Lady Cariad's Characters / White Rabbit, Red Rabbit / Untitled Love Story
Various, Edinburgh
August, 2011

I have yet to encounter any hard figures, but the impression is that this year’s Edinburgh Fringe has got off to a flying start. Normally it takes a few days to achieve cruising speed, but the moment I got off the train last Thursday week – on the eve of the Fringe’s official start – the Scottish capital seemed to be as thronging as I would have expected towards today’s end of Fringe Week 1. Not even several days of downpours (such as would helpfully deter rioters and looters south of the border) have significantly thinned the crowds. Possibly this is partly due to the bite of austerity and increasing numbers remaining in the UK for their holidays, but Edinburgh in festival season is hardly a cheap option by anyone’s standards.

There are, though, an increasing number of free shows on the Fringe. Programmes and venues offering free work have long been organised by the likes of comedian Peter Buckley Hill, but much of this work had previously lain outside the mainstream Fringe programme. This year, however, they seem to be pinging vigorously on the main radar. Significant venues such as the Voodoo Rooms have now gone free, making their money from bar revenue; as for the performers, mostly comedians, the chances of breaking even here, never mind coming out ahead financially, are so slim that they will do no worse by passing a hat around at the end of a show than they would with a box-office split-takings arrangement. And “free” does not mean “work that folk wouldn’t pay to see”. At the Voodoo Rooms I saw the gifted actress and comedian Cariad Lloyd offer Lady Cariad’s Characters. Lloyd’s character preference is for the offbeat, such as a Welsh recruiter for a religious cult or a student drafted in as her magician father’s assistant. She also has a taste for delivering a sombre paragraph and topping it off with a pitch-black punchline.

The crowds this year are more geographically concentrated than ever. Apart from the prestigious Traverse Theatre (whose first tranche of openings I reviewed on Monday and Tuesday), the Fringe has for a decade or more been dominated by four main venue “empires”: Assembly, Pleasance, Underbelly and the Gilded Balloon. For most of that time, three of these brands have had major presences in and around Edinburgh University’s buildings in the Bristo Square area. This year, as Edinburgh City Council begins its controversial work to turn much of the city’s Georgian Assembly Rooms into a shopping mall, the Assembly venue concern has moved its base of operations into University premises in George Square… just behind other multi-venue operations in the Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance Dome and the Underbelly’s flagship huge inflatable purple cow-shaped venue (honestly). With several shows running in each space over the course of a day, I would estimate conservatively that this makes for some 200 shows each day taking place within an area roughly the size of London’s Trafalgar Square.

Of course, that still leaves 2300-odd shows elsewhere around the city. One venue brand worth investigating is Remarkable Arts, whose main premises at St George’s West are doing a decent job of filling the gap left by the withdrawal a few years ago of Wolfgang Hoffman’s Aurora Nova setup. Hardly surprising, since Hoffman is now on board at Remarkable, programming a slate of characteristically international, visual and generally unorthodox work. This includes White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour; and what could be more international than a German producer offering a Canadian company’s production of an Iranian play performed by… Ah, this is the hook: Soleimanpour’s thoughtful meditation on our responsibility to each other, both as actor/audience and as fellow citizens and human beings, is performed each day by a different actor who has had no prior sight of the script before they go onstage. And speaking of meditations, several sessions of such thought (or non-thought) form the backbone of Untitled Love Story, this year’s presentation from experimental Scottish theatre-maker David Leddy, also at St George’s West. In between meditations, a quartet of performers recount separate but converging individual tales set in Venice in various decades, spiced with allusions to Krapp’s Last Tape and other works of Samuel Beckett and staged on, around and sometimes under a huge, billowing red silk. It is still worth striking out from the central Fringe campus, whether for artistic reasons or in order to save quids on ticket prices on the Free Fringe.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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