City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh Fringe Previews: the Smorgasbord Is Served

By edg - Posted on 31 July 2014

Assembly Hall entrance

The Edinburgh Fringe is upon us. Officially, the mega fest doesn't start until Friday 1st August (continuing til 25th), but something this size takes time to work up a head of steam.

The big tents, pop-up venues, boards and scaffolding are now mostly up, the High Street is filling with thrusting performers and docile crowds, and performers are anxiously unveiling their new shows in cut-price preview performances in pokey wee venues around town.

In spite of Edinburgh's reliably, unreliable weather (rain shower - sun - deluge - sunburn), there's a palpable excitement in the air, mixed with diesel fumes from gridlocked traffic and fresh paint and sawdust.

This is the time when venues hold their media preview shows. For any voracious fringe-goer armed with a media pass this is an exciting, and possibly, highly inebriating time, given that the shows are all crushed into the first 72 hours of the Fringe and complementary alcoholic beverages are liberally proffered by way of lubricating one's critical faculties.

These smorgasbord styled shows are a great way to sample Fringe fare, although falling upon them a little too greedily can be like being force-fed second-rate vols au vents and assorted cocktail snacks after having not eaten for a long time. It can cause the cultural equivalent of indigestion.

My first Fringe preview show was at Just the Tonic The Caves, a dank, dark burrow in the Cowgate (aka the Caves for the rest of the year). This a friendly little Fringe venue, one of four Old Town venues run by Just The Tonic (the others being The Community Project, The Tron, The Mash House). Club boss Darrell Martin seems to run a tight ship on a budget significantly more slender than some of the bigger venues, positioning the club as a destination for value alternative stand-up comedy acts, sometimes with magic or music, (think afternoon showcase for a fiver, 2 hours of comedy for under a tenner, rather than free ).

Among the 14 or so acts, we were treated to some amusing verbal playfulness from comedy sketch trio Big Brass, a pounding, catchy track from Rocky-Horror-esque musical, Saucy and the Space Vixens all dolled up in high boots and sci-glam outfits, and a series of jokes from purveyor of one-liners and the double entendres Mark Simmons. The event rounded off with magic and risqué horseplay from Scots trio The Colour Ham, which involved passing a bottle through compere Eric Lampaert's body, to his apparent mortification.

There were two more previews on my daily diary. Both organisations carry the name "Assembly" but are unrelated and probably still not on good terms as they still schedule their press shows to happen at the same time.

Having double-booked, I hit Assembly Hall on the Mound first, for Assembly Festival's show, where the audience was greeted in the courtyard by a pet zombie, all bloodied and gnashing, tugging ferociously on his owner's rope. Standing a few feet away under the statue of Reformation firebrand John Knox, Assembly Festival boss Bill Burdett-Coutts, tanned and grey-suited, looked a picture of composure. Even after all these years, though, I bet there's still butterflies on opening night.

Assembly Festival kicked off with a rousing ensemble dance act from Auckland New Zealand - Haka. As the title of the show suggests, the performance was of a Maori war dance so beloved of rugby crowds whenever the All Blacks play. This was full-on, with all the familiar foot-pounding, tongue-waggling, eye-balling and waving of traditional weaponry. The performance, which includes a strong contingent of women, was excellently choreographed and got a deserved roar of approval from the crowd.

We were also treated to a couple of songs from rock musical "Janis Joplin: Full Tilt". Biographical musicals of rock legends are all the rage. It's hardly cutting edge stuff, but I'm sure people will flock to hear Angela Darcy's impressive and powerful voice.

As Burdett-Coutts made his speech, I had to bow out (sorry, Bill) to catch the other Assembly.

The immediately striking aspect of Assembly Rooms Fringe (aka "AR Fringe") is the very swish venue itself. It is magnificent, even if there is less Fringe venue than before the refurbishment. Tommy Shepherd's AR Fringe, now in the third year of its three-year licence, is also setting up more of its store in St Andrew Square with a smaller footprint on George Street itself this year.

Drinks in hand, we took our place in the rather cramped seats for the show. Veteran compere Fred MacAulay, who I'm sure is dry and witty even in his sleep, peppered the proceedings with anecdotes gleaned from years as a professional mirth-maker.

This was a most varied programme ranging from banter about the Scottish Independence Referendum (Aye Right? How No?) with much mockery of people's ideas about what a yes vote will mean, to highly skilled, jive dance on roller skates on a small table; there was a word from the Los Angeles producer and the star of The Trial of Jane Fonda and a syrupy rendition of a love song from Siddharta, the Indian musical based on Herman Hesse's novel, in Italian, with subtitles.

Camille O'Sullivan sang captivatingly, as always, and piano playing team Worbey & Farrell impressed us with their fast-fingered virtuosity on the ivories as in years past.

Seems fair to say AR Fringe's programme is an eclectic one. Much of it not my kind of thing. But then with over 3,190 shows listed in the Fringe programme, you're only ever going to manage a fraction of what's on offer.