When I told my seven-year-old son that we were going to a foreign city where we would run from one theatrical event to another all day long, he stuck out his tongue…and panted. I’d expected enthusiasm. Asher has been hooked on plays since he went to his first Broadway show, Frog and Toad, at four, but I failed to anticipate how much he would love the Edinburgh Fringe. Nor had I fathomed what fun it would be for our family of four—which also includes my husband, Paul, and our 14-year-old daughter, Dorothy—to take in a total of 11 shows in three days.
Held at the same time as the esteemed Edinburgh International Festival, which brings important drama, dance, and music to the breathtaking Scottish capital for three weeks every August, the Fringe has always had a not-ready-for-prime-time flavor. Practically all British actors and comics, from Dudley Moore to Dawn French, have appeared here early in their careers, their acts running side by side with student groups and acting troupes from all over the globe. While the International Festival takes over theaters and performance halls around town, the Fringe commandeers less conventional spaces, including churches, parks, public toilets, the backseats of cars, the very streets.
Center stage is the Royal Mile, a broad avenue descending from Edinburgh Castle, where acrobats, tightrope walkers, and musicians strut their stuff day and night and actors bombard you with fliers. Although not known for catering to kids, the Fringe offers a significant number of children’s productions—76 during our stay last year, including a version of the Tempest (featuring a Caliban played by a puppet who sang Green Day’s "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" to express his angst) that Paul and Asher caught on our first day. They also went to a rollicking Treasure Island at which children in the audience got to form Ben Gunn’s boat, shoot Silly String from a musket, and throw a bone at Long John Silver. But many of the shows listed under general theater are suitable for kids, and no one blinks an eye at children in the audience.
On our second day, the four of us sprawled on the grass at the Royal Botanic Garden for a hilarious rendition of Romeo and Juliet: our large crowd was divided into Montagues and Capulets, and each group was asked to sing a snooty song about the other. Hours later, Dorothy and I watched spellbound as the Italian illusionist Arturo Brachetti disappeared behind a curtain and emerged instantly in entirely different clothes.
The afternoon before we left, in the immense Udderbelly tent (its top festooned with purple udders pointing to the sky), we were mesmerized by dancers in Into the Hoods, a hip-hop take on Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical—this time set in an inner-city housing project. I’m no hip-hop fan; my daughter had chosen the show, but it turned out to be one of the most thrilling things I’d ever seen—proof that listening to your children can have Fringe benefits.
Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of The White Rose and The Sabbathday River. Admission, her next novel, will be published in 2008.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival takes place August 5–27 this year. At the festival’s Web site, edfringe.com, you can order a catalogue, create an itinerary, buy tickets, and find a place to stay.
Eight theater groups not invited to the first Edinburgh International Festival perform anyway. The Fringe is born.
A visiting Cambridge troupe includes Eric Idle. A group from Oxford brings Michael Palin. Both go on to Monty Python fame.
Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead has its world premiere.
Dawn French and future Absolutely Fabulous star Jennifer Saunders perform at the Assembly Rooms. Elsewhere in the building: Eric Bogosian.
Jerry Springer: The Opera takes the Fringe by storm.
Hamlet is performed entirely in a bouncy castle. The Guardian remarks, "There are things that can only happen in Edinburgh, and this is one of them."