The festival now arriving . . .: The circus is coming to town: fly-posting battles are starting, box-office records being broken, and acts and spectators flooding into Edinburgh. Peter Guttridge met some of them off the train

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The Independent Culture
The man dressed as a spotty dog gets scarcely a second glance as he steps off the train from King's Cross at Edinburgh's Waverley station. Another dog - the real thing - seems mildly interested when, carrying a briefcase, Dogman (in the person of John Dowie, promoting his new kids' show) joins the long queue for taxis with the show's director, Victor Spinetti. But nobody else pays much attention: it's just another act arriving for the festival.

According to the Fringe press pack, it would take a convoy of almost 200 coaches to get the 9,234 performers, writers, directors and producers from 36 countries into Edinburgh at approximately the same time. In fact, they've been arriving all this week by train, bus, car and plane, in readiness for the Fringe's official opening tomorrow. (The Film Festival starts today, the main Festival also starts tomorrow.)

The city is already packed with tourists from all over the world, but its population will double in the course of the next three weeks. All week the Tattoo and the Jazz Festival have been selling out, but now it's time for the main event.

'The box-office was quite slow at first,' says the Fringe director Hilary Strong. 'But this week it's taken off to record-breaking levels.' Since Sunday, Graham Horton, a festival veteran, has been doing a morning show on Festival FM Radio. 'There was no real feeling of the festival until Wednesday, when the Pleasance opened. Then, sitting in the bar with familiar faces around you, you thought 'Yes, here we go.' '

The Assembly Rooms are usually the main focus of the festival, but until Friday they were eerily quiet - except, that is, for the noise of staple guns punching posters to every available wall.

The first night of shows at the Pleasance was entirely trouble-free. Frank Skinner, this year's hot comedian, had cancelled his Wednesday-night show some days ago, but nobody at the Pleasance seemed to realise it until 20 minutes before curtain-up. By the middle of the week the first, neat examples of fly-posting were in place all over the city. By Thursday morning, some had already been posted over and the annual poster war, with its attendant violence, had apparently begun.

In a festival in which 1,275 shows are jostling for attention, the life expectancy of a poster is no more than two hours. Nobody would give odds on the survival prospects of posters on official council boards promoting a regular Hare Krishna meeting at a local church or An Evening of Mario Lanza Songs in the open-air theatre beneath the Castle.

British Midland has been flying bigger planes on its London-Edinburgh route, so by Wednesday the airport was seething with performers and echoing to the trill of dozens of mobile phones belonging to producers, agents and PRs. Comedians Hattie Hayridge and Linda Smith arrived around 4pm to be greeted effusively by the director of their show, Split Tease. 'We sent him up on the plane ahead of ours,' Hayridge says. 'We thought we'd be like royalty and avoid all travelling together, just in case.'

By Thursday, however, the railway station is the place to be. In the city itself, Emma Freud is doing an intro to camera for the television coverage of the festival, assisted by a unicyclist, with other street performers - jugglers, fire- eaters and a sculptor from New Zealand wreaking havoc on a lump of stone - in the background.

The city's fire officers are checking out shows. Marathon, a two-hander (or perhaps two-footer) in which the actors never stop running, has its entire set taken away. It is just a sheet of plastic, but even so . . . The Jim Rose Circus puts on a virtuoso performance of chainsaw juggling but the fire officer doesn't like it. (By Friday, Rose is rumoured to be injured.)

The Tokyo Shock Boys, whose performance, once seen, is never forgotten (however hard you try), are allowed to perform their firework stunts, which involve exploding them out of their backsides. Ginny, the Shock Boys' production assistant, is at the station, waiting for a local train to go and collect the live scorpions that crawl over the bald heads of two performers as part of the act.

Scorpion wrangling, as the film companies would call it, is not actually on Ginny's job description, but she's more worried about tracking down food for the creatures. 'I need two months' supply of live crickets and cockroaches. I assumed, being an old city, there would be cockroaches in some of the ropier flats, but it must be too cold for them. They eat baby mice, too, but I draw the line at that. There are a couple of spiders in the bath at the flat we're all staying at that they can have to be going on with.'

Scottish stand-up Phil Kay is standing around the station waiting area, looking bemused. He's supposed to be meeting a couple of Australian performers coming up from London on a train that doesn't seem to exist on the timetable. That's OK, there are other festival people to meet. Coming by train from Glasgow or Manchester airport, they converge, hugging. The railway staff look on, bored. Trains from London are having problems, anyway. It turns out later that everybody involved in the Anorak of Fire show (about train-spotting at Doncaster station) has been stuck on a stationary train for an hour at, erm, Doncaster.

Other people just look like they are here for the festival. Is that a second Dogman getting changed at a luggage locker? No, just a guy getting ready for work. Kurt and his five young friends, weighed down with musical instruments and rucksacks, could be Fringe performers, but in fact they are students from Munich, originally intending to come for the weekend but now obliged to move on the following morning because of the rail strike.

With InterCity East Coast able to run less than 20 per cent of its usual mileage during the next three days of strike action and ScotRail equally hampered, audiences for the festival might find it hard to get into the city. And that's just this week. As William Burdett-Coutts, the director of the Assembly Rooms, says: 'The strike could be disastrous for us. We know performers will find other ways of getting here, but we have no way of knowing how many people will stay away because of the hassle. Even local audiences, on whom we rely, are going to have trouble coming to shows.'

At around six on Thursday evening, three of the four Frigidaires, a cappella singers with a sharp line in repartee, arrive at Platform 19 overburdened with luggage. The fourth member missed the train (the monsoon in London had flooded the tubes, causing delays). An hour later the three of them are at the first, extremely crowded launch party of the festival, at the Gilded Balloon, wearing the seriously bouffant wigs that clearly took up much of their luggage. They are dolled up as the supermodels in their show 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. The fourth one still hasn't arrived but that doesn't worry them now. After all, this is it. The festival has started.

(Photographs omitted)

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