While many Edinburgh folk are thoroughly relieved when the Festival ends, many are left bereft. I felt a palpable sense of ennui walking along the Cowgate on Monday afternoon. In this now quiet thoroughfare, only remnants of the Fringe remained. Flyers were no longer being proffered but instead such Fringe detritus was starting to encrust the pavements.
In my previous piece on the Edinburgh Fringe, I looked at one of the venues used all year round, Summerhall
. This week, I continue the theme by looking at the variety of venues used during the Fringe. These range between large, elegant auditoriums and dark, cramped sweat boxes. Wildly differing Fringe experiences result from this heterogeneity.
Hitting the Fringe big time
My Fringe ended on a warm and uplifting note through Rob Auton's moving Crowd Show
. Every year Auton performs a new show based around a particular theme. Previous shows have focused on sleep, hair, time, and the colour yellow. Having such a clear focus provides his shows with the type of thematic unity often absent from Fringe performances. He brings these themes to life with his mixture of eccentric interactions with the audience, poetic musings and inspired social observations He has steadily built up a cult following. Incrementally larger audiences have taken him through a wide variety of the Fringe venues.
I first encountered Auton in the Banquet Hall at the Banshee Labyrinth, playing in the PBH Free Fringe. This dark and rather cramped space is typical of the type of room used by those performers beginning their Fringe journey. I warmly recall a slightly ramshackle but thoroughly enjoyable performance. Subsequent performances have been at places such as the 80-seater Just the Tonic Mash House, the sort of intermediary venue suggesting someone on an upward trajectory. A wider audience was starting to take notice of Auton. This year he, as he had done in 2019, played one of the Assembly venues (The Blue Room); in Fringe terms, making the big time.
Auton has become more confident without ever becoming glib or slick. His self-mocking audience interplay remains delightful ('you missed some of the applause breaks in that bit'). Over the years, the amount of poetry in his shows has reduced but his musings continue to contain a nicely poetic character ('I'm not yet the me you want to see'). His microphone technique may still be a little clumsy, but he can utilise sound and lighting more fully when playing bigger and better venues.
Music enhanced the finale of the show; a truly inspiring meditation on the value of human life and the importance of collective experience. In short, that 'people bring things to life'. He opened up about his love of the communal aspect of public performance and how this has driven him on since his early days, when playing in tiny venues to small but appreciative audiences.
A weird time
Having spent most of my Fringe 2022 in smaller venues, it was a bit of a shock to the system to be in the Assembly Hall, with a capacity of around 1,000. This was to see Frankie Boyle who was putting on an extra performance of Lap of Shame
. As Boyle himself admitted, 11:50 in the morning was a 'weird time' for him to be performing. He decided not to 'tone down' his usual night-time act and performed at full throttle.
Among the many events held here over the year is the annual General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. There was something of a reverential atmosphere in the place as the audience waited patiently for Boyle to appear. After a slightly delayed start, Boyle was soon into his rhythm with this tightly-paced show, with lots of well-crafted material. As a contrast to his somewhat fiery public image, his endearing little laugh punctuated the performance.
Indirectly referring to the Sadowitz controversy
, Boyle emphasised that comedy is an onstage construct. What is said on stage belongs to the category of artistic licence. After some of his edgier lines, he was quick to add 'that was a joke… but is it a joke I should be saying in 2022?' There should, Boyle expressed, be freedom for the performer and also for audience members to criticise ('no-one is forcing you to like it').
After the military level organisation at the Assembly Hall and the cool, well-ventilated space, my next plunge into the Fringe was at a different style of venue. Here, the reinforcement work to the ceiling in this area seems to have been 'temporary' for at least six years. The bar area downstairs in the Cabaret Voltaire (Blair Street) is an ideal place to gauge the temperature of the Fringe. From there you can hear the action in three different performance spaces, giving you a chance to 'try before you buy'.
Over the years, I've seen some superb performances in these catacombs. In the Main Room, I've twice seen Ahir Shah produce searing performances, such as Control
in 2017. Subsequently, it's been strange hearing him on Radio 4, where the genial aspects of his character dominate over the incisive and often indignant political commentator that I've seen at the Cabaret Voltaire.
The Main Room is rather long and narrow to be an ideal venue, and some of the seating on the side has a very restricted view. In well-attended shows, some members of the audience sit at the back of the stage, which can be very distracting for some of the performers. As compere of a selection of Australian and New Zealand comics (AC/DC: Australian Comedians/ Dope Comedy
), Daniel Muggleton did a superb job dealing with this weirdness and using it to his advantage.
Admittedly, the packed room, with all the doors and entrances filled up, constituted something of a fire hazard ('we are all screwed if a fire starts'). The show was classic Saturday fare, the packed audience fully embracing an excellent series of short performances of varying styles. The space may have been cramped, dark and increasingly warm but the energy in the room was high with the performers really feeding off it.
Nathan Cassidy's Observational
illustrates the limitations of venues faced by many Fringe performers. Cassidy was performing in the Three Sisters pub on Cowgate. On any normal Saturday this place is busy and on the last weekend of the Fringe it was absolutely rammed. It was, however, easy to discern who the Fringe goers were amongst this throng. The backpacks and comfortable shoes gave the game away. The low ceilinged Maggie's Front Room used by Cassidy was already warm when we entered; the previous show had overrun and there had been no time to ventilate.
According to whispers in the queue, Cassidy had a tendency to be a little aggressive with those in the front row, so many hung back. They later regretted it as while the front of the room remained merely warm, due to a couple of fans, it soon became sweltering at the back. Cassidy had to battle with the attention of those at the rear wandering off towards fresh air and ice cold drinks. He was able to bring things together through a moving and uplifting finale that was well worth waiting for. No doubt though, the show would have been more enjoyable in less of a sweat box.
Dan Kelly (How I Came Third in the North Korean Marathon
) faced similar issues in a sweltering room at Just the Tonic. He kept the audience's attention throughout with a charming story, well told. His experiences preparing for the trip, and in North Korea were genuinely engrossing. Shows such as Kelly's provided welcome relief among the superfluity of moderately good stand-up.
The fringe of the Fringe
The two Free Fringes (PBH & Laughing Horse) have been at the forefront of finding new Fringe Venues, often in under-used sections of the Old Town. This is part of their creditable effort to make the Fringe more affordable for performers and audiences. This year, the PBH Free Fringe made use of a vacant section of the Omni Centre, previously home to the Walkabout pub. The space is cavernous so not really conducive to producing the type of intimate spaces required by inexperienced performers. Frankly, it looked like a refugee holding centre as I wandered in on a wet Wednesday afternoon.
The space had been divided up into five small 'rooms' using wooden barriers. Andrew Nolan (Mind Spew
) and Kathryn Higgins (Only Messing
) provided a reasonably engaging hour, though Nolan, as he admitted, was battling through a hangover. The combination itself was rather thrown together (Higgins' usual partner was unwell), which all added to the orderless feel of the place. 'There's no signs anywhere,' complained a middle aged-couple; frustrated they couldn't find the show they were after. They marched out… only to sheepishly return a couple of minutes later and slink into a show.
What The Omni Centre lacked was the sort of organisation found at more established Free Fringe venues in the Old Town, such as the Banshee Labyrinth or the Liquid Rooms on Victoria Street. At the Banshee Labyrinth, the queuing system is well-organised with a system of 'place holders' for the most popular shows. Ali Brice (I Tried To Be Funny, But You Weren't Looking
) had good audiences throughout for a show which combined absurdity with reflections on traumatic experience.
At the Liquid Rooms, the outdoor bar forms an excellent waiting area, with staff members giving clear instructions to the uncertain Fringe goers who stumble down the stairs. Alistair Barrie (Alistaircratic
) gave a typically good performance in the atmospheric Annexe, though he struggled at times with a slightly small and weary midweek audience. Some perhaps found his highly political focus too much, though his points were made intelligently as well as fervently. A short rap about him entering the Tory leadership race was perhaps the highlight.
The way that stand-up comedy has become an established part of our culture is manifested in venues such as Monkey Barrel and The Stand. Both operate 12 months of the year, so what they offer during the Fringe tends to be curated. These highly professional outfits provide performers and audiences with great lighting, sound and comfort. The clever silliness of Angelos Epithemiou: Can I Just Show You What I've Got?
at Monkey Barrel was just the type of show to make good use of a professional venue.
Simon Munnery (Trials and Tribulations
) is a Fringe veteran and this year performed at Stand 1 on York Place. Unlike some of those he performed with in the past, he has remained a cult performer. I recall a charming performance I witnessed several years ago which highlighted his highly creative use of audio and visual. That Munnery has been able to carve out a niche on the comedy circuit illustrates the way that it has become a viable career, even for those without mass appeal. Parallels with the long careers of cult bands is clear.
Trials and Tribulations
had a nostalgic feel, with his farcical arrest (and the subsequent trial) during one of Arthur Smith's famed late night tours of the Royal Mile the centrepiece. His style feels like a remnant of a bygone age, in which the comedy scene was small and ramshackle performances were common. After a largely engaging performance, the self-indulgent Archers
parody he ended on rather tested the patience of a sympathetic audience.
In his early days, Munnery performed alongside Steve Coogan, and Patrick Marber, Richard Herring and Stewart Lee ('whatever happened to those guys'). Lee was among those performing at The Stand this year. He is now seen as alternative comedy 'royalty', well known for his harsh critiques of mainstream performers such as Michael McIntyre.
Bronwyn Sweeney (sharing an hour with Abby Wambaugh) had, earlier in their short run, faced the daunting experience of performing in front of Lee, one of her comedy idols. Sweeney and Wambaugh were performing in The Stand's Studio, an intimate room but without feeling confined or claustrophobic. In contrast to the slightly mysterious (or downright confrontational) atmosphere that greets you in some venues, Sweeney and Wambaugh welcomed the audience members as if hosting a relaxed social event. This helped create a communal feel, with audience members involved rather than being targeted.
The show was given a substantial boost by an audience member (nicknamed 'Ass') who the performers bounced off superbly. Wambaugh meditated engagingly on the challenges of being non-binary ('is brunch a non-binary meal?'). Sweeney drew a lot of humour out of her career in advertising, including admitting some 'low points', when she found herself skipping adverts she had helped to create.
Rob Auton, discussed earlier, started his working life in advertising. His early shows and poetry were a cathartic way to deal with the despair this drove him into. In contrast, Sweeney remains in that world but did seem to use her performance to exorcise some demons. Our daily lives are filled with ads, which makes advertising a highly relatable topic for comedy. Unlike lockdown, however, it's not something we are over familiar with. So many shows this year were dragged down by prosaic lockdown reflections.
The show took place at Freemasons' Hall, one of the grand buildings on George Street. Though the Studio was in a basement, the cooling tiles on the walls made it feel rather distant from the rickety and stuffy venues I'd spent most of my Fringe in. There was no danger of anyone passing out here. Edinburgh is a city of contrasts, no more so than during August. Elegance and shadiness coexist. Many hidden spaces are revealed during the Fringe, only for the curtain to be drawn. These venues will often remain closed until 'the circus' hits town again. As Auton put it, these concealed venues need people to be brought back to life.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh