Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Why Edinburgh is Awesome

Aaaah. Edinburgh.

I’ve only been here for a few hours but the city is already buzzing with excitement. Every vertical surface that is not a window contains a brightly coloured poster – mostly mugshots of comedians you half-recognise from panel games looking off into the middle distance, or pulling a funny face that is calculated to look like they’re not trying pull a funny face.

Then there are posters for rookies sketch groups with photos of the team lying on the ground looking, heads together, hoping to be the next League of Gentlemen.

I walked up the Royal Mile just now. Street performers were out. There were a few small crowds. But the air was subdued – or restrained. I wasn’t handed a single flyer by an optimistic medical student in a lab coat inviting me to a show named after a medical pun on a Hollywood movie. Everyone is keeping their powder dry. It’s as if we’re all sitting on a powder keg that will soon explode into a spectacle that will be almost visible from space. Some bits will go higher and higher, rising fast, attracing lots of attention. Others will be a disappointing damp squib. But right now, nobody knows exactly what's going to happen.

After the explosion and excitement comes the reality as people start to pick over the debris. Performers, writers and directors look at their show and realise that isn’t as good as they thought it was, and probably isn’t fixable. They try not to resenting the success of others, or the marketing budgets of the bigger hitters (I am now well aware that Chris Ramsey is playing three nights later in August. For three nights, that's a lot of poster). Others have no idea how flawed their show is and continue to perform to baffled or absent audiences in a stupor of self-deluded madness. Soon, performers, comedians and producers will be beginning sentences with phrases like ‘You know what we should do next year…’ And they keep coming back. They keep planning next year because Edinburgh is extraordinary.

The cynicism hasn't kicked in yet. Right now, everyone the city if filled with optimism and hope. And with good reason. Edinburgh makes stars. It’s not quite rags-to-riches. More rags-to-slightly-nicer-rags. But newcomers, rookies and outsiders can get noticed. They can cause a stir. They can get an audience. That’s one upside of the festival running for the impractically ruinous three and half weeks. An unknown can become known during the first week – and then sell out for a fortnight. That performer or comedian or writer can enjoy being the talk of the town at the Greatest Festival on Earth. I had the tiniest taste of that in 1999 when my show was nominated for Perrier Best Newcomer. It felt amazing.

That’s why I’m back here 14 years later. This time it’s not a sketch show but a new play I’ve written about science and religion called The God Particle (1-25 August (not 13th) at 12 noon at Just the Tonic). I’m here because every day, tens of thousands of people arrive and want to watch something new, interesting or quirky – the kind of thing they can’t get from the TV, Radio or cinema. They get off the train and ask ‘what’s good?’ And people tell them. Sure, they’ll be sucked in by a gimmick or two, and may regret it. They may also perfectly good time watching an up-and-coming comedian they’ve seen once briefly on the telly. But they’ll also go and see that new play about growing up in Oman that everyone is talking about, or that one-woman show about landmines that shouldn’t work but does. Or that guy who just tells an astonishing story. The Fringe has some kind of meritocracy.

And that is what makes Edinburgh so special.

Having said all that, I may feel differently in few days.

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