A Tale of Two Cities. When Dickens wrote this book he was referring to London and Paris during the French Revolution. But Edinburgh could claim this term as it’s very much a city split in two: the Old Town and the New Town. During our first three days at the Edinburgh Fringe we were die hard Old Townies: climbing countless cobbled steps, diving into the narrow closes and even burrowing underground to explore the hidden vaults. On our final day in Auld Reekie we eventually crossed the Rubicon – Waverley Bridge – and discovered a different Edinburgh. This city has wide boulevards, smart classical squares and not so many Fringe venues.
We headed for St Andrew’s Square and walked down elegant George Street. But even here there’s no escaping festivals. At the end of the street, in St Charlotte’s Square, we found another one: the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Stepping into the tents here felt spookily familiar. Our recent weekend at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writers’ Festival in Harrogate – déjà vu. Dougie and I both wished we’d researched this before we came as there were some brilliant writers appearing over the 17 days of the festival and not just our crime buddies.
No sooner had we arrived than Chelsea Clinton walked past. Now that was unexpected. I now know she was there to talk to Sally Magnusson about her two children’s books about women who made history; She Persisted and She Persisted Around the World. She signed copies of her books after her talk and seemed very happy to chat to everyone who had queued up to meet her.
We sniffed out the refreshments tent and thankfully ordered our coffee and cake before the hordes arrived from the Clinton session. This was just as well as the system in the tent was chaotic. One chap was writing names on the coffee cups, a la Starbucks, but if a couple (like us) were ordering, he only wrote the name on one cup so there were numerous nameless concoctions waiting for unknown customers. A very stroppy woman was arguing that her tea cup was too hot to hold and another looked aghast at her frothy coffee and demanded that she have “some cinnamon or chocolate sprinkles or SOMETHING to make it into a cappuccino.” We were most definitely in the posh part of the city here. The cake was divine though…
The Old Town was soon calling us back to its frenetic fringe fest. We had a quick peek into Princes Street gardens as we crossed the divide, laughing as we spotted an amusing notice on a mobile police unit, fully embracing the festival season.
Top talent beckoned in the form of impressionist Jon Culshaw, appearing in the Debating Hall of Teviot Row House, part of the Gilded Balloon stable of performers in Bristo Square. He was in conversation with one of his former producers, Bill Dare, in a show called The Great British Take Off. What a superb opportunity to see the versatility of Culshaw, bouncing off his friend with a constant stream of brilliant impressions. From John Bishop to Alan Bennett with some Trump and Robert Peston in between, this was an hour of unmissable entertainment and a real insight into his craft.
Just time for a bite to eat and we were spoilt for choice with street food options. Chick + Pea won the day with a delicious halloumi burger for Dougie and a falafel wrap for me. We’re not vegetarians but we couldn’t resist them.
Not far to walk to the Bedlam Theatre where young comedian, Ken Cheng, produced an hour of excellent stand-up. Nerdy maths jokes used to conceal a heartfelt story of family betrayal In his show, Best Dad Ever. A talented, intelligent performer. Another one to watch for the future.
Back to Bristo Square for our final Edinburgh Fringe show: Helen Lederer performing a stand-up routine in her show, I Might as Well Say It. And indeed she did. A fast-paced canter (maybe a bit too fast?) through her career to date including TV appearances in Absolutely Fabulous, Splash and Big Brother. I loved her stories and her no-holds-barred delivery. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste as reviews were quite mixed but she does have a clever way with words and her self-deprecating yet frank style was very refreshing.
We had saved the big event for our final night. We booked premier seats for the extravaganza that is the Edinburgh tattoo: I might only do this once so we pushed the boat out for the best views towards Edinburgh Castle. Of course, to offset this profligacy, we ate frugally. To be honest, we didn’t have the time or inclination for a proper dinner so grabbed a tin of beans, a packet of ham and some oven chips and cooked up a feast back at Old Town Chambers. Classy.
The Tattoo was everything I’d expected, after watching it on the TV for so many years. The skirling pipes and rattling drums, a cast of 1200 and a glittering light show against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle: emotional and stirring. The theme for this year’s production was The Sky’s The Limit so the 90 minute show began with honey bees and charted flight with birds, hot air balloons, jets and rockets. As a former Highland Dancer in my youth (you’re looking at the North of England Beginner’s Champion of 1973) it was thrilling to see the traditional moves that I still know so well, incorporated into some very skilful group choreography.
It was a fitting end to a whirlwind of a weekend. Music, emotion, spectacle and fireworks. This is Edinburgh in August: unmissable.
Here are the links to the other days we spent at the Edinburgh Fringe –