I’VE been known to dither when faced with a choice of Chinese, Indian or pizza, so you can imagine my bewilderment with 2,098 shows to choose from at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
While some performers will get their big break (as Geordie comedian Sarah Millican did last year, winning best newcomer) many more will lose money by staging their shows.
But the recession – or the torrential rain when I visited – hasn’t deterred the 18,901 performers from following their dream. In fact 109 more of them will be showing up this August.
The atmosphere on the streets would even cheer up the most curmudgeonly of stick-in-the- muds. On our right an all-female choir bursts into song as we walk past. To the left there’s a free taster performance of a Sherlock Holmes play. Then a man wearing only underpants thrusts a leaflet into my hand. It’s all part of the Edinburgh experience.
Although the world’s largest arts festival is only three hours from Newcastle and now in its 63rd year, I’d never been before.
So with only half an afternoon and one evening to cram in as much as possible, I decided to focus on comedy, which makes up 35% of the programme.
There are an astonishing 265 venues of varying sizes, from a small confessional booth in the Pleasance courtyard, where you can pay £2 to be the only audience member for a 10-minute show, to the Edinburgh Playhouse, where you can see the likes of Ricky Gervais and Jerry Sadowitz.
Many, like The Pleasance, have spawned mini off-shoot venues that are dotted around nearby streets, so a day to get your bearings is certainly recommended.
After a drink in The Pleasance courtyard (where we spy comedian Lucy Porter having a pint), our first show beckons, Cambridge Footlights in Wishful Thinking at Over the Road 2.
With the ghosts of past alumni hanging heavy in the theatre (Peter Cooke, John Cleese, Stephen Fry and David Mitchell – so no pressure) it’s easy to forget that this is only a student show after all.
The performers are incredibly self-assured, given their youth, and all have a pretty good grasp of comic timing, but the material is very hit and miss.
Their simple sketches are better, such as a two-hander featuring rival beachcombers or the bizarre song featuring a creepy nursery rhyme character. Others, such as the farce set at a wedding reception, are just too long and convoluted.
Next we headed for The Underbelly, so named because it’s under the George IV bridge.
We tried to get tickets for Richard Herring, whose Hitler moustache had piqued my interest when he appeared on Charlie Brooker’s You Have Been Watching recently.
Unfortunately – or rather fortunately as it turned out – the show was sold out. Seeking an alternative, the Underbelly press officer suggested Frisky and Mannish’s School of Pop, which turned out to be a real revelation.
Things didn’t begin well though.
Crammed into the sweaty low-ceilinged room, I was expecting some sort of Dick and Dom-type Saturday morning TV offering, but in waltzed a camp keyboard player wearing tight lycra leggings and a dominatrix school teacher in fishnets and pink wig.
They proceeded to win everybody over with a series of hilarious pop parodies. Frisky (Laura Corcoran) became Marlene Deitrich singing the theme tune from Friends as well as Lily Allen singing Noel Coward and vice versa.
On many, such as Eternal Flame by the Bangles, the comedy lay in the style of the singing rather than by changing the lyrics. In this case a creepy stalker singing the lines “I watch you when you are sleeping”.
You do need a basic knowledge of pop music to appreciate this show, but most people should be able to keep up with the clever references that come thick and fast.
As F&M had started late, we missed the encore and had to run across town to catch Gavin Webster’s Falderal at The Stand 2. The circular Georgian room was probably smaller than the Wallsend stand-up was used to, being a regular at The Hyena with more than 15 years on the circuit.
And it was clear that some of the audience just didn’t get him (the bemused French girl l saw leaving didn’t stand a chance).
In case you’re wondering, Falderal means nonsense or whimsy – a deliberately wide-open non-theme that allowed Webster to shoot off at random tangents in a seemingly free-form style. Common themes include poncy Southerners, swearing, phone-ins and growing up in Newcastle – with the ingredients for his jokes (a kind of comedy chemistry set) laid out on a table before him.
Webster’s impressions – which he joked were far more obscure than Bill Bailey’s – fell a bit flat though, undeniably because only 20% of the audience knew who the singers were.
However all was forgiven with his brilliant song finale – a list of spurious ailments from an anxious mam which mocks a society where everything is labelled an illness and the doctor’s hilarious diagnosis. Not one for the social workers.
Having seen a sketchy student revue, a surprising pop culture cabaret and a loud-mouthed Geordie, I couldn’t have picked a more disparate trio.
And that’s what Edinburgh’s all about. The choice may be bewildering, but sometimes you take a gamble and strike lucky with an act you would never normally consider. If only I’d had more time ...