The Edinburgh Festival Fringe opens today, as does the International Festival. Thankfully, the time when they inexplicably opened a week apart, thereby diluting audience appeal at either end of the month, is long gone.
Whether you are a performer, working in the city any other capacity or looking for thrills and spills, there is nothing to compete with Edinburgh in August. This year, there are reputedly over 3,000 different entertainments on offer, a selection that is getting back to the heady levels not seen since before the pandemic. At the top end of the scale are some of the most popular comedians in the business, major TV stars included, along with international orchestras, dance, opera and theatre companies.
By way of contrast, there will also be many debutants hoping to take their initial steps towards superstardom, along with school and university companies enjoying the first experiences of life away from home, hoping not so much to wow audiences as find anyone willing to watch.
Seasoned visitors will be looking forward to catching up with old friends whom they only see once a year, picking up tips about must-see shows and discovering the latest news about life, work and the like in far-flung corners of the kingdom or the planet. It might be fun, but as a commercial endeavour, the Fringe is a disaster for at least 90% of those involved, but that really isn’t the point.
The money side has been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis generally and the price of accommodation in the city this year. That is pure madness, as outlined in feature earlier this year, when we discovered that at least one four-bedroom flat was being advertised for four weeks at over £150,000, while some performers were reduced to spending the month in a tent at a local campsite.
The big question is whether the not-quite-recession will have a significant negative impact on attendances at a time when the Fringe and everyone involved desperately needs increased footfall.
Prospective first-time visitors will find the journey both dazzling and shattering. Inevitably, they will be sucked into viewing performances on the streets and then suckered by friendly people carrying flyers for shows that cost nothing to enter but offer little beyond shelter for an hour or so.
People watching is also at its best, given the eccentric collection of folk attracted to the city by a lifestyle that for many includes little sleep, too many intoxicants and, as a result, a wild escape from the harsh realities of day-to-day life.
It is difficult to come up with hard and fast methods for spotting great shows beyond looking at reviews provided by BTG and other reputable outlets, but one can probably safely say that when a venue is charging higher prices, it will vet prospective contributors more closely and offer a better chance of finding that dream show.
Anyone willing to pay premium prices should look closely at the International Festival, which can tend towards the avant-garde but will always be polished and offer comfortable seats in plush venues, not to be sneezed at after several hours spent sitting on planks in 'theatres' that feel like damp bomb shelters.
In the later weeks of the month, there will also be award winners to follow, although many of those will inevitably sell out as a result of the acclaimed. There is also the one-in-a-thousand chance that, like this critic and his fellows in past years, you might stumble upon the next Phoebe Waller Bridge or The Play That Goes Wrong taking their first uncertain steps towards becoming global phenomena.
Beyond the international Festival, Fringe, Book Festival etc., never forget Edinburgh is a glorious city. For those that haven’t previously enjoyed its delights, there are superb restaurants, particularly for fish lovers in Leith, while veganism is being nakedly promoted this year by Festival favourite Alan Cumming. There are lovely open spaces, a famous castle with its Tattoo, museums and a zoo, not to mention the Royal Mile, which becomes a river during one of those ubiquitous storms that seem to arrive every August in a city that can otherwise be a wind tunnel.
If you are heading up to Edinburgh in the next week or two, have a great time. For those that have missed out this time around, why not keep an eye on events and start planning the holiday of a lifetime in August 2024?