The Edinburgh festival fringe, at its height, was a magnificent monster. The largest arts festival in the world, it was exhilaratingly, dizzyingly, dauntingly huge and – like a city-consuming ooze from a 1950s B-movie – it kept growing, year after year. In 2019, the fringe featured more than 3,500 shows in over 300 venues. And that’s without taking into account its less chaotic sibling, the Edinburgh international festival.
Last year, the pandemic put a stop to that and forced the fringe online. For a while it was uncertain what shape this year’s fringe would take, or even whether it would be able to go ahead at all in a live capacity. Staging a festival in which artists and audiences from around the world would gather in sweaty cellars and stuffy halls, it was always going to take a while for it to it return to its full, tumultuous glory.
In the meantime, in order to comply with Scotland’s more stringent social distancing rules, the fringe has adopted a hybrid model: a mixture of in-person and digital events taking place across August, with plenty of work occurring outside, in courtyards and on beaches, making for a smaller, perhaps gentler (and, let’s face it, inevitably wetter) fringe experience.
The Traverse – Scotland’s home of new writing and a pillar of the fringe – opens its doors for the first time since March 2020 with a new play by the Glasgow-based writer Frances Poet, helmed by the Trav’s artistic director, Gareth Nicholls. A hymn to Edinburgh itself, it sounds as if it has the potential to be a real heartstring-tugger.
Traverse 1, 2 to 22 August
Last year, producers Francesca Moody (Fleabag) and Harriet Bolwell, plus writer-performer Gary McNair, concocted Shedinburgh, a mini digital festival of artists performing from their own sheds. This year it’s back and even bigger, with a programme that reads like a greatest hits of fringes past, including Katie Bonna and Richard Marsh’s rhyming romcom Dirty Great Love Story, Emma Dennis-Edwards’s poignant Funeral Flowers and Gary Owen’s couldn’t-be-timelier Iphigenia in Splott.
shedinburgh.com, 3 to 30 August
The Edinburgh international festival is also running a reduced programme this year, the lineup including the tantalising prospect of the world premiere of a new play by the Irish dramatist Enda Walsh at the Traverse. Medicine is an absurdist account of two musical theatre actors working in a psychiatric hospital with a cast that includes Domhnall Gleeson (star of various Star Wars and Harry Potter films) and the always magnetic Aoife Duffin.
Traverse 1, 4 to 29 August
The Welsh new writing company Dirty Protest scored a big fringe hit in 2017 with Sugar Baby. Their 1990s-set new play, which fuses the traditional Welsh music and poetry festival the Eisteddfod with rave culture, is being performed to bubbled-up audiences at MultiStory, a new open-air fringe hub, located in a car park.
MultiStory, 6 to 13 August
Knot: The Trilogy
Darkfield, the company responsible for the deeply creepy shipping-container show Séance, has been making innovative – and still very eerie – audio work throughout the pandemic. Knot is a three-part immersive audio show designed to be experienced on your phone while in three different locations: on a park bench, in a car and, finally, in your own home.
summerhall.co.uk, 6 to 29 August
Out of Order
The fringe has always been the place to see world-class circus, and this year is no different. Montreal circus collective The 7 Fingers’ filmed show, part of the Assembly programme, is set in a world in which cultural spaces are shut and physical contact is prohibited.
Assembly Showcatcher on demand, 6 to 30 August
Sex Education Xplorers (S.E.X.)
Fringe regular Mamoru Iriguchi’s comic show about the failings of sex education is one of the more intriguing offerings playing at Summerhall’s secret courtyard. An old veterinary college turned arts space, it’s a venue you can rely on to programme quirkier work.
Summerhall: Secret Courtyard, 6 to 29 August
Fix & Foxy is a company of Danish theatre innovators whose past productions include an immersive interpretation of Twin Peaks and version of A Doll’s House performed in the audience’s own home. Its Zoom show, part of a Danish theatre showcase, transplants the viewer into someone else’s body, thousands of miles away, allowing us to see the world through their eyes.
ZooTV, 8 to 29 August; on sale from 4 August
Part of Assembly’s in-person programme, Max Barton’s song cycle about the power of music to spark memory as his grandmother succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease is part-concert, part-theatre, and completely guaranteed to make you sob.
Assembly George Square Gardens, 9 to 15 August
Patricia Gets Ready (for a date with the man that used to hit her)
The show with surely the most arresting title on this year’s Pleasance programme, Martha Watson Allpress’s play draws on her own experiences of an abusive relationship to explore domestic abuse and the question of why people stay with or go back to violent partners.
Pleasance at EICC: Lomond Theatre, 17 to 29 August
Five comedy shows to see
Politics and parenting in a work-in-progress from the thoughtful, cheery comic.
Monkey Barrel Comedy, Wed to Fri, 23 to 29 August
Debut standup show from the Inbetweeners man, now more than double the age of his character.
Pleasance Courtyard, 13 to 17 August
Expect work in progress – and maybe the odd dig at the Beeb – from the ex-Mash Report man.
Monkey Barrel Comedy, 16 to 22 August
Rising star McGrath considers her Kenyan heritage and the role of empire in her show Accidental Coconut.
Pleasance Courtyard, 16 to 18 August Gwilym Mumford
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