Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019 – The Venues and Shows

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The choice of shows to see at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can be overwhelming at first glance. Over 53,000 performances take place over a three week period in 300 venues across the city. Narrowing down the number of shows to go and see took us a fair while. 

The best place to start is the Fringe website. All the acts are listed on the site in alphabetical order. You can filter the date and time of the performances happening to help scale down the shows into some kind of order. From this, we created an itinerary based on what times the shows began and the distance between venues for the next show.

An itinerary is an absolute must if you want to take in numerous shows throughout the day. Also if you have a particular act that you would like to see or a popular show that is first come first served, as many are. The real benefit of the Fringe is that many shows are free to enter and you can pay what you like at the end, or what you feel that the show was worth.

We arrived in the city at midday. The perfect time for starting to hunt for venues and shows. To begin with, we took in the atmosphere of the street performers in and around the Royal Mile. These shows are often magic acts, musicians and daredevil acts – hugely popular with the visiting crowds.

 

The Free Sisters, Cowgate

Our first gig was a compilation show at The Free Sisters, Cowgate. This is a pub with a large courtyard that features a big screen showing live sport. There are also street food stalls dotted around the courtyard selling such items as burgers, ribs and ice cream. All prices for food were around £8-10. 

A huge bar sits one side of the courtyard with a real summer vibe, the kind of place that you would come to watch a World Cup football match with a nice cold beer. Inside, there are two rooms on the ground level with two on the upstairs. There is also a hostel on the upper levels above the performance areas. 

We were here for ‘Funny Cluckers’ a popular compilation show which drew a sell out crowd. We began queuing from 14.10 for the show at 14.45 which proved to be a good move on our part as the line ended up all the way down two flights of stairs! 

The room itself was a decent size with a low ceiling and much appreciated air conditioning. The weather outside was unusually warm for Scotland. Seating came in the form of fold up chairs, the kind that you see WWE wrestlers hitting each other over the head with.

The mixed bill allows you to really see a good number of comedians within an hour. Each act did 10 minutes with our MC Ian Fox working the crowd in between the comics. A standout act was a conspiracy theorist named Rod Shepherd who had a unique style of comedy featuring quick fire theories. It sounds mad but it was absolutely hilarious. 

Two of the four acts were really good but two were quite poor. That’s the luck of the draw with the mixed bill shows but either way you’re guaranteed a good laugh and a good time. As a venue, The Free Sisters is popular with the Free Fringe and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. 

 

Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC)

A world away from the merry pub vibe of The Free Sisters, the EICC is a plush conference centre literally on the fringes of the Fringe. A walk of about 15 minutes from Princes Street through the pouring rain got us to the EICC to watch Dead Ringers.

There are numerous staff on hand guiding you to where you need to be. The centre plays host to a number of different shows throughout the festival so it is key that you know where to go. We were pleasantly surprised to find a full bar and some street food in the show waiting area. 

Around 15 minutes before the show, the crowd began to line up behind a sign indicating the start of the queue. Everything was very orderly and the crowd a lot more mature for this show. A brief trip up an escalator and we were into the theatre. 

The Pentland Auditorium is a large theatre with ample seating for a large crowd. The simple stage set up was just four chairs, four tables, four microphones and a keyboard. It was such a treat to sit in soft, comfortable chairs after the hard backs of the chairs at The Free Sisters.

Dead Ringers is a show that I loved a few years back. I continue to be intrigued and entertained by impressionists such as Jon Culshaw, who would be performing. Joining Jon on stage would be Jan Ravens, Lewis MacLeod and Duncan Wisbey. 

The show began with the impressionists reading from scripts, just as they would in the Radio 4 show. A lot of the impressions and topics centred around politics with many of the same characters being done again and again.

For me, this was a bit disappointing. I had huge admiration for Lewis MacLeod’s Donald Trump Impression and Jan Raven’s take on Alex Jones but for us it was all a bit average. It’s definitely a show to go and see but we would have liked more variety in the sketches. For £17 it wasn’t a bad show as it did have its moments. 

 

George Aikman Lecture Theatre

The posters for this show were all over town and perhaps not surprisingly so. This is a former winner of the top prize at Edinburgh Fringe back in 1991. A stand up who is nailed on to sell out theatres up and down the country with this being no exception. Frank Skinner.

Skinner is a comedian that I discovered very late in the day. Watching him on the telly growing up, I saw him as more of a chat show host or a brief pop star. I hadn’t dipped into his stand up career until late last year and I was crying with laughter at what I saw. 

At the age of 62, I never thought Frank would return to stand up after sporadic tours down the years. Tonight though would be the night to see him live and in person. In the pouring rain, we dashed over from the EICC to the George Aikman Lecture Theatre. 

The theatre is part of the University of Edinburgh just off George Square Gardens. A huge street food village had been set up just outside, which was definitely warmer than we were. Standing outside in the pouring rain would have been pure agony but for a chat with a lovely couple behind us from northern Aberdeenshire. 

The organisation suffered massively at this point as another popular show featuring Irish stand up David O’Doherty was just emptying out. People stood in front of the theatre causing a delay in getting Frank Skinners audience in. Five minutes before the show was due to begin, we were let inside.

Staff, to their credit, were filling the rows quickly. We ended up on the third row beside the couple that we had met in the queue. Frank emerged to a warm reception and quickly settled into his act. 

If you are going to see any tour this year. Make it Frank Skinner’s. I had feared that following his rather tame ‘Man in a Suit’ tour back in 2017 that the old magic had gone. This was more like the Skinner that I had roared with laughter with on YouTube. 

It’s a pleasure to witness someone make a difficult job like stand up look so easy. Going back and forth with the crowd and his own material effortlessly, Frank is hands down the best stand up that I have ever had the good fortune to watch.

 

The Hanover Tap

A little way up Hanover Street sits the Hanover Tap. A popular pub during the festival and home to Comedy 101 – our second mixed bill show of the Fringe. The comedy would be held in the basement, a space known as ‘The Wee Tap’. 

I really liked the system at the Hanover Tap. You approach the bar, order a drink and the bar staff hand you a token for however many people are in your party. This guarantees your entry for the comedy.

The one slight issue with the venue is when a show is due to begin, the bar is full to capacity. When the basement empties out it can get a bit tight getting through the bar area. Other than that, the Hanover Tap is a cracking venue for a pint and a few laughs.

We took our seats at the back with a view to an early exit as we had a gig further down the road at the Newsroom. The Wee Tap can actually fit a heck of a lot of people in as the seating stretches all around the side of the stage as well as directly in front. Some people were permitted to stand near the bar area with the place full to capacity. 

The show was titled 101 Comedy Club. A mixed bill of four comedians, exactly the same format as ‘Funny Cluckers’ at the Free Sisters. The acts throughout the gig were all roughly the same level which made watching all the more easy. Many laughs were had and after act number 3, we made for the exit back out into the rain. 

 

The Newsroom

Photo Credit: Mark Row (@mrmarkrow on Twitter)

Our final stop on our journey through the Fringe was at the Newsroom to catch a show by a comedian actually known to us. Mark Row appeared on a show that we were attending in Nottingham at the Canalhouse. That night, Mark had a great set and stood out from the other acts by a mile. We had been keeping an eye on his progress since then.

This was actually made a lot easier as Mark had made a documentary back in 2017 following his journey from zero stand up experience to his very own show at the Fringe. This documentary is mandatory viewing for anyone wanting to step into the world of stand up. 

At this year’s Fringe, Mark wasn’t alone. A comedian based in Nottingham by the name of Matt Bragg was going to be joining Mark in the venue throughout the festival. We were delighted with this as we would be getting two comedians in one show. 

The Newsroom is a lovely venue with a sense of style about it. The bar staff were really friendly and a good group was starting to form inside for the gig. Downstairs, the room that Mark and Matt have managed to secure is a great size with superb air conditioning and decent sound. 

A scattered crowd came in to watch the show. Two lively Scottish lads keen on cocktails decided to take seats on the front row. With the show getting underway, Mark went on to do his stint on the stage.

What’s great about Mark is his delivery and building a relationship with the audience. Gags relating to his career as a teacher, his experiences as a parent and life in general all went down very well. The lads on the front row decided to talk amongst themselves which Mark quickly addressed and prevented any further disruption, the sign of a decent comic.

Matt Bragg then took to the stage and the pace changed completely. Matt’s set was a little more subtle and gaining giggles from the crowd rather than full on laughs. It was a thoroughly enjoyable set nonetheless and a show well worth going to see.

This was sadly our last gig of our tour around the Fringe but what a tour it was. The sheer number of venues makes getting around incredibly difficult just by picking random shows. An itinerary is highly recommended in order to get the very best out of your trip to the Fringe – have a wonderful time! 

You can find Mark Row’s documentary ‘A1: The Long Road to Edinburgh on this link

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