Edinburgh Festivals: 50 must-see events

Leaving Planet Earth, which takes place at the climbing arena in Ratho, is one of the festival's most-anticipated shows. Picture: EIF
Leaving Planet Earth, which takes place at the climbing arena in Ratho, is one of the festival's most-anticipated shows. Picture: EIF
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THE Scotsman’s team of arts critics pick 50 must-see events in Edinburgh this August.

• THEATRE (chosen by Joyce McMillan)

Eh Joe - Royal Lyceum Theatre, 23-31 August

First written for television in 1965, Eh Joe is a breathtakingly powerful 30-minute Beckett piece about an ageing man haunted by the voice of a woman long lost. This legendary production by the GateTheatre of Dublin is directed by film genius Atom Egoyan, and stars the great Michael Gambon, who first played the role in Dublin a decade ago.

Leaving Planet Earth - Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, 10-24 August

Edinburgh-based stars of site-specific theatre, Grid Iron, create a spectacular new science-fiction show for the international festival, in the spectacular space of the Ratho Clibing Arena. Set on a New Earth inhabited by migrants from our burned-out planet, the show is written and directed by rising stars of the Scottish theatre scene, Lewis Hetherington and Catrin Evans.

The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project - Northern Stage @ St Stephen’s, 3-24 August

Following the success of their Edinburgh Fringe season in 2012, Northern Stage of Newcastle return with a packed programme, including this show directed by the theatre’s new artistic director, Lorne Campbell, about the Border between Scotland and England, and how attitudes to it are shifting in the light of next year’s referendum

The Events - Traverse Theatre, 31 July-24 August

Leading Scottish playwright David Greig has found himself at the centre of controversy over this new play which tries to understand how communities respond to tragedies such as the Anders Breivik murders in Norway in 2011. The play explores the role of choral music in the process of grief and anger; but as Greig has explained, that doesn’t make “a musical” out of this searching show about the limits of understanding and forgiveness, in the aftermath of such horrific violence.

Nirbhaya - Assembly Hall, 1-26 August

Yael Farber’s stunning new version of Miss Julie, set in contemporary South Africa, was one of the spectacular successes of the 2012 Fringe. Now, together with a cast of Indian actors, this brilliantly talented young South African writer and director tackles the fiercely topical story of last December’s notorious Delhi gang-rape case, which led to the death of the victim, and a raging debate across India and beyond about a culture of violence towards women, and how it can be challenged.

• COMEDY (chosen by Jay Richardson)

Felicity Ward: Irregardless - Underbelly, 31 July-26 August

Relocated to the UK, this Australian import impressed with last year’s deeply personal show The Hedgehog Dilemma. Although she has an innate sense of the ridiculousness of performing, she still suffers extreme anxiety attacks, a struggle that this instinctively confessional, accomplished storyteller should relate with giddy abandon.

Pat Cahill: Start - Pleasance Courtyard, 31 July-25 August

A much anticipated debut from one of the most exciting, eclectic and eccentric talents emerging in stand-up, yet who nevertheless retains mainstream appeal. Winner of the prestigious New Act of the Year Award and Chortle’s Best Newcomer for 2012, Cahill intersperses stupidly inventive gags with daft but memorable tunes.

Aisling Bea: C’est La Bea - Gilded Balloon Teviot, 31 July-26 August

Last year’s winner of the So You Think You’re Funny contest, the Irish stand-up and actor is fast establishing material that befits her charismatic, physical performance style. Outlining a love of hip-hop, replete with dance moves recalled from the 1990s, she’ll also be expanding on horse riding and struggling to explain London life to her Irish mammy

Jigsaw – Jiggle It - Pleasance Courtyard, 31 July-26 August

As sure a bet for consistent sketch laughs as any at the festival, Jigsaw cram more than 50 into their pacy hour. Fresh from an acclaimed Radio 4 show, which presented something different to their live performances yet retained their rascally creativeness and delicious mischief, Dan Antopolski, Nat Luurtsema and Tom Craine are piecing together something really impressive.

Trouble With Comedy - Laughing Horse @ City Cafe, 2-26 August

By contrast, there must be doubts as to whether Ian Cognito will complete his first Edinburgh run for 15 years. The irascible wit has a combustible, provocative reputation that saw burly comic Ricky Grover punch him out in the Gilded Balloon last time he was at the festival. But in the right mindset, he’s a tremendous, seat-of-the-pants performer.

• CLASSICAL & OPERA (chosen by Ken Walton)

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mahler Symphony No 2 - Usher Hall, 12 August

Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have been a crack partnership for the past ten years. Add Mahler to the mix and the results are explosive. In the second of their two appearances at the Festival, Jansons explores the spirituality of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and soloists Genia Kühmeier and Anna Larsson.

Nikolai Lugansky and the Russian National Orchestra, Rachmaninov Piano Concertos Nos 2 & 3 - Usher Hall, 19-20 August

Nikolai Lugansky needs little introduction in Scotland, where recent appearances by the Russian pianist have marked him out as a truly class act. He stars in both concerts by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev. A veritable two-course Russian feast.

Oper Frankfurt: Dido and Aeneas & Bluebeard’s Castle - Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 24-25 August

Not the obvious pairing for an operatic double bill. But this juicy coupling of Purcell’s 17th century masterpiece Dido and Aeneas with Bartok’s 20th century allegory of male obsession, Bluebeard’s Castle, has already wowed audiences in Germany. Two solid casts and the promise of Australian director Barrie Kosky’s visually exciting productions, mark this out as this year’s most interesting operatic proposition.

Ensemble musikFabrik, A tribute to Frank Zappa - Usher Hall, 28 August

If you’re of a certain age, this tribute to Frank Zappa by the dynamic Ensemble musikFabrik has to rank among the must-sees. As well as encompassing the extravagances of Zappa’s intoxicating inventiveness – such classics as t’Mershi Duween and Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing – his love of radical classical music is acknowledged in music by John Cage and Edgar Varèse.

Quatuor Ébène: Haydn, Bartok and Mendelssohn - Queen’s Hall, 31 August

What might look like a standard string quartet programme – Haydn’s Op76 No3, Bartok’s 4th Quartet and Mendelssohn’s 2nd – will be anything but if the charismatic Paris-based Quatuor Ébène are true to their idiosyncratic form. Nothing is sacred in their hands. What matters to them is a sense of mesmerising spontaneity and an uncanny ability to combine such edge-of-the-seat riskiness with remarkable unanimity. Be warned.

• ART (chosen by Moira Jeffrey)

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man - Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, 2 August-10 November

A gruelling season wading ankle deep in gore in a university dissection room and a lifetime of observing both human and animal bodies meant that as well as a great artist, Leonardo was a scientist of rare skill. Beautiful, compelling and largely scientifically correct these anatomical drawings are truly wonderful.

Peter Doig: No Foreign Lands - Scottish National Gallery, 3 August-3 November

Edinburgh-born, Canada-raised, Peter Doig makes paintings that are at once familiar and deeply foreign. Picking up where Gauguin left off more than a century ago, Doig’s compelling art is ancient yet modern.

Sarah Kenchington: Wind Pipes for Edinburgh - Trinity Apse, Chalmers Close, 1 August-1 September

Leftfield musician Sarah Kenchington is a composer and inventor in the Heath Robinson tradition. Her Edinburgh Art Festival Commission Wind Pipes for Edinburgh is a giant organ created from over 100 decommissioned organ pipes, assembled from salvage yards and eBay, which will be played by amateurs and professionals.

Jeremy Deller with Alan Kane - Jupiter Artland, 3 August-15 September

Jeremy Deller’s exhibition for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year was sheer magic: a caustic, fond, funny and impassioned exploration of the state of our nation. At Jupiter Artland he shows works with long-term collaborator Alan Kane, including their iconic Steam Powered Internet Machine.

Christine Borland and Brody Condon: Daughters of Decayed Tradesmen - New Carlton Burial Ground, 1 August-1 September

EAF gets smarter each year in exploring Edinburgh’s forgotten spaces. You can’t get more atmospheric a setting than a burned-out watchtower once constructed to keep an eye on the dead during the time of the bodysnatchers. It will host installations featuring the forensic intelligence of Turner nominee Borland and her collaborator, American artist Brody Condon.

• POP (chosen by Fiona Shepherd)

Rick Wakeman - Assembly Hall, 6-18 August

Keyboard maestro and prog rock overlord-turned-national treasure Rick Wakeman played piano on David Bowie’s Life On Mars, performed a concept album about King Arthur on ice and has a lifetime’s service to rock’n’roll capes. So he’s got some stories to tell and some ivories to tinkle in his Fringe debut.

Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra - Gilded Balloon Teviot, 31 July-26 August

Popular song interpreted by a bunch of folks wielding ukuleles. So not unlike the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, except from New Zealand. The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra was formed a few years ago by, among others, Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords. He won’t be appearing for this Fringe run, but 11 of his compatriots will.

Song Noir - Summerhall, 2-25 August

Perth-based duo Pumajaw – torch singer Pinkie Maclure and John Wills of psych rockers Loop on guitar and effects – interpret a collection of songs featured in cult films, from Twin Peaks to Night of the Hunter, beside some of their own hypnotic, haunting material in this atmospheric show, embellished with their own ambient films.

Drum Struck - Assembly Hall, 1-26 August

Ever felt so transported and immersed in a Fringe music show that you wished you could join in? Participation is mandatory during this music and movement show from South Africa, which places a drum on every seat so that the audience can have a crack. Time to find out how (un)rhythmical Fringe-goers really are.

Sadie & the Hotheads - New Town Theatre, 17-25 August

Actress Elizabeth McGovern won’t necessarily be wowing the masses with her prim voice but Sadie & the Hotheads have to be recommended purely for the novelty of seeing Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora Grantham rock out country-style or deliver some folky whimsy with her London-based band.

• CABARET (chosen by Claire Smith)

Briefs: The Second Coming - Assembly George Square, 1-26 August

Simply the most sexy boylesque you will ever see in your life, Briefs are a troupe of gorgeous, uttterly adorable boys from Down Under who prance, preen, twirl and do amazing things with feathers and fans.

EastEnd Cabaret: Dirty Talk - Underbelly, 1-25 August

The naughtiest girls in town, EastEnd Cabaret write funny dirty songs full of outrageous anatomical detail. Inspired by Brecht and the brothels of Bangkok this musically talented duo have buckets of charm and put on a rip roaring show.

Le Gateau Chocolat – I heart Chocolat - Underbelly, 31 July-26 August

Star of La Clique and La Soiree, Le Gateau is a giant sparkly man with lashings of mascara and a huge voice. This is a chance to see him solo – in a show inspired by a giant box of chocolates. Expect to see him belt out songs from Madonna, Donna Summer and – in tribute to the chef from South Park – Chocolate Salty Balls.

The Piff The Magic Dragon Show - Pleasance Dome, 1-25 August

Owner of Mr Piffles, aka the cutest dog on the Fringe, Piff is a miserable magician in a bright shiny dragon suit who does astonishing magic tricks and makes you laugh. He’s a favourite with Penn and Teller, has played Vegas and has ten million hits on YouTube. This could be his year.

Twonkey’s Blue Cadabra – Free - Laughing Horse @ Espionage, 1-25 August

You can do cabaret with glitter, polish and pizazz or you can be a dishevelled northerner with a shedload of home made rubbish props. Mr Twonkey is the most shambolic act you’ll ever see but his shows sparkle with glorious imagination and wonderfully stupid offbeat humour.

• DANCE (chosen by Kelly Apter)

Dance Odysseys - Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 16-19 August

Scottish Ballet and Scottish Dance Theatre team up to for this diverse weekend of live performances, films and discussions. Showcasing choreographers, both established and emerging, who blur the boundary between classical and contemporary dance, highlights include works by Édouard Lock, Jiří Kylián, Cesc Gelabert and some exciting newcomers in the New Voices programme.

Don Quichotte du Trockadéro - Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 29-31 August

It’s Don Quixote, but not as we know it. Maverick choreographer and filmmaker José Montalvo takes Cervantes 17th century novel and gives it a thoroughly modern twist. Now set on the Paris metro in present day, the action mixes ballet, tap, contemporary, flamenco and breakdance – often at the same time.

The Lock In - Zoo Southside, 3-16 August

Morris dancing and clogging may not have the coolest reputation, but this mix of live music and dance is set to give English folk dance some street cred. Set in a local pub, the show pitches streetdancers and folk dancers against each other, with the Demon Barbers providing a lively soundtrack to their after-hours fun.

There We Have Been - Zoo Southside, 19-26 August

It’s early in the morning for a dance show, but this duet by young British choreographer James Cousins is worth getting out of bed for. Winner of the inaugural New Adventures Choreographic Award (chosen by Matthew Bourne), Cousins is on a fast upward trajectory, appearing not only at the Fringe but in Scottish Ballet’s Dance Odysseys programme at the International Festival.

Cambuyón - Assembly Roxy, 31 July-26 August

Hailing from the Canary Islands, this group of percussionists take us on a seafaring journey through the history of rhythm. Using their bodies, voices, drums and wooden crates to create sound, the talented performers also add hip hop moves and tap dancing into the mix.

• BOOKS AND SPOKEN WORD (chosen by David Robinson)

Joe Sacco & Chris Ware - Book Festival, 14 August

What other book festival would you get such a dazzling double bill as this? Who else can match Sacco as a graphic novelist foreign correspondent? Has anyone ever tried? Has anyone ever done more with the genre than Ware’s epic Building Stories? Of the 40 graphic novel events in this year’s book festival (no other one in the world has even come close) this is the must-have ticket.

Patrick Flanery & Philipp Meyer - Book Festival, 10 August

It doesn’t say much for the openness and receptivity of Edinburgh audiences that important new American writers only make it into the smaller tents and even then as part of a double bill (see also Ron Rash on 14 August). But Meyer’s The Son has spent the last month gathering the kind of reviews most authors can only dream of (“It has as much to say about what it means to be American as any book I’ve ever read,” wrote Kevin Powers in last Sunday’s New York Times) and by now there’s so many of them that he has long passed my own bookfest ticket tipping-point.

Rupert Everett - Book Festival, 18 August

My one and only true celeb on this year’s fest. But then again, Everett’s Vanished Years is a truly accomplished piece of writing – as well as being hysterically indiscreet about Hollywood A-listers - and he has just triumphed on the London stage in The Judas Kiss, so he’s not just famous for being famous. He’s also notoriously unpredictable in interviews. Sounds like fun.

Tony Benn and Richard Holloway: Two Old Gits - Assembly Rooms, 13-14 August

Their title, not mine, though the “old” bit is right: these two have 162 years between them. Holloway’s autobiography and Benn’s diaries (which will come to an end with October’s A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine) are both works of hard-won individuality and moral and political clarity. If conversation turns to Holloway’s faith and Benn’s doubts - rather than the other, more predictable, way round - it could be quite fascinating. Either way, expect a fair dollop of lunchtime wisdom.

Eleanor Catton & Hannah Kent - Book Festival, 24 August

To me, this is what a good international book festival is all about: introducing you to non-British writers (Catton is from New Zealand, Kent from Australia) whose work you’ve already heard being talked about in reverential tones but you haven’t yet read yourself. In Catton’s case, the buzz about her novel The Luminaries – out in September – is amazing. But so too – at (gulp) 832 pages is its length.

• CHILDREN’S SHOWS (chosen by Kelly Apter)

Crying out Loud presents l’Après-midi d’un Foehn - Summerhall, 2-25 August

Set to Debussy’s music of the same name, this unique show is populated by carrier bags that ”dance” on currents of air. Guided by their “ballet master“ the bags rise and fall like tiny dancers, while the audience sits on-stage close to the action. Suitable for ages 4+.

Rumpelstiltskin and the Wheel of Fortune - Scottish Storytelling Centre, 30 July-25 August

Theatre of Widdershins and its front man Andy Lawrence have become a Fringe favourite in recent years – and for good reason. Lawrence fashions some of the most inventive and charming sets and puppets in children’s theatre, and his witty take on traditional tales always raises a smile.

My Brother the Robot - Pleasance Courtyard, 31 July-25 August

From The Gruffalo to Room on the Broom, the Snow Dragon to Twinkle Twonkle, it wouldn’t be the Fringe without a new show from Tall Stories theatre company. This time their show focuses on a lonely little girl whose father creates a metal sibling for her to play with. As always, expect a warm-hearted, thought-provoking script and songs you’ll be singing for days after.

Titus - Summerhall, 2-25 August

A hit with young people across Europe, this English language version of Jan Sobrie’s solo is one of the few shows at the Fringe aimed at older children, aged ten and above. The action starts with a boy standing on his school roof, deciding whether to give it all up or fight for a better future.

The Showstoppers’ Family Hour - Gilded Balloon Teviot, 2-13 August

A hit at the Fringe for the past five years, the Showstoppers team warm up their jazz hands and vocal chords a few hours earlier, for this family-friendly version of their evening show. Creating a new musical each day, based on audience suggestions, this bunch aren’t short of talent or fast wit.

• FOLK & JAZZ (chosen by Jim Gilchrist)

Rant - Acoustic Music Centre @ St Bride’s, 18 August

Powerful folk string quartet featuring the collective talents of four of Scotland’s premier fiddlers – the Black Isle’s Lauren McColl, Norwegian-based Highland fiddler Sarah Jane Summers and Shetland sisters Jenna and Bethany Reed. They explore the dynamic and harmonic possibilities of four fiddles, and launch their debut album at the Acoustic Music Centre @ St Bride’s, the major folk/acoustic music centre in the Fringe.

Sophie Bancroft & Louis Durra - Jazz Bar, 12, 13 and 18 August

Singer-songwriter and member of the Bancroft Scottish jazz dynasty teams up with the inventive Los Angeles pianist Louis Durra, currently living in Berlin, in quartet format for three nights at the award-winning Jazz Bar. Durra, who has previously played two acclaimed Fringe seasons at the bar, also plays a night with his trio on 16 August.

Lillian Boutté: Barefootin’ - Outhouse, 9-12, 14-19, 21-25 August

New Orleans’s jazz ambassador is a diminutive bundle of energy with a repertoire drawn from Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Satchmo and others, plus a grin that can stun at 60 paces. Her previous Fringe appearances have got this intimate little joint truly jumpin’.

Capercaillie - Assembly Rooms, 5 August

The renowned Highland folk band, poised to release their 30th anniversary album, At the Heart of It All, takes time off from extensive touring for this Fringe gig as part of the Assembly Rooms’ folk/acoustic programme. Slick instrumental arrangements and the superb voice of Karen Matheson continue to make the first group to propel a Gaelic single into the Top 40 a major draw.

Carol Kidd sings Cole Porter, with Brian Kellock - Le Monde, 5-6 August

The irrepressible Kidd, along with top Edinburgh pianist Kellock, opens a significant new Fringe jazz venue, the British Vocal Jazz Festival based at George Street’s Le Monde hotel. Running until 25 August, the mini-fest will host such British jazz greats as Gwyneth Herbert, Claire Martin, Iain Shaw and the festival’s organisers, Todd Gordon with Jacqui Dankworth.

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