IF I'M brutally honest, my first impression of the 2007 Fringe programme was to scream "More than 2,000 shows! Aaarggh!" and want to hide under the bed. But that's because in August I edit a daily 24-page Festival magazine, a health-threatening experience akin to trying to catch fish by running towards a 100ft tidal wave with a bucket.
I expect no sympathy. Save that for the performers, for whom it gets harder every year to get anyone's attention. We're now long past the point where novelty value will score you points. So the Underbelly is doing a show in a portaloo? Whatever. The Traverse did that years ago. Naked stand-up comedy? You can find that every August after midnight at Spank!.
Two novelty shows stand out for me, though. For Aquila Theatre Company's Romeo and Juliet at Assembly, the cast learn ALL the parts, and are given their roles on the night by lucky dip, meaning one night you could quite easily get a teenage male Juliet and a middle-aged female Romeo. Ravenhill for Breakfast at the Traverse sounds promising too - a new 30-minute play each day, all written the day before performance by Mark Ravenhill.
If I choose these from the thousands on offer, it's because they seem to embody the spirit of the Fringe - a sense of adventure, unpredictability, and fun - while also being steered by safe hands. The best of both worlds, hopefully.
THE TRAVERSE is always a fine place to start if you want to put some real dramatic backbone into your Fringe-going; this year, the theatre expands into Traverse 3 at the Forrest Road Drill Hall, scene of last year's triumphant first run of Black Watch. Check out David Greig's new play Damascus, Rough Magic of Dublin's new "intelligent sex comedy" Is This About Sex?, and a fresh half-hour topical drama every morning at breakfast-time from top British playwright Mark Ravenhill. There are also two shows featuring the work of rising star of Scottish playwriting, Selma Dimitrijevic; and more than a dozen other productions in this packed final Festival programme from outgoing Traverse director Philip Howard.
Otherwise, set off out into the ever-expanding Fringe empire of Assembly Productions - which this year swells to include not only the Assembly Hall on the Mound and St George's West Church, but also Hill Street, the Freemason's Hall and Aurora Nova at St Stephen's, the Fringe's ultra-fashionable physical theatre venue; or trawl through the little cellars and back-rooms of the Old Town, from the Underbelly to the dens of Guthrie Street, in pursuit of some of this year's big themes, which seem set to include migration, multiculturalism, the legacy of slavery, and a range of tributes to Charles Dickens, that most eloquent of all English writers about a society divided between extremes of wealth and poverty.
I AM BOOKING myself in for emergency Botox at the end of August. Judging by the 2007 Fringe Brochure, I will have laughed so much throughout the month that I will have not just crows' feet, but entire crows etched across my face. This is a rich year for comedy, with a wonderful stew of favourite performers who have been away for a year or so, much-enjoyed regulars, some brave big names going back to their roots and some really exciting newbies. The Free Fringe is back, The Udderbelly is back, even The Hamiltons are back! We've got Frank Skinner and Sean Hughes and Rhona Cameron doing pure stand-up again, another chance to see some big comics in a tiny venue at The Stand and the world's final opportunity to "get its tits out against the war" with Phil Nichol. Martha McBrier - the first female comic genius I have actually met - is back, as are Michael MacIntyre and Stewart Lee. And Jerry Sadowitz returns. I can't remember the last time I sat in June and wished so very much it was August.
FEAR. Trepidation. Excitement. It's always a heady feeling when the Fringe programme appears and this year is no exception. In an event this big (the index is 20 pages long) coherence isn't very likely but 2007 seems less willing to be themed than last year (although Hitler, Hair and the House of Windsor make multiple entries). Innovations from Stateside are plentiful and I have a fancy for the interactive so I'm going to start with Inside Private Lives (Pleasance Dome) which has just come from LA and promises a whole new kind of audience participation. Then I'm going to show solidarity for Stonewall (Pleasance Courtyard) a glitter-sprinkled retelling of the 1969 New York riots set to a girl group soundtrack. For child-friendly fun, James Campbell's Onomatopoeia Society III and Spinistry of Moonerism (Assembly) - two shows running at the same time in the same venue with only one cast between them - sound rather neat. And after that freneticism, the harmony of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (Queen's Hall) should be just right. If I'm brave enough I will, of course, check out the irresistibly terrifying Tommy Sheridan Chat Show (Gilded Balloon Teviot).
ASSISTANT EDITOR: MAGAZINES AND ARTS
STARTING on a literary note, I like the sound of Phill Jupitus and Andre Vincent in Waiting for Alice (Assembly Rooms), portraying Tweedledum and Tweedledee as the Vladimir and Estragon of kiddie lit. Jupitus also tackles Charles Dickens, following him on to the Assembly Rooms stage with daily readings from the prolific one's canon.
Which leads me to The Bad Boys of Abridgement's Dickens Unplugged (also Assembly), promising 2,324 characters, 35 books, and more words per minute than a stenographer on speed.
Lesley Mackie plays acid-tongued author Dorothy Parker, in Excuse my Dust (Gilded Balloon). Joyce McMillan gave it four stars and Parker is one of my role models, so it's a must-see. Sticking with bitchy quips, I'm keen on A Conversation with Edith Head (Assembly), about the Oscar-winning costume designer who saw all Hollywood in its underwear.
August requires an over-the-top camp moment, so I'll attend The Sound of Music Drag Show at Gilded Balloon.
Hate the film's saccharine family values, but love Australian drag queens and exploding chickens! Finally, I'm always delighted to see old favourites, including Reginald D Hunter, Adam Hills, Andrew Maxwell (last summer's funniest show), Lucy Porter and Craig Hill.
ARTS FEATURE WRITER
I'M LOOKING forward to the National Theatre of Scotland's Venus as a Boy - Tam Dean Burn's adaptation of Luke Sutherland's novel - Will Adamsdale's perceptive take on modern life in The Human Computer, and Linda Marlowe's Believe, a Berkovian whirl through the women of the Old Testament. Johnson & Boswell - Late but Live, by Stewart Lee, takes the late-night slot in Traverse One with an (as yet unannounced) big-name cast.
Elsewhere, Hugh Hughes returns with Floating, about the island of Anglesey mysteriously floating away from Wales, and adds a new show, Story of a Rabbit, which promises to be a "surprisingly uplifting" show about death (both at Pleasance Courtyard). There's a show called The Container (in a container) about emigration (E4 Udderbelly), and two musicals about our departing PM, Tony Blair the Musical (Gilded Balloon) and Tony! The Blair Musical (C Venues). If he has resigned by then, who knows, he might stop by.
IN RECENT years, hip-hop dance has moved from pure spectacle to artistic endeavour. Spinning on your head, apparently, is no longer enough. So I was interested to see that several Fringe acts have taken hip-hop a stage further by mixing it with other genres. Korean company Skywalk fuse the seemingly incompatible worlds of classical ballet and hip-hop in Ballerina Who Loves B-Boyz at ClubWEST, and their compatriots YeGam - the people behind Fringe hit Jump - are back with a new hip hop-influenced dance/theatre hybrid called Break Out (see cover). Flamenco Hip Hop Fusion at the Spiegel Garden gives the style a Spanish flavour, while the breakdancers in Spin Odyssey at C reference Buster Keaton and Greek theatre. But my favourite has to be Dance Base presents... HipHopScotch, which blends Scottish culture and hip-hop - including a battle between a piper and a DJ.
Two one-man shows exploring the troubled life of dancer Vaslav Nijinsky also look interesting. Nijinsky at the Freemason's Hall and Nijinsky's Last Dance at Hill Street Theatre have both won prestigious awards in their home countries of Poland and the US. Nijinsky's descent into schizophrenia is well documented, which should make both plays compelling, if unsettling viewing.
A NUMBER of music-related productions sound intriguing. The National Theatre of Scotland will be presenting Tam Dean Burn's adaptation of the Luke Sutherland novel Venus As A Boy, with live music from Sutherland himself (Traverse), while Vanishing Point will be filling the Traverse's Drill Hall with Subway, a dystopian odyssey soundtracked by a marvellous band of Kosovan musicians. Also worth taking a chance on are Teenage Kicks (Assembly Universal Arts at the Freemason's Hall), celebrating the life of the inimitable broadcaster John Peel, and Popsicle Departure 1989 (Assembly @ St George's West), which examines the underground grunge rock scene before Nirvana ruled the world.
Club Vague's burlesque exotica arrives at the Caves direct from Glastonbury's Lost Vagueness field, with barely time to clean off the mud, while hip-hop extravaganza Tom Tom Club (UdderBELLY's Pasture) should not be confused with the band of the same name. Finally, it is always worth dipping into the Spiegel Garden's vibrant musical programme which this year includes the return of both cabaret diva Camille and Black Sea Gentleman Mikelangelo, and New York's Luminescent Orchestrii, who mash up the sounds of Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Appalachian mountains.
AMONG the comedians arriving in Edinburgh, I'm really looking forward to catching the misanthropic Jon Richardson (Pleasance Courtyard, no relation), supremely confident Arnab Chanda (Pleasance Courtyard, with Greg McHugh), lofty Welsh crowd-engager Steve Williams (Underbelly) and quirkily endearing Isy Suttie (Pleasance Courtyard). Following his disappointing 2006 show, it'll be interesting to see how Sean Hughes (Gilded Balloon Teviot) fares against fellow Fringe legends Sean Lock (Pleasance Courtyard) and Frank Skinner (Pleasance Courtyard), though for my lack of money, the Free Fringe and Free Festival line-ups offer some funny alternatives, such as Andy White in It Started With A Quiz (Laughing Horse @ Berlin), Steve Day in Deafy's Island Discs (Laughing Horse at Lindsay's) and Chris McCausland's Planes, Trains and Shameful Ordeals (Laughing Horse @ The Counting House). I always try to see Daniel Kitson (The Stand) and Rhod Gilbert (Pleasance Courtyard) and I'm intrigued by Danielle Ward's Psister Psycho (Baby Belly), a musical about a killer robot nun in a munitions factory. Most of all though, I want to catch Taylor Negron (The Green Room, with Lili Haydn), because he was about the funniest, most poisonous element in The Aristocrats and even seemed a little twisted in Friends
DEPUTY ARTS EDITOR
BACK in August 2003, I remember watching in utter disbelief as a brilliant, darkly funny guitar-slinger called Andrew Lawrence was passed over for the So You Think You're Funny prize by a tall guy who's name I can't quite recall. Anyway, Lawrence's stock has been steadily rising ever since so, if you can, catch his show Social Leprosy for Beginners and Improvers at the Pleasance Courtyard. Everyone's favourite posh twit Miles Jupp (Gilded Balloon) will also be worth a look, as will novelist-turned-comedian AL Kennedy (The Stand). Her show met with a rather frosty critical reception last year, but as anyone who has seen her perform at the Stand's regular SiStars nights will tell you, she can be hilarious on her day. Of the big-name funnypeople, Mark Watson and Andrew Maxwell (both Pleasance Courtyard) have the power to make you laugh until your cheeks hurt, while Lucy Porter, at the same venue, will be as cheeky and charming as ever.
Art-wise, if you're passing the Scottish Parliament, be sure to duck inside to check out the World Press Photo 07 exhibition, or spend some quality time with David Batchelor's colourful plastic sculptures at the Talbot Rice Gallery. And, if you're looking for a show that all the family can enjoy, The Man who Planted Trees (Scottish Storytelling Centre), back by popular demand, is an absolute gem.