Fringe review: Fringe Search Party ****
The Gilded Balloon was one of the first Fringe venues to put its name to a programme of work this August. Inevitably, given the restrictions on performance in Scotland until at least the last week of the month, much of that programme can only be enjoyed from behind a screen for the moment.
There are classic recordings of their comedy strands Late ‘n’ Live and So You Think You’re Funny? every Saturday and Thursday respectively, as well as “Gilded Balloon Offstage”, a just-launched series of theatre and comedy performances which will be available by subscription or donation far beyond the end of the month.
Yet in Fringe Search Party, the Gilded Balloon has hit upon a novel way of integrating a sense of physical togetherness and participation into one of their events, as well as restoring the city of Edinburgh – muted though it is from the usual hubbub of August – to the centre of proceedings.
Created with Padlox Escape Rooms, Search Party is a live, interactive, web-based treasure hunt which begins outside the Gilded Balloon’s traditional home at the University of Edinburgh’s Teviot Students’ Union building on Bristo Square, and takes a participating team of up to four on a mystery tour around the heart of the Old Town in their quest to find the missing Isla Fallot, the “spirit of the Fringe”.
Being web-based, the navigation is perhaps slightly more fiddly than if the game were app-based, but the instructions are clear and use is glitch-free. Although the platform is accessible, however, the streets and stairs of Edinburgh aren’t so much.
Not to spoil the surprise for anyone else doing it, but Search Party involves a dozen satisfyingly tricky, site-specific puzzles to solve, and enough landmark-spotting to satisfy both locals for whom the heart of Edinburgh has grown unfamiliar in the past few months, and any tourists who have chosen to visit the city.Amid the animations, there are also pre-recorded vignettes from Fringe regulars, with Jo Brand, Bill Bailey and others trying spiritedly to gee up contestants from behind a webcam in their spare room.
By the usual standards and breadth of available Fringe productions, Search Party is a fun little diversion that may have become lost amid the wealth of things to do in the programme in a more normal year. In 2020, however – at a time when audiences are crying out for something which might spark their imagination by changing their surroundings, as much as telling them a story they need to hear – it’s a perfect antidote to the isolation of lockdown.
Experienced Fringe-goers might expect to feel a little nostalgic as they travel past temporarily closed venues and hear the poignant Edinburgh memories of the famous names participating in the game.
We started our trip as a family on a warm evening, and the life and energy of the skaters bringing Bristo Square back to life around us was offset by the sadness of seeing the iron gates to Teviot closed up, with a notice of apology from Gilded Balloon posted outside.
Yet by the time we had solved all the clues (in a little more than the hour the game is projected to last for, which means we probably won’t be very far up the leaderboard), the experience had proven to be as memorable as any other we might have had on the Fringe, albeit for very different reasons.
We had been taken past al fresco groups of distanced diners attempting to return to something like normal, and stopped to enjoy music from a lone violin player – which probably helped screw up our time, to be honest.
Amid all this, we were given licence to enjoy the streets and buildings of Edinburgh once more. And even better, there wasn’t a silent disco in sight or earshot.
Online until 31 August at www.gildedballoon.co.uk
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