The Fringe keeps the flame alive

There were fears the Olympics would suck the life from festivities further north – but they're going as strong as ever. Alice Jones picks the highlights

The Olympic stadium in London might have the torch but for the next three weeks Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh will be aflame night after night with the dramatic centrepiece of this year's Edinburgh Festival, Speed of Light. As darkness falls each evening, some 300 runners will put on light suits to sprint up the mountain pursued by an audience of 800, also carrying torches, in a dazzling display.

The event is just one nod to that other global gathering of talent taking place in the UK in the summer of 2012. The theatre programme is bursting with sport, with plays about everything from darts champions (Northern Stage's Best in the World, St Stephen's) to female boxers (Bitch Boxer, Underbelly). Active audience members can sign up for Endure (Assembly George Square), a "run-woman show" about marathons that takes place over the course of a 5k jog. Less active souls might prefer Holly Rumble's One-Minute Birdwatching (exactly what it sounds like) in West Princes Street Gardens. Even the comedians are getting fit for 2012. Mark Watson's Edinborolympics will pit teams of stand-ups – so far Watson, David O'Doherty and Adam Hills have all signed up – against one another in a variety of eccentric sporting contests.

The build-up to the Fringe this year has been dominated by talk of the Olympic effect. Some of the big names are staying away but there is still a reassuring cluster of familiar faces on offer – Stewart Lee, Simon Munnery, Josie Long, and Lucy Porter, to name but a few. Elsewhere, there's a chance for circuit favourites like Susan Calman, Nick Helm, Sara Pascoe, Totally Tom, James Acaster and Stuart Goldsmith to continue their rise, not to mention the masses of newcomers who this year have the chance to seize their golden opportunity. And as news emerged this week that people were actually staying away from London after such dire warnings about the consequences of the Games, the hopes of a bumper year further north were burnished further still.

The usual oddities abound. You can pinball from breakfast with a dream interpreter (Kaya, Assembly George Square), to a lunchtime peepshow (Peep, Pleasance Courtyard) and an evening of song, dance and laughter with David Hasselhoff. Take a chance and make sure to sample some of the free offerings that continue to go from strength to strength. The Free Fringe has shows from Robin Ince, Phill Jupitus and Thom Tuck, while comedy website London Is Funny is running lunchtime gigs at Ciao Roma featuring the biggest names on the Fringe – Cardinal Burns, Phil Nichol, Pippa Evans and Josh Widdicombe are all on the bill of fare. Having been left venue-less by developers, there is no Forest Fringe as such this year. Instead, the team have devised Paper Stages, a free booklet containing pieces by 20 artists, including Bryony Kimmings, Kim Noble and Nic Green, each of which is a set of instructions for the reader/ audience to make their own work, be it downloading an MP3 to following a walk through the city. "The idea is that the audience make their own festival", apparently – and what could be more in the Fringe spirit than that?

Finally, the Turner Prize-winning sound artist Susan Philipsz has reworked the famous One O'clock Gun salute, giving Edinburgh a city-wide daily starting gun. So what are you waiting for? On your marks, get set, go!

Comedy

Daniel Kitson

Having taken a year off last year, the comedians' comedian is back with two new shows. In the afternoon he will perform his one-man play at the Traverse; at midnight he will be at The Stand with Where Once Was Wonder, a stand-up show about, among other things, "impossibility, change, not joining in, love, haircuts and loneliness." Must-see.

'As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title', Traverse Theatre, 7 to 26 August, not 13 or 20 (0131 228 1404); ' Where Once Was Wonder', The Stand, 5 to 26 August, not Fridays or Saturdays (0131 558 7272)

Sarah Kendall

The Australian comedian, nominated for the Perrier in 2004, hasn't appeared at the Fringe for five years so Get Up, Stand Up is cause for celebration. Expect cerebral rants on everything from motherhood to pole-dancing. One for fans of the other Sarah, Silverman.

Pleasance Courtyard, to 27 August, not 13 (0131 556 6550)

Andrew Maxwell

The Irish comedian had a storming year in 2011 when his freewheeling stand-up show, which changed by the day in response to the riots, was nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award. This year he's back with more searing topical material delivered in his trademark laid-back style. A stand-up up who is going from strength to strength.

Assembly George Square, to 27 August, not 13 (0131 623 3030)

Harry Hill

The official return of Harry Hill to the live circuit after six years away is big news. He's only in Edinburgh for the briefest of stints, trying out material for an autumn tour alongside his showband The Caterers but for the rest of the month the comedian is staging his first solo exhibition in the city. Modestly titled "My Hobby", the show will include his oil paintings of Britpop artists and "Alex Salmond holding a salmon", among other surreal offerings.

The Stand, 11.30am and 1.15pm today (0131 558 7272; www.thestand.co.uk ); 'My Hobby', White Stuff, to 2 September (0131 6300 0330)

Jessie Cave

Best known for playing Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter films, Cave has been busy building her comedy credentials with an online video diary with Simon Amstell and a guest appearance in Grandma's House. She makes her Fringe debut in Bookworm, a character comedy in which she plays the bossy head of a book club.

Underbelly, to 26 August, not 13 (0844 545 8252)

Sheeps

A refreshing discovery last year, this trio of misfits is the latest to emerge from the Footlights factory. It's sketch comedy but not as you know it with odd, low-key routines about the private life of the Poet Laureate and show-tunes about the dark side of Hollywood. Eccentric, unsettling and very funny – catch them now before television snaps them up.

Pleasance Courtyard, to 26 August, not 13 (0131 556 6550)

Tony Law

Crowned Chortle's "Breakthrough Act" earlier this year after 14 years in the business, this is likely to be a big Fringe for the Canadian stand-up. His odd blend of surreal stories, booming delivery and idiosyncratic costume – think 19th-century Arctic explorer – is hard to explain (the show's title, Maximum Nonsense, is spot-on) and even harder to resist.

The Stand, to 27 August, not 13 (0131 226 0000)

Horne and Key and...

Both Alex Horne and Tim Key have their own shows at this year's Fringe – Horne once again hosts his comedy/jazz night The Horne Section while Key revives last year's show, Masterslut – but for one night only they team up for a chatshow with a difference. Expect a high calibre of guests and some PowerPoint.

Pleasance Dome, 14 August (0131 556 6550)

Cariad Lloyd

If you like Laura Solon, chances are you will enjoy the painfully funny creations of Cariad Lloyd. Her free show last year led to a nomination for Best Newcomer in the Edinburgh Comedy Awards and a supporting role in E4's Cardinal Burns. She returns with a new cast of comedy characters this year.

Pleasance Courtyard, to 27 August, not 14 (0131 556 6550)

Nick Mohammed

His last show combined violin, feats of memory and magic with acutely observed character comedy in one of the most smile-inducing hours on the Fringe. Now Mohammed returns, once again in character as bossy-boots life coach Mr Swallow, and with new and improved tricks.

Pleasance Courtyard, to 26 August (0131 556 6550)

Hanks and Conran

This new female double act – Susan Hanks and Lou Conran – come with Sarah Millican's seal of approval, which can't be a bad thing. Fresh from supporting Millican, the duo's Fringe debut, Pigs in Blankets, will reveal the secrets of their on-stage comedy chemistry/ bickering.

Just the Tonic @ The Caves, to 26 August, not 14 (0131 556 5375)

Theatre

Coalition

It's 2014, the PM and his deputy have stopped speaking, the economy is in the doldrums and the government is limping into its final days. So runs the premise for this red-hot new satire by Robert Kahn, a Labour councillor in Islington, north London and Tom Salinsky, director of the improv company The Spontaneity Shop. Thom Tuck, Best Newcomer nominee at last year's Edinburgh Comedy Awards, plays Cleggalike Lib Dem leader, Matt Cooper; Phill Jupitus, Jo Caulfield and Simon Evans are among the comically gifted supporting cast.

Pleasance Dome, to 26 August, not 13 (0131 556 6550)

Love Letters to the Public Transport System

Molly Taylor's monologue relates her quest to track down – and thank – the drivers of buses and trains who have transported her to significant moments, and significant others, in her life. A National Theatre of Scotland production.

The Assembly Rooms, to 26 August, not 13, 20 (0844 693 3008)

Theatre Uncut

A world premiere from Neil LaBute is the chief attraction of this series of breakfast plays at the Traverse, which offers political drama with a side of bacon sandwiches. David Greig and Anders Lustgarten offer the UK's perspective on the current state of affairs while Mohammad Al Attar and Lena Kitsopoulou represent Syria and Greece, respectively.

Traverse Theatre, 6, 13, 20 August (0131 228 1404)

Still Life

Sue MacLaine performs a one-woman show about the life of Henrietta Moraes, fast-living muse to Freud, Bacon and Hambling, among others. The twist? She does it in the nude, in the setting of a life-drawing class. Pick up a charcoal stick and settle in.

Whitespace, 11 Gayfield Square, to 27 Aug, not 7, 14, 21 (0131 226 000)

Old Vic, New Voices

The Old Vic's new talent arm is taking a season to the Fringe for the first time and very tempting it is too. Of the five productions, Bitch Boxer, Charlotte Josephine's meditation on female fighters and Luke Barnes's Chapel Street, a poetic ode to Broken Britain sound particularly interesting.

Underbelly, to 27 August (0844 545 8252)

Gulliver's Travels

Following up its 2009 production of Faust – 100 performers, giant fires and a spectacular collapsing set – could be a tall order for Romania's Radu Stanca National Theatre of Sibiu. This time, Silviu Purcarete and his company are tackling an even bigger beast – Gulliver's Travels – in what is sure to be the epic highlight of this year's International Festival.

King's Theatre, 17 to 20 August (0131 473 2000)

Back to School

Relive the best days of your life with this site-specific show that casts the audience as school pupils at the fictional Saint Dumbiedykes. The brainchild of actress and presenter Clementine Wade and playwright Ranjit Bolt, the show will shepherd audiences through dissection classes, school dinners and assemblies. And on Friday and Saturday nights the venue will transform into a school disco.

Pleasance at Braidwood Centre, to 26 August (0131 556 6550)

I Heart Peterborough

One of the UK's most exciting young playwrights, Joel Horwood (whose I Caught Crabs in Walberswick won a Fringe First in 2008) premieres his latest work, a father-and-son drama set in an "overspill town".

Pleasance Courtyard, to 27 August, not 7, 14, 21 (0131 556 6550)

Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke

A bold interactive piece from rising star Ross Sutherland that re-creates the last two minutes of stand-up delivered by "Joe Pops Pooley" before he was tragically murdered on stage. You could find yourself playing the bar-man, the heckler, even Joe himself.

Pleasance Dome, to 27 August, not 13 (0131 556 6550)

Dance

Tatyana

Deborah Colker is one of the most vibrant contemporary dance companies in the world. In this European premiere, the Brazilian outfit transports Pushkin's thwarted romance from 19th-century Russia to modern-day Rio and gives it a sassy female-centred twist. Playhouse, 11 to 14 August (0131 473 2000)

Cinderella

The Mariinsky Ballet brings Alexei Ratmansky's lavish, contemporary reworking of the fairytale to the International Festival. Valery Gergiev conducts.

Festival Theatre. 30 August to 1 September (0131 473 2000)

Flash Mob

A high-energy show of all dance styles from samba to street performed by a super troupe of stars from various television talent shows (So You Think You Can Dance? Got to Dance). Joining in is actively encouraged.

Assembly Hall, to 27 Aug, not 14 (0131 623 3030)

Music

Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera has commissioned four brand new works from a cross-section of exciting names to mark its 50th anniversary celebrations. Katie Mitchell directs James MacMillan's Clemency; Craig Armstrong has adapted Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea; Louise Welsh has written the libretto for Ghost Patrol and Huw Watkins' In the Locked Room is based on a short story by Thomas Hardy.

King's Theatre/ Traverse Theatre, 29 August to 2 September (0131 473 2000)

An evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer

Stalwarts of the Edinburgh Fringe, the husband and wife appear together for one night only. The Dresden Dolls frontwoman will sing while fantasy writer Gaiman will read from his works. And maybe the other way round.

The Queen's Hall, 12 August (0131 668 2019)

Santigold

Santi White brings the sound of summer, and tracks from her recent album, Master of My Make-Believe, to the city.

HMV Picture House, 22 August (0843 221 0100)

The Makropulos Case

Janacek's mystery thriller about an opera diva and the quest for eternal life opens the International Festival. Ylva Kihlberg takes the Marlene Dietrich-style lead. An Opera North production.

Festival Theatre, 11 & 13 August (0131 473 2000)

The Horne Section

The finest way to spend a late night at the Fringe, Alex Horne's stylish shindig mixing comedy with a live jazz band moves into the larger Pleasance Grand this year. Expect a carefully curated selection of comedy special guests who will showcase their hidden musical talents.

Pleasance Courtyard, 9 to 22 August (0131 556 6550)

The Francis Bacon Opera

Described as a "boozy, artistic Frost/ Nixon" Stephen Crowe's experimental new opera has a libretto based on Francis Bacon's infamously lairy interview with Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show in 1986.

C Venues, 19 to 27 August (0845 260 1234)

Art

Cheer Up! It's Not the End of the World

We're all doomed! An exhibition of works exploring the apocalypse by Damian Hirst, Andy Warhol and the Chapman Brothers, among others. Timely.

Edinburgh Printmakers, to 8 September (0131 557 2479)

Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910

The National Gallery's summer blockbuster brings together major hitters like Gauguin and Munch with less well-known Scandinavian artists such as Hammershoi in a mystical, beguiling show.

Scottish National Gallery, to 14 October (0131 624 6200)

Summerhall

Edinburgh University's former veterinary school is fast becoming one of the most vibrant venues on the Fringe. Highlights of a packed visual arts programme include Ian Hamilton Finlay's take on the French revolution, Rankin's collaboration with Pam Hogg and Only Women Women Only – an exhibition of work by female artists for female visitors only. If you buy five separate tickets to shows at the venue, you'll gain access to a secret exhibition in a locked room, featuring the work of a "well-known contemporary British artist".

www.summerhall.co.uk; 0845 874 3001

Books

Zadie Smith

The author returns to the childhood haunts that inspired her debut, White Teeth, in her fourth novel NW. She previews the new work (which will be published in September) and talks – no doubt about being overlooked for the Booker – to James Naughtie.

Charlotte Square Gardens, 25 August ( 0845 373 5888; www.edbookfest.co.uk)

Ian McEwan

The Booker Prize winner will appear in a joint event with the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, sharing observations on politics, literature and life. In a separate event, he will talk about his forthcoming novel, the spy thriller, Sweet Tooth.

Charlotte Square Gardens, 22 & 23 August ( 0845 373 5888; edbookfest.co.uk)

Unbound

A series of free events running nightly during the Book Festival includes stints from Joe Dunthorne's spoken word night Homework, Glasgow's Words Per Minute, Literary Death Match and Faber Social. Elsewhere, Mark Haddon will give a talk about great white sharks, there's an evening of Icelandic sagas and song and McSweeney's present the best new short stories, hot off the press. Something for everyone, then.

Charlotte Square Gardens, 12 to 27 August ( 0845 373 5888; www.edbookfest.co.uk )

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