Edinburgh: In August company

With this year’s Fringe programme just out, Sarah Freeman takes a trip down memory lane at the Edinburgh Festival.

Edinburgh: Carlton Hill sunset

Susan Calman best sums up the spirit of the Edinburgh Festival. The Radio 4 News Quiz regular is stood on stage for Set List. Billed as “stand-up without a net”, Calman, along with half a dozen others, will be forced to deliver gags on themes they have never seen before which flash up on a big screen. But first she wants to share something of her journey to the venue.

“I’ve just walked past a student dressed as a bumblebee, crying into a hedge,” she says deadpan. She may not be making it up. The festival can have that effect on you.

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I was a regular during my early 20s when I had the good fortune to be at university in the city and it left a lasting impression. There was the year I ate beetroot soup while watching my then boyfriend perform semi-naked in Dr Faustus and there was the time when our flat had been rented out to a theatre company so instead I slept in a cupboard with three other friends. Most memorably there was wrinkle-gate. It was 1995, the year that Two Dogs was introduced to the UK. For those lucky enough not to remember Two Dogs, it claimed to be the world’s first alcoholic lemonade. That summer we couldn’t get enough of it. As we moved from one late night comedy bar to the next, rarely getting home before dawn, my best friend Kat and I became convinced that if we drank enough of it we could get by on just a couple of hours sleep. That was until the morning we woke up and discovered we had both developed our first wrinkle. The festival had left a permanent mark.

Edinburgh: Carlton Hill sunset

I left Edinburgh a couple of years later and while I’ve been back to the city many times since I’ve never returned to the festival. There was no particular reason, although memories of having to fight your way down the Royal Mile, dodging student revues who’d spent the last of their loans on flyers no-one wanted, may have played a part.

However, last August I went back. It was with a degree of trepidation. Memories of those Edinburgh summers almost 20 years ago are pretty special. What if the festival had changed, what if I’d changed?

While some complain that comedy is too dominant, the festival programme suggests otherwise. Away from the Fringe, the International Festival offers more high-brow entertainment, including last year a Chinese version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (more of which later). Taking over gardens at the Castle end of Princes Street is the International Book Festival and if you’re still stuck for something to do, there’s the Arts Festival.

In the old days I never strayed too far away from the Pleasance, the Fringe’s comedy hub, but this time I was determined to broaden my horizons. With tickets sorted for both Coriolanus and a stage version of the The Shawshank Redemption starring Omid Djalili, which everyone seemed to agree were among that year’s highlights, it was time to brave the festival programme. One friend says he always picks a theme. The other year he decided to only see performances which involved nudity; the next he only watched plays by all-male companies. Jane Eyre, he says, was particularly interesting.

Ignoring his advice, I open the weighty programme at page one. An hour later, I’m only midway through the listings for “B” and having booked tickets for Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks – a two man show in celebration of World of Sport – and Banksy: The Room in the Elephant, I give up. It’s no bad thing. One of the best things about the festival is not knowing from one hour to the next what you’re going to see. While it’s worth booking in advance for the biggest shows, make sure you leave enough time for a few spontaneous decisions even if it means you end up in a venue where the cast outnumber the audience five to one.

One thing that has definitely changed since I was last at the festival is the amount (and the quality) of the free events. In the old days, anything you didn’t have to pay for was guaranteed to be dire. Not now.

The Free Fringe was founded in 1996 by stand-up Peter Buckley Hill after he saw his fellow comics losing thousands of pounds every festival. As the cost of hiring venues rose they had no choice but to put up ticket prices, which hit audience numbers. He reckoned there had to be another way and across a number of venues the Free Fringe now stages in excess of 350 shows.

So what of my choices? Well, The Shawshank Redemption was a triumph, Banksy: The Room in the Elephant brilliant and Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks a welcome wallow in nostalgia. The Chinese Coriolanus, which for added surrealness also featured two warring heavy rock bands, was more of a challenge.

In between, we took in an art walk, sat through a couple of talks at the book festival and because it’s the festival and that’s what you do, each night we ended the evening at a late night comedy club.

• For full details and updates for all Edinburgh Festival events go to www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk

We stayed at the Double Tree by Hilton, Bread Street, Edinburgh (for bookings call 0131 221 5555, www.doubletree3hilton.com) and at Snoozebox, a pop-up hotel, which last year was just a five-minute walk from Waverley Station (www.snoozebox.com).