x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Highlights of this year's Edinburgh Fringe

This year's Fringe features everything from theatre to comedy to human beatboxing.

John Malkovich directed a one-man stage show starring Julian Sands this year at the Fringe.
John Malkovich directed a one-man stage show starring Julian Sands this year at the Fringe.

Midday in Edinburgh this week, and the world's biggest arts festival already feels like a huge street party. Throughout August the Scottish capital is packed from early morning to past midnight as a vast range of shows fills every available performance space on a back-to-back, quick-change, round-the-clock schedule. Just strolling through the seething streets is difficult enough, never mind racing from venue to venue in a crazy bid to sample even a fraction of the comedy, drama, music, cabaret, visual art and spoken-word shows on offer in the city's vast range of theatres, galleries, cellar bars, converted car parks, lecture halls, circus tents and cobbled courtyards.

Just as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was warming up, however, London and other cities were rocked by large-scale rioting and looting that has left the UK in shock. North of the border, satirical comedians struggled to write topical jokes about the troubles overnight. Meanwhile, Scottish media and politicians were quick to point out that this was an emphatically English problem. The crowds on the streets of their own proud capital were not rioting, they were celebrating. And with that the party resumed, even louder than before.

On the street hustlers jostle for business with promotional flyers for their shows. Even John Malkovich has been handing out leaflets on the Royal Mile, the picturesque boulevard in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle that serves as a main drag for the Fringe. The award-winning actor from the US was drumming up business for A Celebration of Harold Pinter, a one-man stage show he is directing based on the work of the late British dramatist and poet, which stars Julian Sands. But not even hands-on celebrity marketing can save the show from lukewarm reviews.

Starry solo dramas are something of a motif at this year's festival, with the celebrated Shakespearean thespian Simon Callow dressing up in women's clothes for the extended monologue piece Tuesdays at Tescos. Callow gives a courageous and moving performance, although this specially commissioned translation of a hit French play about sexual confusion and family tension feels a little flimsy and dated.

Much more impressive is Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell's musical drama Ten Plagues, directed by Stewart Laing, which stars the cult British pop singer Marc Almond as an eyewitness to the notorious "Black Death" bubonic plague, which killed 100,000 Londoners in 1665. Featuring a stridently modernist piano score, this artfully minimalist production makes terrific use of its carved wooden set, back projection screens and a simple but clever piece of unexpected audience participation.

Garlanded with rave reviews and sold out for almost its entire Fringe run, this unorthodox pageant is guaranteed a strong commercial afterlife beyond Edinburgh.

The Fringe may have started life as a theatre festival, but it is now dominated by comedy. This year's festival includes the usual stampede of traditional gag merchants alongside musical and physical clowns, mimes and magicians, chat-show hosts, talking puppets, and even a comic who performs with his mouth covered in masking tape.

One of the more lively attempts to reinvent the comedy format is the young, mask-wearing five-man team Late Night Gimp Fight. Although their juvenile comic vignettes are highly uneven in quality, they are redeemed by a clever selection of doctored video clips and musical numbers, including a brilliantly inventive chorus of fluorescent toilet seats singing Stand By Me.

Another established Fringe favourite putting their own smart slant on traditional comedy is the American duo The Pajama Men, who speed breathlessly through In the Middle of No One, a surreal sci-fi fantasy featuring a dazzling range of accents, characters, mime and movement. Defying easy categorisation, this terrific show zips along with an electrifying quick-fire energy.

Many British comedians use Edinburgh as a high-profile launch pad for a national tour. One of the prime examples this year is Dave Gorman, whose Power Point Demonstration show is already a well-oiled vehicle mixing big-screen visuals with laid-back comic banter. A highly popular Fringe veteran with an established TV and radio career, Gorman cleverly builds this show around material gleaned from Twitter conversations, online comment threads and incorrect media reports about himself.

Conversely, some comics use the Fringe as a kind of experimental focus group to road-test unfinished material that will later form the basis for a full professional show. Among the stand-up stars bringing their work-in-progress sets to the festival this year are Omid Djalili and Stewart Lee, both established TV talents with long Fringe track records.

A cultish figure who has already sold out his entire Edinburgh run in a small basement club, Lee's rambling 70-minute monologue is laced with biting sarcasm, wry social comment and sly critiques of other comedians who are more successful but less imaginative than him. He repeatedly apologises for his lack of material, and reads out some pathologically vicious quotes about himself made by online critics, but somehow still manages to make all this relentless bleakness and negativity very funny. This show is clearly still a rough draft, although Lee's heavily ironic style sometimes makes it hard to distinguish between failed jokes and wilfully obtuse anti-humour.

Big-name American, Australian and Irish comedians are another evergreen Fringe fixture, although this year they seem to be thinner on the ground than usual. Even so, there are some reliable Edinburgh regulars on the menu, including Rich Hall and Ed Byrne. Kristen Schaal, the kooky co-star of cult TV sitcom Flight of the Conchords, also returned to the festival last weekend with her regular comic partner Kurt Braunohler to launch Hot Tub, a ramshackle mix of surreal sketches, cheesy musical numbers and guest performances. This is winning stuff, sharp-witted and macabre humour dressed up as amateurish knockabout fun.

Making her first Fringe appearance in a decade, the Korean-American stand-up Margaret Cho is a major star in the US, even appearing on the TV talent show Dancing With the Stars alongside David Hasselhoff and Bristol Palin. She also co-stars on the third season of Drop Dead Diva, which is broadcast in the UAE on OSN. Her Edinburgh set is a fairly traditional affair, full of scatological and sexually frank humour, which clearly aims to shock, and generally succeeds. Some of her cultural references on a recent night were a little too American for the largely British audience, but Cho's rowdy energy and rude musical numbers won over the crowd.

Speaking of music, Edinburgh is also playing host to dozens of concerts this month, including one-off performances by the contemporary classical composer Philip Glass, the Brooklyn-based indie-rockers The National, Los Angeles's neo-psychedelic all-girl quartet Warpaint and numerous locally sourced Scottish folk-pop acts. But in general, Fringe shows are far more likely to feature music in combination with drama, comedy or dance.

The all-vocal skills of human beatboxing are especially prevalent this year, with Fringe appearances by the current leaders of the British scene, Shlomo and Beardyman. The five-piece a cappella group The Magnets have also been playing to packed houses in Edinburgh with a family-friendly set featuring blended-harmony versions of songs by Bon Jovi, Blur, the Killers and more, all lightly peppered with human beatbox effects.