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Ed Fringe: Six Days, 21 Shows

24/08/2014 21:13 BST | Updated 22/10/2014 10:59 BST

It's easy to find ways to occupy your time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - the world's largest arts festival. There are performances taking place from morning until night every day for a month. Some are free, some paid, some are newly "devised" plays while others are stagings of classics. There's a huge offering of stand-up comedy and plenty of serious drama as well. Happily, there are fantastic works of art on display every August in Edinburgh, but the trick is knowing how to avoid the incredibly painful and sad little productions that proudly parade their stab at art while the audience squirms with embarrassment.

Unless you're into that sort of thing.

This year, I spent six days at the Fringe and saw 21 shows:

First up: Away From Home, which I've written about. The show has been selling out. It's fantastic, and Rob Ward's performance is incredible.

Directly afterward, in the same venue, we saw the hilarious Fan Fiction Comedy. The conceit is this: the comedians write new pieces of "fan fiction" each day -in the spirit of the best of fan fiction, the more nonsensical the better. On the day we attended Fan Fiction Comedy, we heard stories of the X-Men doing product endorsements for extra cash, the Expendables as a group of gay dads, and what one author believed is a day in the life of Madonna. There were at least two Sylvester Stallone impressions (don't ask). You get the picture.

Forgotten Voices was a treat to watch and a good way to start our second day at the Fringe. Julian Sands, Robert Vaughn, and other terrific actors perform a staged reading of conversations from World War I veterans. Watching each actor's arc as they discuss how excited they were to join the fight, slowly discovering the horrors of the war, beginning to recognize the humanity of the individual soldiers on the other side, and eventually coming to terms with the war was satisfying for the audience. And the prescient arrival of the Americans, late to the story and still in search of glory, sent chills down the spine.

Broke, produced and devised by The Paper Birds, is a good effort aimed at addressing class and inequality. Actors Jemma McDonell and Kylie Walsh deliver hefty emotional performances. McDonnell is especially impressive in the closing scene as a single mother. Unfortunately, the show seems to conflate the issues of personal debt, national debt, and poverty. By confusing these three very important and very different issues with one another, the show loses some of its power. The artists should be applauded for their efforts in light of the global significance of poverty, debt, and social upheaval, but as someone who works on these issues professionally, I left the show wishing there was a clearer understanding and delineation of these issues. I look forward to seeing more work from them on issues of class and inequality, though hopefully with a clearer understanding of the difference between the class-related issues.

While many shows cost money, we also made sure to visit the Free Fringe, which takes place simultaneously with the paid festival. There are numerous performances with no entry fee, though they do ask for a donation on the way out. Still, it's worth the effort because many comedians are working new and exciting material and the crowd is often rowdy and engaged. It's good - though not necessarily clean - fun. Following the performance of Broke, we headed over to The Southsider, a pub a few blocks south of some of the main venues. They have a back room with free stand-up comedy beginning at 5:45 each day titled the Best of Oh So Funny. It was fun, it was "free," and there were puns. So many puns.

That night we saw Bears In Space. I didn't know what to expect, but I'm glad I saw this show. Who knew puppetry is all the rage? And this puppetry was amusing, the story was engaging, and Bears in Space was just a wonderful way to spend an evening.

We began day three with Dogs of War. The group explored an interesting idea, examining the effects of war on the common man in Shakespeare's histories by piecing together excerpts from the Bard. They managed to create an interesting thematic narrative about the disconnect between those leading the war and the soldiers and civilians' experience during the war. The actors put forward a good effort; a few might have talent, but the direction was shoddy and attempts to incorporate multi-media and movement into the production fell flat. The shaky video camera moving around the stage and projected behind the actors was more distracting than engaging. In the end, the show was disappointing and needed a director to focus the show.

After the letdown of Dogs of War, we were sure we would have a good time at Simon Callow in Juvenilia. We were wrong. The overt sexism and casual homophobia were jarring and exposed an out-of-touch perspective that revealed anything but youth. It fell flat. The rest of the audience seemed to feel the same way, as bobbing heads in the front row expressed an audience-wide struggle to stay awake. The show left me wondering why in 2014 an established artist like Simon Callow would decide to do such a dated show without commentary to show its relevance to today's audience. Self-indulgence is usually painful to watch, but self-indulgence coupled with sexism and homophobia make for a terrible afternoon.

After two disappointing shows, my friend convinced me to go to a "free" comedy show - so I went in holding my nose. I figured the day was cursed. But the free show was more than worth the money. Sophie Wu is Minging, She Looks Like She's Dead was one of the funniest shows at the Fringe! During the hour-long performance, Wu tells the story of her teenage awkwardness and the strained relationships she had with her classmates and mother at the time. Her performance was so engaging that everyone was in stitches. .Sophie Wu is going places and I feel lucky to have seen her at the Free Fringe.

Day Four began with Dalloway, a one-woman show produced by Dyad Productions. Actress Rebecca Vaughun's hour-long solo performance is perfection. Between Vaughun's specificity and the focus with which she defines each character, the audience forgets that she is alone on stage. Vaughun is simply sublime in one of the best shows at the Fringe.

Next we rushed three blocks away to see Grow with Samantha Siddall. We picked up the flyer at a bar near where we were staying and took a chance on it. I'm glad we did. Siddall worked with director Rachel Borgan to develop the 30 minute show. It was staged as a state-mandated therapy session for Siddall's character, a young mother who made a mistake and has temporarily lost custody of her child. Through the course of the play the audience hears about the events that led up to her son's broken leg, a desperate single mother's attempts to be a good parent, and her recognition of her failing and desire to be better. Issues of class and privilege were apparent in this woman's struggle. As I watched, I couldn't help but think about the way America treats poor mothers. After the performance, there was a Q&A session and the entire audience seemed to agree that the show was incredible. Grow had a limited run, which is unfortunate for Fringe attendees. Hopefully they will continue with this story and process to examine the plight of poor, young, single mothers.

After lunch at the Piemaker we strolled over to the Underbelly for The Match Game. The show from Double Edge Drama does a nice job examining relationships today. The premise is this: a state controlled program traps young people in a room for a day with a stranger. They meet a different person every day until they find their match, whom they will marry. The theme of looking for a connection in artificial and forced situations rings true in the era of Tinder, Grindr, OKCupid, and the like. What's particularly charming is that the two leads, who the audience hopes will be placed together, become separately disillusioned over time with the game and as we watch their descent, that difficult-to-kill human hope is awakened. We ultimately connect with the absurdity of the forced game and through disillusionment we find hope. It becomes clear that they may meet tomorrow. The production was solid and the actors talented; it made for a good afternoon.

To end the day we saw one of the oddest shows of our Fringe experience: John Kearns - Shtick. The show was funny, but strange. Kearns spends an hour doing his shtick as an odd person with a strange wig. The most amusing moments come when we realize this character has had these experiences in the real world as a tour guide for school groups visiting the Houses of Parliament! I certainly couldn't complain about the "free" admission.

Day Five began with Government Inspector, of which I've written a full review. The show was absolutely incredible. With near perfect performances, detailed direction, and relevant themes, it's a must for Fringe attendees.

Swimming, a new play by Jane Upton, is a lovely story about three young adults working in a beach café on the Isle of Wight. Jack Bence's authentically blue-collar performance anchors the play, as he embodies both the desires and fears of so many young adults who may dream of more for their life than their small town beginnings portend. Jessica Madsen and Grace Watts provide two different looks at people in pursuit of their dreams, portraying both the courage and distress of leaving the ease and uneasiness of one's hometown. Upton has created a delightful new play that could be a favorite for student and young adult theatre groups to produce for years to come.

Next we went to Danny Deegan From Beginning To End, part of the Free Fringe. The small audience was disappointing because this is one of the funniest free traditional stand-up pieces at the Fringe. Deegan's paid show, with two other comedians, was selling out, but his free show only had a handful of people. Deegan brought the six of us to tears with stories of his teeth and family. Go see this show! It's more fun than a game of Garden Gnomes!

Continuing with the Free Fringe shows, Sarah Cassidy: An Introduction to Twerking is hilarious feminist comedy. That's right, hilarious. With slide shows of dick pics, critical analysis of Miley Cyrus, and discussion of Columbusing, Cassidy's performance is a riot. It's a treat to see intelligent, politically astute comedy. Worth your time!

Dixey: Where the Gentlemen Are Always Immaculately Undressed is a burlesque cabaret show that was interesting, to say the least. The striking thing was that some of the men didn't seem to have any particular talent. With drawn-on abs for the MC and a man prancing around in a unicorn costume, the audience seemed bewildered about what they were watching. The women on the other hand were incredibly talented performers. I couldn't help thinking it might be a commentary on the state of things between the sexes; after all - Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. But this show didn't exactly come together.

We began our final day with Jana and Heidi. The comical mother and daughter show gives you a glimpse into an unconventional and endearing relationship. Jana Kennedy is clearly an experienced comedian with fantastic timing. But one of the highlights of the show is when Heidi, the mother, reads a children's book about sex. This examination of parent-child relationships speaks not just to mothers and daughters, but to any complicated familial tie.

Man Enough, a new drama by Dan Reeves, is a charming and simple play about a young gay man who is willing to overlook the problems in his relationship in hopes of making it into true love. Reeves, Jake Flowers, and Bethan Francis tell the story in a simple and unpretentious manner. The show will resonate with LGBT and straight audiences alike - anyone who has ever ignored obvious red flags in their relationship in the misguided hope that sheer will is enough to make what's impossible become reality.

Margaret Thatcher: Queen of SoHo was the perfect way to end the Fringe. Matthew Tedford gives a 5-star performance as the late prime minister. Through the show, Tedford tells the story of how Section 28, a controversial law passed in the 1980s, prohibits local governments from promoting homosexuality. The show revises the story, putting Thatcher in contact with the LGBT community. She begins to see the error of her ways and by the end of the show the notoriously anti-union politician becomes a member of a union. The show is incredibly well researched, with references and jokes about Thatcher's politics and current day coalitions littered throughout the story. This show is one of those rare productions - it's not only an imaginative, engaging, and entertaining piece of theatre, but it also completely embodies what the Fringe festival is about. The irreverence, the charm, the thoughtfulness, and the timeless humor make Margaret Thatcher: Queen of SoHo a highlight of the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

After 6 days and 21 shows, it was a shame we had to head back to America.

We'd just gotten started.