East Lothian: Festival vibes on the coast, but without the crowds

The spirit of the Fringe is spreading out to Musselburgh and North Berwick, where an eclectic mixture of acts – from theatre performers to classical musicians – will offer seaside entertainment, writes Mark Fisher
Polar Bears Go Go Go PIC: Craig SugdenPolar Bears Go Go Go PIC: Craig Sugden
Polar Bears Go Go Go PIC: Craig Sugden

For all the fanfare about a full-strength Fringe returning to the streets of Edinburgh, not everyone will be delighted at the prospect of 3000-odd shows squeezing into an already busy city. Even at the best of times, many prefer their art with a little less intensity; in an era of lurking pandemic, there are those who would appreciate a few lungfuls of fresh air.

Such folk should look to East Lothian where the festival spirit proliferates with an added blast of coastal wind. In Musselburgh, the Brunton theatre returns with a lively summer programme of theatre, music and kids' shows, while in North Berwick, they are gearing up for an especially big-name Fringe By The Sea.

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In both cases, the entertainment sits in balance with the environment, be that ice creams from S Luca in Musselburgh or seaside walks to the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick.

"Come down and escape the city and enjoy some ice cream and chips," says Rachel Menzies, the Brunton's marketing manager. "We've got lovely locations and it's good to spread the festival a bit further. Not everybody wants to be in a crowd, so this is a good opportunity to take part in the Fringe and enjoy the wealth of cultural experiences that are available."

Focusing mainly on weekends, the Brunton's line-up goes indoors and out. By the bowling pavilion on Fisherrow Links, the touring company Illyria is staging A Midsummer Night's Dream on 13 August. The company specialises in a rough-and-ready theatrical style, with a head-on engagement with the audience and an exuberant approach to Shakespeare's comedy. "It's a summer holiday, seaside atmosphere," says Menzies.

When Illyria toured the same show in 2009, the Scotsman's theatre critic Joyce McMillan praised the company's "huge theatrical energy and skill [and] their terrific, high-speed command of a text that, whichever way you pull and tug it, remains a thing of beauty, and a joy forever."

A Midsummer Night's Dream is part of a nine-week summer tour that takes in Crail, Ellon, Forres, Elgin, Dundee and Dumfries in the last week of July and eventually winds up in the Netherlands in September.

Younger audiences also get the chance to go outdoors when The Tale Of Peter Rabbit And Benjamin Bunny appears at Musselburgh Racecourse on 27 August. The Quantum Theatre production has been working its way through the UK's country parks and stately homes and can also be seen at Balmoral Castle on 26 July.

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Back at the Brunton on 6 August, the under-fives will enjoy The Polar Bears Go Go Go!, a comic holiday adventure created by Scotland's Ivor MacAskill and Fiona Manson. The award-winning production is touring widely across Scotland this month and next.

Elsewhere, the Brunton programme includes musical celebrations of Neil Sedaka, the Bee Gees and Glenn Miller, plus gigs by Cara Dillon, Dougie MacLean and Siobhan Miller.

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When it comes to music, this year's Fringe By The Sea is bringing some seriously heavy hitters to North Berwick. Highlights in the Belhaven Big Top include Texas, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Happy Mondays. They will draw in the crowds, but the festival is as much about the location – and the community – as it is about the star names.

"It has quite an impact on a small town and we are very aware of that," says director Rory Steel who, with general manager Jackie Shuttleworth, took over the 14-year-old festival in 2018. "We've got to get the balance right between creating a lovely vibe in the town and letting people go about their daily business. Fringe By The Sea is a community festival at its heart and without the community, it just wouldn't happen. We've got 60-odd volunteers and that's an incredible response from people who just want to be a part of it."

Centred on the Lodge Grounds in the town centre, but extending all over, the line-up is a busy mix of walks and workshops, comedy and conversation, food and fitness. On the opening day, actor John Nichol stars in Sir Walter Scott's Wandering Willie's Tale, a gothic 17th-century yarn that first appeared in the 1824 novel Redgauntlet. For children, there is Samsam Bubble Man's Big Bubble Show, Debi Gliori's The Boy And The Moonimal and a hands-on session with the creators of the Beano.

"We wanted the programme to appeal to a wider audience," says Steel. "The town has changed dramatically over the past five years or so, with new house building on the outskirts and lots of families moving in. We wanted the programme to reflect that. We've still got the more traditional musical elements but also content for younger people and families. As a result, we have got a very diverse programme with everything from Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham to Aardman Model Making and graffiti and breakdancing workshops."

The comedy strand includes Frankie Boyle, Fred MacAulay and Simon Evans, and there are talks from Ruth Davidson, Chitra Ramaswamy and Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

"We're blessed to have a festival in one of the most beautiful sites anywhere in the country," says Steel. "In the Lodge Grounds, we are surrounded by these ancient oak trees, with a vast expanse and views over the Firth of Forth to the Bass Rock and the Kingdom of Fife. It is idyllic and a world away from Edinburgh city centre and the throng of the Fringe."

Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Brunton, Musselburgh, 5–27 August; Fringe By The Sea, North Berwick, 5–14 August, www.edfringe.co.uk