The Fringe programme launch is one of my most eagerly anticipated days of the year - although I'll be no clearer to actually knowing what to go and see.So far I've only had a chance to have a quick spin through the programmes of two of the main venues: Assembly, which is still close to my heart, and the Traverse.
Assembly present the usual safe mixture of mainstream dance/light entertainment fusion blockbusters, Guy Masterson productions and easy been-around-for-years-thus-bums-on-seats comics (Jason Byrne). It's a disappointingly familiar programme. Camille O'Sullivan, "downgraded" to the Assembly Rooms proper after a couple of years on the Mound, will be a highlight (I'm now a full-fat fan). Other big guns wheeled out by Assembly include the Soweto Gospel Choir - nearly as inevitable as William Burdett-Coutts using the press launch to call on the Fringe and International Festival to merge. Taking up residence on the Mound are the brilliant Pajama Men with their unique show, one of the funniest things I've seen in years. Other shows I'll be keeping my eye on include No Child, Tripod Versus The Dragon and Jack the Knife.
Assembly are going to have some sort of tent in Princes Street Gardens which, if WBC has chosen well, could be the highlight of the festival. A quick look at the programme, however, and I'm not so sure: the insistence on programming granny-friendly "fusion" acts such as the Bala Brothers (described as "the latest singing sensations from South Africa...soaring harmonies...infuse opera sounds with popular African music." In other words, business as usual for Assembly. A daytime Best of the Fest is a great idea, and The Crack is likely to create the most word of mouth. Meanwhile something called Guilty Pleasures is already showing up as sold out on the Assembly website for the first few days, which I find hard to believe. Burlesque singer Meow Meow, who I very nearly booked tickets for at the Soho Theatre a few weeks ago, is another one to watch. Will it be the new Spiegeltent? Who knows, but fair play to assembly for taking on the mantle as it was an obvious hole that needed plugging, and putting it in Princes Street is a novel idea, despite being slightly less part of "Festivalville" than George Square.
I can't think about Assembly comedy without remembering Daniel Kitson at Best of the Fest in about 2003, when his voice when he teased Adam Hills about playing is safe at the Assembly Rooms was laden with deep scorn. The intimation was clear: Assembly is a venue deeply committed to playing things safe. Yet they inevitably end up with an unexpected gem or two - I'm sure the same will happen this year.
The Traverse programme is more heavyweight than ever: productions from the likes of the Royal Court, citizens and Birmingham Rep. Like Assembly, the Traverse have their favourites - Daniel Kitson returns with It's Always Right Now, Until Later, Druid put on another Enda Walsh play (Penelope) while Ontroerend Goed will be a short price to take awards for Teenage Riot which will presumably be some sort of natural sequel to the brilliant One and for all... One of the most promising shows is a dance production, Ballet Work No 1020 by Martin Creed - it sounds like a minimalist ballet production. Ever dependable Grid Iron showcase their Fringe First winning Decky Does A Bronco. To be honest, I would see any show blind at the Traverse, but others which look especially promising to me are En Route, The Girl in the Yellow Dress and Apple.
The main problem with the Traverse is the cost of the shows. Weekend performances are now £19 - I'd like to see virtually everything that's being put on, but can't afford to spend hundreds on a few plays. For a Londoner like me, the temptation is to wait until they come down to London; many Traverse hits will filter through at some point in the year following the Festival, to off-West End venues like the Tricycle, BAC, or Lyric...where the tickets will be barely half the price. Holding out is a risky strategy, as theere's no guarantee that any of the shows will make its way down - but historically, many of them do and I may take my chances on seeing most of them in London, if only for financial reasons. While I don't have a problem with the Traverse charging relatively high prices, it's a shame that there's no discount for multiple purchases. There will be many people who would be prepared to book tickets for several shows at once and some sort of "loyalty card" scheme would be a nice touch.
I'll only be in Edinburgh for the last week of the Fringe - note to self: stay on top of the reviews, the blogs, the rumours, the gossip, and get those tickets booked early for the must-see shows. Otherwise you'll just spend the time getting pissed in the Princes Street tent or sitting in the Traverse cafe.
Rather more pressing is the need to get tickets for the One On One festival at the Battersea Arts Centre which brings a whole host of shows exploring intimate theatre and the on-on-one performer-audience experience. Ontroerend Goed are the standout highlight - their The smile off your face is extraordinary and I still haven't seen Internal which is supposed to be similarly mindblowing. The ticketing concept is intriguing - a ticket buys you admission to three shows (out of over twenty) but due to scheduling requirements you don't have much choice in what you see other than one show of your choice. I hadn't heard of many of the companies and artists but pretty much everything looks right up my street and well worth a look. For me, this is what real modern theatre is about and I'll be like a kid in a sweet shop. Have a look at the programme here. My problem is that I have no idea how to go about choosing...I want to see them all...
***Update*** Review here.