Ashley Davies: Grouchy folk missing out on Fringe

A good laugh ' or sometimes a tear ' is never far away in August. Picture: TSPL
A good laugh ' or sometimes a tear ' is never far away in August. Picture: TSPL
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NOT sampling the festival would be like sharing a house with Nigella and only eating fish fingers, writes Ashley Davies

A few years ago I was strolling down Easter Road on a Sunday afternoon, en route to a friend’s house. All of a sudden, the street emptied and all the shops’ shutters shunted down, as if everyone had received a message about a vicious hurricane coming to smash the heck out of them. Within minutes, giant police horses appeared, them and their riders decked out in riot gear. I managed to get into the Co-op before its security doors closed (this may be the Apocalypse, I thought, but I’m buggered if I’m turning up to a lunch party without a £5.99 bottle of wine), and was quite relieved that I did, as the street was quickly flooded with hacked-off Rangers fans heading back west after playing Hibs. Continuing my walk at that moment would’ve made me feel like a sickly salmon trying to swim upstream during sexy season.

Too many people who live in Edinburgh – and elsewhere in the Central Belt – feel this way in August and I feel so bad for them because they’re missing out on so much fun, ingenuity, bravery and ridiculousness. I feel like I’ve met or heard of hundreds of people who, when asked if they’re seeing anything at the Fringe (or the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to give it its Sunday name), reply with: “Nah, it’s not for me,” but admit they’ve never actually tried – very much like my husband and yoghurt, but more of a cultural tragedy.

Living in Edinburgh and not at least dipping your toe into the sweet water of the world’s greatest arts festival would be like sharing a house with Nigella Lawson and only eating fish fingers. Like being married to Gene Kelly and refusing to dance. Like sharing a lift with David Cameron and not giving him a massive Chinese burn.

All year round I am inordinately proud of my adopted home town but this feeling balloons in August when friends – and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends – visit and can’t stop marvelling about how lucky we are to live here.

As a pragmatist, I must acknowledge the valid reasons people might have for feeling grouchy about Edinburgh at this time of year. The price of tickets, even for children’s shows, is definitely an issue for most people. There’s no getting away from that (particularly as hardly any performers make money out of this run), but there are loads of two-for-one offers, and you can get the same deal for plenty of preview shows on the first couple of days. Hang around outside the venues and you will usually be offered two-for-ones to fill up unsold seats just before curtain-up. Or you could check out the Free Fringe, at which you can sometimes find a gem.

For me, the biggest irritation is having my eardrums assaulted by the young show-offs who have yet to discover their indoor voices, whose personal conversations are broadcast to everyone within a 100-metre radius because they want everyone to know they are actors. I know it’s exciting to perform at the Fringe, but I promise, the people around you aren’t thinking: “Wow – that shouty posh girl with a lanyard is an actress? I must pay more attention to her.” The city is packed with some of the most talented people in the world right now – being loud and brandishing your sense of entitlement might get you noticed briefly, but not in the way you’re hoping for.

Trying to get from one place to another in a hurry is also wildly frustrating – you feel like a weak blood cell fighting through the congested veins of a cholesterol enthusiast. And yes, the queues for drinks, especially alfresco, are deeper and more competitive than we’re used to, and the prices are just stupid. The flip side of that is that pubs stay open for longer.

But it’s important to remember that for every irritating encounter you have, you will experience several truly enjoyable, possibly unforgettable, moments. If you’re short on time, choose your shows wisely and read the reviews; get to know which reviewers you can trust (The Scotsman always has an ace team on the case). And over the next three weeks will amalgamate the star ratings from the many reviewers in town, so it’s easy to play it safe.

But there are several good reasons to not play it safe. Seeing something terrible is a crucial part of the Fringe experience, the grit that makes the pearl. I’ve seen some truly horrendous, watch-through-fingers stuff and while it can make you feel ripped off and disappointed, not to mention desperately unhappy for those involved, it stays with you. It feeds your curiosity about people’s motivations and makes you appreciate the good stuff.

I’ve met lots of people who play it too safe when it comes to comedy, choosing to see a show because they know the performer from TV. By all means go see your favourites if you want to, but do yourself a favour and discover people you’ve never seen before. There is so, so much amazing work being done by hundreds of impossibly talented people – and seeing it live is thrilling. It can be an honour to be in a room that’s often small, hot and sweaty, watching astonishing creative risks being taken by smart people whose minds work in ways that make your jaw drop. They’re not all just show-offs – some of these people are poetic geniuses.

Over the past 12 years I’ve seen plays that have made me shake with tears in public, made me want to think and argue about them for weeks and years, and made me want to commit arson. I’ve seen comedy that made me laugh so much I thought I’d be sick. And I’ve seen dance so sublime I’ve wanted to throw myself off a cliff, knowing for a fact I’d be able to fly.

So, lovely Edinburghers, please don’t batten down the hatches. You might just see something that’ll change your life, or at least the way you think about something. Be grateful for the extra revenue and publicity our beautiful city receives, and please, be kind to the people giving out flyers. They’ll learn how to get it right.