FAULT reviews: The Edinburgh Festival Fringe ’13



The approach of August brings the Edinburgh Festival to the capital, with not only inflated prices, over-whelmed looking tourists, and pubs that open at 6am and close at 4am the next day, but also the Fringe, the largest arm of the festival. 2013 featured over 2,542 different shows, in over 258 venues, by over 21,192 performers. For four weeks of the year the city hums with activity. ‘I fucking hate the festival,’ the taxi driver told me. ‘I spend all of fucking August in traffic.’ He honked his horn. ‘There’s too many fucking people!’ I wanted to agree with him, as this was something I had said many times when racing across town to conduct an interview or see a show, but I was unsure if his rant was going to take a turn for the racist, so I stayed silent. But his mad-frothing highlighted that the Fringe is more divisive than the tram project running through the city centre – people either love it or hate it.

Maria Bamford shot by Natalie Brasington

‘I thought it was madness,’ standup comedian Maria Bamford told me about her last four week run at the Fringe in 2006. ‘I had a few friends, myself included, who exhibited some uncommon behaviour by the fourth week.’ Charmingly anxious; she is like the diminutive character Woody Allen portrays in his films. ‘Changing sexualities, drug use…’ she continued, ‘light to heavy manic episodes.’ Maria, currently starring as Tobias’s girlfriend in the new season of Arrested Development, spoke with a genuine smile while recounting her month in August; but with the smile came the same hundred-yard stare other Fringe performers and Vietnam vets had when sharing their experiences with me.

Rhea, Caroline
Carolien Rhea

‘It’s intense.’ Said Caroline Reah, a standup comedian with her roots in the comedy Mecca of New York in the late 80s; but perhaps best known as Aunt Hilda from the long running kids TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch; a persona which I could not shake when she spoke, as she did so with the same high-energy and bubbly enthusiasm she had on the show. She also had the same characteristics one wishes every fun and crazy aunty had, with bright-pink dress, and matching bright pink Ugg boots to go with them. ‘It’s like having schizophrenia.’ Caroline, now performing in her second year at the Fringe spoke while checking her phone; being caught up in an unfinished game of Candy Crush. ‘This is me in Scotland,’ [she’s American] ‘I’m like, oh my God I’m never leaving, then the next day it’s like, when is the next flight back to New York?’

Maria, admittingly put off by her experience at the Fringe, but eager to stress that, ‘it wasn’t a fit for me, but that’s not to say it isn’t for others,’ taking the mother-hen role I believe she constantly finds herself in, Maria had many thoughts on how to make the Fringe a friendlier more welcoming place for performers. ‘I think it’d be great for performers to go [somewhere] for respite, in terms of mental health, sobriety support or just to get a hug. It’s a long run; people are running up credit card debt and far from home – maybe some hot towels would do.’

CAREY MARX 1 - Please credit Steve Ullathorn
Carey Marx shot by Steve Ullathorn

Cary Marx, a British standup comedian, up from London for his ninth year at the Fringe, had a different take, not too dissimilar to the others, but he had more of a road-hardened outlook on the month. ‘I don’t think it’s an endurance test, but I think you need endurance for it,’ he began while gulping latte and ordering another – his eyes blood shot and his coffee stained tshirt were glimpses of how a standup performer at the Fringe is not normally a morning person. ‘On the street at the festival there is a soap opera going on around you. It’s a city full of all the biggest egos in the world for a month. What’s not to enjoy?’ I told him what my taxi driver had said and what Maria and Caroline had said. I asked him, other than the length of run, why was it so hard on performers?

He paused to think and his smile faded. ‘I think a lot of acts get up here and suddenly realise their show is crap,’ he said. His bluntness was refreshing. ‘People don’t know before they come here, as a Fringe audience is a very discerning one. No one in normal life ever sees as many shows as they will in one week, so naturally they all have a certain level of jaded going on.’ I had seen six shows that day already, so I could relate to what he was saying. ‘The hardest part is knowing that they have already seen ten shows that day, and now they’re going to see you.’ He inhaled dramatically. ‘You better be good to make it worth their while.’ He paused, lost in thought for a moment. ‘That’s why it’s intense.’


‘We get a lot of guys coming in to see our show,’ Hanna Stanbridge, 27 years old and one half of London-based sketch comedy group Broad Squad told me. ‘They’re not guys,’ retorted Courtney Johansson 26, the other half, ‘they’re lads.’ She elongated the vowel and lowered her voice to make ‘lads’ sound both sinister and common. These lads, not fans of sketch comedy, but instead fans of free shows featuring two attractive young women. Broad Squad is making its Fringe debut this year and will be up every night as part of the Edinburgh Free Fringe, which has become a serious contender for people’s attention at the Festival since its inception in 1996. ‘We both have partners who have previously performed at the Fringe, so we knew about the financial side of it,’ said Courtney, smiling, but visibly exhausted from their show the night before. Maria’s idea of a performer’s respite area seemed like a good one to her. ‘We knew how many tickets we’d have to sell to break even,’ she continued, ‘and it would be silly as a newbie to attempt that.’ Started to alleviate the financial burden on the performer, most lesser-known acts losing around £5000 for a four week run, and to alleviate the financial burden on the audience member, with most shows beginning at £15, the Edinburgh Free Fringe is free to all; with promoters relying on bar bills to reimburse them for venue hire.

While tapping their cans of diet coke, each looking like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, Hanna and Courtney recounted the endless hours of preparation, travel, stage managing, and all the things one has to do when taking an act to the Fringe without a staff. They weren’t bitter like one might expect. Instead they spoke like new mothers recounting how their babies were keeping them up at night; a pain in the ass, sure, but an overwhelming joy one can’t truly understand as an outsider looking in. ‘It’s like a drug,’ Hanna said. But being a sober person, that didn’t mean the same thing to me as she hoped it would. ‘The excitement, the passion, the ups, the downs, the adrenaline, meeting people, the community, it’s everything,’ said Courtney.


I told the taxi driver, ‘The festival is like a drug.’ He looked in his rearview mirror at me amused and bemused. ‘The excitement, the passion, the ups, the downs, the adrenaline, meeting people, the community, it’s everything,’ I continued. He remained silent, suddenly weary of our time together. As he sped the taxi up to get me to my destination quicker; like him, I thought I would never really understand. The festival is many things to many people: the chance to see ten shows in a day, to get interviewed at 9am having only had 2 hours of sleep the previous night, the chance to have a nervous breakdown, maybe, or get into debt… or even to spend time in traffic with people who don’t share your world-view. Still, whether you love it or hate it, the Fringe only comes but once a year.

Words by Chris Purnell