler bring a touch of New York indie to Auld Reekie with their cult variety show. The pair will host and introduce their favourite acts, with a flavour of the absurd, from around the Fringe.

12 to 27 August, Assembly George Square

MUSIC

Die Frau ohne Schatten

Flying eagles, washing machines and a cast of 150 feature in Jonathan Kent's production of the rarely performed Strauss blockbuster ("The Woman without a Shadow") for Mariinsky Opera. Valery Gergiev conducts.

1 to 3 September, Festival Theatre

The Qatsi Trilogy

Godfrey Reggio's groundbreaking films will be screened on consecutive nights as Philip Glass (in his EIF debut) and ensemble play the composer's soundtracks live.

13 to 15 August, Edinburgh Playhouse

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the OAE and Edinburgh Festival Chorus in Liszt's Faust Symphony and Alina Ibragimova performs Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto.

26 August, Usher Hall

James Blake

The Edge festival's fine line-up includes The National, Kristin Hersh and Joan as Policewoman. The hottest ticket, though, could be James Blake, the electro-soul newcomer riding high on the back of his Mercury Prize nomination.

30 August, Liquid Room

BOOKS & TALKS

Carol Ann Duffy

The Poet Laureate reads poems from her eagerly awaited new collection, The Bees, accompanied by John Sampson on recorder and crumhorn and other instruments. On 26 August, she will read from The Gift, her latest book for children.

24 to 26 August, Charlotte Square Gardens

An Evening with David Sedaris

In Edinburgh for five nights only, the sardonic New Yorker, often hailed as America's best living humorist, will read from his essays and unpublished diaries, and, no doubt, give many of the Fringe's traditional stand-ups a run for their money.

16 to 20 August, EICC

Ricky Gervais

Too grand now for Fringe stand-up, Ricky Gervais talks about his new BBC/HBO comedy, Life's Too Short, with its star Warwick Davis. He'll also show clips and take questions, as part of the BBC's tempting programme of free shows in a new pop-up venue off Bristo Square.

26 August, BBC @Potterrow

Alasdair Gray's Fleck

Closing the 2011 Book Festival, Alasdair Gray's 2007 reworking of Faust is given its first reading by a bevy of Scottish writers and actors including A L Kennedy, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Louise Welsh and Alan Bissett.

29 August, Charlotte Square Gardens

ART

Robert Rauschenberg: Botanical Vaudeville

The first large-scale exhibition of work by the American artist in the UK for 30 years brings together work from the 1980s and 1990s, including his Glut sculptures made from old car parts, and the glitzy Borealis paintings on copper sheets.

To 2 October, Inverleith House

Mystics or Rationalists?

Cornelia Parker, Katie Paterson, Simon Starling and Susan Hiller feature in a group show dedicated to the mysterious workings of the conceptual artist.

4 August to 29 October, Ingleby Gallery

Elizabeth Blackadder

Best known for her paintings of flowers and cats, but this appealing retrospective will also put some of the Scottish painter's lesser-known, more abstract paintings on show.

To 2 January, Scottish National Gallery

The Year of the Newcomer: 10 to watch on the fringe

Holly Walsh

During her time as a children's TV presenter, this deft comic survived jumping off the end of a pier; that followed an equally lucky escape from Channel 4's ill-fated 'TNT Show' with Jack Whitehall. A former art-history student, Holly Walsh is finally exhibiting her hour-long spectacle, 'The Hollycopter'.

Pleasance Courtyard

W Kamau Bell

Credited with telling the first joke about Barack Obama, W Kamau Bell joked in 2005 that Obama's name was too black to ever let him be president. The San Franciscan's predictive blip turned to popular blooper and he hasn't looked back since. His Fringe debut promises to end racism "in about an hour", though there's no mention of a money-back guarantee.

Pleasance Courtyard

Josh Widdicombe

A finalist in the established So You Think You're Funny competition just a few months after he started stand-up in 2008, Josh Widdicombe has since clocked up many more plaudits, reaching the 2010 Leicester Comedy Award final and winning 'FHM''s Stand-Up Hero in the same year.

Pleasance Courtyard

Jessica Fostekew

Having decided that showbusiness, and not law, was where her future lay post-university, this LSE graduate has fared well in various competitions. The show 'Luxury Tramp' is her latest project, heading up a raft of theatre work and writing credits, including Radio 4's 'The Now Show'.

Gilded Balloon Teviot

Tom Rosenthal

The son of the sports presenter Jim Rosenthal and star of Channel 4's 'Friday Night Dinner' comes to the Fringe with 'Child of Privilege'. As part of the cast of 'Chicken Soup with Barley' at the Royal Court Theatre, and a finalist in several stand-up competitions, Tom Rosenthal has already tasted stage success this year.

Pleasance Courtyard

Sheeps: A Sketch Show

With a mass of writing and performing credits with Cambridge Footlights and at the Old Vic behind them, Liam Williams, Daran Johnson and Alastair Roberts bring their first full show to Edinburgh. In their own words: "Think the Two Ronnies meets Sheeps, and then the Two Ronnies leave."

Pleasance Courtyard

Dregs

Battling it out with 'Sheeps' and just as hotly tipped are Dregs, namely Max Dickins and Mark Smith. The duo's play on infighting builds to preposterous results, a flavour of which has been showcased on Channel 4's 'This Just In' and BBC2's 'Dick and Dom's Funny Business'.

Underbelly, Cowgate

Joe Wilkinson

One half of the clever and absurd sketch duo Two Episodes of M*A*S*H, Joe Wilkinson flies solo this year with a debut hour of stand-up, 'My Mum's Called Stella and My Dad's Called Brian'. He has the wind beneath his wings after appearances on 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' and 'Have I Got News for You', as well as a role in the BBC3 sitcom 'Him & Her'.

Pleasance Courtyard

Vikki Stone & the Flashbacks

Though she has been criticised for her route one approach, Vikki Stone can throw up some offbeat and amusing riffs with her raucous antics. A former backing singer for Elton John, Stone has also appeared in an a cappella musical about London Transport, and in no less than four Abba tribute bands.

Gilded Balloon

Matthew Crosby

Another sketch boy gone solo, this pocket-sized Woody Allen-alike is discharged from his duties with the three-hander troupe Pappy's to go on an 'AdventureParty'. Cute, winsome and clever is what's expected. The challenge is to spread that charm over 60 minutes.

Pleasance Courtyard

JULIAN HALL

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