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An Edinburgh Survival Guide

 Wednesday, 3rd August, 2016

Industry insight from theatre critic Mark Shenton

An Edinburgh Survival Guide (and the biggest survival tip, not going at all)

If it’s August, goes the arts mantra, it must be Edinburgh. And it will probably be raining, too, if you get there, goes the usual weather one.

Actually, neither of those are necessarily true – it is possible to live in the world, and be keenly interested in the arts to boot, without going to Edinburgh. The last time I went was in 2012, and having trudged around damp streets on a dodgy hip (since replaced) – I vowed not to return in a hurry.

Last year I was all booked to return, since a friend offered me a free room in her New Town flat, but four days before I was due to go I totally lost my nerve, as I looked at the bulging Edinburgh Fringe Programme (the size of a small town's phone directory in the days when such publications existed!), and felt I couldn't face it. (Instead we visited her out of the festival season last Christmas for a far better festive activity – the annual Hogmanay celebrations that take over the city for New Year's, fulfilling a long-held desire to go to Edinburgh when the festival WASN'T on).

This year I've been invited to be on a panel about theatre criticism that’s taking place at Summerhall, one of the more adventurous of the some 294 venues that house shows, so I’m gingerly dipping a toe back into Festival Edinburgh, but for two nights only. (Don’t tell anyone I’m coming, though; my inbox is already heaving with people wanting me to see their unmissable shows).

But now I’m already getting anxious; how and what will I choose to see? This year there are 3,269 productions, giving a total of 50,266 performances. As a critic, you are defeated even before you begin. The Daily Telegraph’s dance critic Mark Monahan, who also covers comedy and theatre during the fringe, has written a handy guide of top tips for surviving the fringe.

He draws attention to the inclement weather, and points this out: “Just because the sun is blazing one moment in the Scottish capital, it doesn’t mean that rainfall of Old Testament ferocity isn’t seconds away, with raindrops hitting the ground with such a whump that they can ricochet half way up the inside of your trouser-leg. If you get wet in Edinburgh, chances are you’ll stay wet all day and end up smelling like a year-old J Cloth – and bear in mind that most of the time you’ll have no choice but to queue in the open air. So, to keep trench-foot and pneumonia at bay, crack open the Gore-Tex and invest in a sturdy brolly, but also wear layers: some of the smaller rooms, even at the leading Fringe venues, are used as blast-furnaces off-season, or at least feel as though they are.”

Yep, you'll experience extreme temperatures in Edinburgh, not least in the sweatboxes that call themselves venues and have seven or eight shows playing in each room across the day in some kind of attempt at recreating the inner circle of hell (and there's no doubt an immersive show somewhere that is actually set right there).

But it’s also good to heed Monahan’s best piece of advice: “Be ambitious but realistic. It’s certainly possible to see 10 hour-long shows in a day – but, as Sgt Wilson might have said, do you think that’s wise? Chances are that come the next day – having probably shelled out between £100 and £150 for the tickets alone – you’ll struggle to recall a single one of them. Three-to-five shows per day is a good target, and bear in mind that theatrical productions often take place in the morning, whereas most comedy – especially by the bigger and/or better performers – tends to come after dark.”

Edinburgh isn't cheap – never mind the cost of tickets, accommodation prices go off the scale in the festival, too, and the food is London prices. That's another reason I'd stopped going – it just isn't a good return on the investment required. And the three or four shows that emerge as the must-sees of the festival will, invariably and inevitably, have a further life beyond it.

Take last year's Traverse sensation, Lee Hall’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour – it opens at the National's Dorfman on August 10. Just wait and the best shows will resurface – in more comfortable surroundings, too. 

The best survival tip to Edinburgh is not going at all. And this year, any critics who are left in London will hardly be at a loose end – there's everything from a new Tim Minchin musical at the Old Vic (Groundhog Day, opening August 16) to Scooby Doo (at the London Palladium) and Kenneth Branagh in the title role of Osborne's The Entertainer (opening at the Garrick on August 30).

I'm also heading beyond London and Edinburgh to Lichfield, Stratford-upon-Avon and even Copenhagen this month, too – tire’s something to see in each of those places, so I'm there…!

The views and opinions expressed are soley those of the original author and not necessarily those of The Hospital Club. For rolling theatre news and reviews, follow Mark Shenton's Twitter feed @ShentonStage