Go to Edinburgh to enjoy a really dreadful show

Bloody Gaddafi's in everything. I bet it's only because he's got the same agent as Gareth Gates
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The Independent Online

Every year when I see the array of reviews for Edinburgh shows, I wonder whether it would be possible for any of them to beat the one that described a show in which three actors walked on to the stage naked, then wandered around in circles until one of them did a dump on stage. And the reviewer wrote politely, "At this point 12 of the audience walked out." Surely the interesting part here is the people who stayed. Did some of them lean across to the person they came with and say, "Let's give it another five minutes."

Every year when I see the array of reviews for Edinburgh shows, I wonder whether it would be possible for any of them to beat the one that described a show in which three actors walked on to the stage naked, then wandered around in circles until one of them did a dump on stage. And the reviewer wrote politely, "At this point 12 of the audience walked out." Surely the interesting part here is the people who stayed. Did some of them lean across to the person they came with and say, "Let's give it another five minutes."

The Edinburgh Festival is one of those things that, when you're there, seems to be not just the most important event in the universe but the only event in the universe. Hundreds of performers will have already tossed this edition of The Independent across the room, scowling "Oh – so they can send Robert Fisk to Afghanistan but still haven't got anyone to review my show." Some of them, in desperation will have turned to the foreign pages muttering "Maybe it's here," then read as far as "relations with Libya continue to improve" and yelled, "Oh, bloody Gaddafi, he's in everything. I bet it's only because he's got the same agent as Gareth Gates."

When you're part of it, it all seems so vital. I was furious one year because each day I was described in one newspaper as a "cockney comic". As if my show entailed me setting up a stall and flogging knocked-off sets of bathroom scales. But it's unlikely this made any appreciable difference, unless there were groups of disappointed pensioners each night thinking, "I'm sure this ranting will stop in a minute and he'll do 'The Lambeth Walk'."

It's like being part of a cult. It's only when you stop going that you realise no one who isn't there cares. Most people are probably nearer to the way my parents were, who, if they accidentally switched on BBC2 as it was showing a play or an opera would scramble for the button and shriek "Aaagh, get it out of here," as if a giant centipede had crawled into the room.

Eventually, just like an ex-cult member, you wonder why you ever took part at all. The conditions in the theatres wouldn't be tolerated by performers or audience anywhere else. In most of the venues you can hear other shows going on next door and upstairs, until you're not sure which noises are part of the show you're watching and which aren't. So you might puzzle for weeks over why, in the middle of a moving soliloquy about child abuse, there was a sudden burst of "Singing in the Rain".

But maybe these drawbacks are part of the festival's charm. In Edinburgh, because there are performances all day in almost every street, you can enjoy shows that are dreadful, whereas the same experience at a mainstream theatre would be depressing. I once sat in a bored, stupefied daze through an angst-ridden piece of cobblers about Sylvia Plath, until someone pointed out that the guitarist doing the backing music in the corner was Joe Dolce, the bloke who did that "Shaddap You Face" song, at which point the whole scenario took on a new meaning. We were watching a career swing from twaddle about telling women to shut up to feminist twaddle, surely a life-enriching experience. Has anyone else gone down a similar road? To repent for "Rabbit", will Chas and Dave end up in a fringe production of "Fat is a Feminist Issue", with their closing number "Male domination, it's an abomination, that's what we say on Southend pier."

The most enjoyable side to these Edinburgh experiences is that afterwards you get to mix with thousands of others, all with their own tales, as the city is packed with people connected by a common purpose. So a camaraderie grows, which creates a sort of democracy about which shows do well and which do badly. Because despite the armies of agents, promoters, TV executives, publicists and sponsors, no show can withstand the force of lots of people saying it isn't very good. You can spend thousands on slapping up posters hailing yourself as a genius, but if 50 people say you're rubbish, that verdict will be known by thousands within hours. Equally, as long as it can get enough in to start with, a brilliant show can do all right with little publicity.

But the finest attraction of the festival is the debauchery. Somehow, as soon as you arrive, it seems biologically unnatural to go to bed before five in the morning. Every night offers a bizarre venue for a late drink, that in any other circumstances would seem implausible. As the bar you're in at half past one is closing, someone will announce there's an all-night aquarium with a late license round the corner and off you go. Last year, at five in the morning, I discovered a postman's pub that was open, which I'm sure only exists if you're already drunk. From there we carried on until four in the afternoon, completing a 22-hour session that left me ill for a month. I know it's pathetic, but in 20 years of going to Edinburgh, I don't think I've ever been as proud.

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