Follow that stilt-walker!

The Guardian Posted on Monday, July 14th, 2008

Follow that stilt-walker!

Are you an Edinburgh festival first- timer? Never fear – Lucy Porter comedian and Fringe veteran, kicks off our bumper preview with a few top tips

The whole of August in the Athens of the North is dedicated to the performing arts, and it is the biggest and best festival in the world. The Fringe encompasses comedy, dance, theatre, music and other weird types of performance that are unclassifiable but tend to involve eastern Europeans wearing snorkel masks.

There are thousands of shows. Every single theatre, sports hall and room above a pub becomes a venue, and each of those venues has some kind of show on at almost every hour of the day. You can pick a show by studying the Fringe programme, reading reviews and listening to the opinions of fellow festival-goers, or you can just hang around outside the venues waiting for someone to offer you a free ticket. You can spend the money you’ve saved on meat pies and tablet.

Edinburgh in August is not the place to go if you don’t like crowds and noise. Day and night, there are hundreds of people in the streets, and you are never more than three feet away from someone playing the bagpipes. It’s OK, though, because you can escape into the relative peace and quiet of the venues. You can find many nice, serious plays that aren’t too shouty. (As a rule, student productions tend to be more shouty because they haven’t ruined their lungs with years of smoking, heavy drinking and weeping like “proper” actors).

One word of caution: most Fringe venues are incredibly hot. Air conditioning is rare, and when you have that many sweaty people packed into a small room, you find a surprising number of people prefer not to use deodorant. Serious claustrophobes may want to stick to street theatre. You might just feel OK in the Udderbelly, which is a massive purple tent in the shape of a cow. But anyone with delusional, psychotic tendencies may wish to avoid this venue, as it is, after all, in the shape of a massive purple cow.

The start of the festival is a great time to come because you can see shows that are quite rough and ready, and enjoy the thrill of seeing works in progress. The performers are nervous but excited. That said, the middle of the festival is a very sensible time to come because most shows are about as good as they’re going to get. The performers are either quietly confident that they have a hit on their hands, or quietly confident that this show is going to cost them their home, car and sanity. Equally, the end of the festival is a wonderful time to come because everyone has started to relax a bit more. The performers are frequently suffering from alcohol-induced nervous exhaustion, and you might get to see someone take off their clothes.

Speaking of clothes, the weather in Edinburgh is notoriously changeable. By “changeable”, I mean that it can change from sleet to hail to drizzle at any given time. Over the 17 Augusts I’ve spent in Edinburgh, I managed to get a tan twice. Both those times I was living within walking distance of a sunbed salon. Actually, I lie: the sunshine can be glorious, but it seldom lasts more than a day or so. I usually pack a mixture of summer and winter clothing, and sometimes have recourse to all of it in the space of 24 hours.

If you only want to bring one outfit, you could try wearing one flip-flop, one Wellington boot, hotpants, a backless Aran sweater, a plastic mac and a sunhat. It may not be that comfortable, but it will cover all eventualities. Plus, someone might think you’re some kind of street act and give you £10.

Edinburgh is becoming more family-friendly every year. There are many excellent children’s shows throughout the day, and most little ones will also love the variety of jugglers, magicians and physical performers. They’ll giggle their wee hearts out at the red-faced, shambolic funny people who are stumbling around and shouting at 11 o’clock in the morning. You don’t have to tell them that many are comedians returning from an all-night bender at the Penny Black postman’s pub.

Late nights and boozing are a key part of the Edinburgh experience for many performers and audiences. It always makes me chuckle when you hear American tourists alight at Waverley station and ask: “Say, where can I get a drink?”
The question is, where can you not get a drink. Possibly the only venue in Edinburgh that doesn’t serve alcohol is the Temperance Society, but even they are probably running some kind of hooch racket on the quiet.

I’ve now lived in Edinburgh for 17 months in total. I’ve decided that, technically, this makes me about one-thirtieth Scottish – I just hope that thirtieth isn’t the part that includes my liver. As a proud Scot, I would urge anyone to head to Edinburgh this August – just don’t forget to pack an umbrella and a bikini.

· Lucy Porter appears in The Bare Necessities and in Lucy and Des Show Off, with Des Clarke, both at the Pleasance Courtyard during the Fringe. Box office: 0131-556 6550 or

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