By this point in the (can we call it a) summer, we’re all pretty used to the full gamut of feelings – from getting to “do” things again (relief, sure; joy, yes please – but also the queasiness at “it” still not being really over); impatience (however accepting) at the QR-coded bureaucracy impeding any overly spontaneous or hare-brained plan; and then, in an increasingly valiant compromise between the triumph and the gloom, the agreement that even if things aren’t broadly better, there’s at least a novelty to doing them in a slightly different fashion for a bit.
I must stress: I’m aware that blithe whimsy is of little comfort to those whose livelihoods (and lives) continue to be threatened by the tantric non-conclusion of the pandemic.
However, when (not if! When!) things are back to “normal”, there will be, if not nostalgia, then certainly a kind of memory-aiding specificity to the way we did things in 2021: for me, one of those beacons of weirdness will be doing an “Edinburgh Fringe run” which lasted for precisely 58 minutes on stage and barely 12 hours in total.
As a stand-up, passing in and out of towns like a meandering hitman is all very much part of the trade, as is the often ludicrous ratio between time spent on the commute and time spent in the office (arts centre/room above pub).
However, the Fringe is different: the whole year can be mapped out in the deadlines leading up to it (show title in February! Poster image in March! Full press materials, with a hopefully by now fairly extensive idea of what the show’s about, by May!), and then, after a month or two of shoddy previews to supportive (but still frequently short-changed) audiences, rocking up at Waverley station on 31 July with a heaving suitcase of outfits/props/good-luck trinkets/impressively weighty book for “down time” (which you’ll never get round to reading), and the knowledge that your professional life – or at least your self-esteem – could be in a radically different place when you cram yourself back into an equally packed and fatigued train one month later.
This year, however, has been (you guessed it) different. After the “no Fringe” of 2020, we now have the glittering “some Fringe” of 2021, its performing population (at least at the comic end of the spectrum) being chancers like me, who missed the sweet scent of the sea/breweries/broken dreams and just wanted to pop up “for a bit” to check in, punch the card and have an “I was there” to wave in the face of pampered generations to come.
My show, like most others, was a work in progress; a white flag of “I’ve had some vaguely amusing thoughts over the last year but I couldn’t in honesty call them a show, and also we’re all still collectively trying to work out if you’re up for pandemic-based observations or just want to move on as quickly as possible” (that wasn’t the exact blurb).
And the number of performances of said show? A valiant two, limited by various professional and personal circumstances, which then ended up limiting it further to just one (with ticket-holders for the cancelled one reimbursed, and many apologised to via DM).
I rolled in on Wednesday evening, a cool hour and a half before my stage time, after a short delay around Berwick-upon-Tweed (a most aesthetically pleasing vista to get delayed in), having aborted “Operation Risky Rush to Red Box”, my ill-fated plan to visit the cash-only meat-and-three-veg noodle bar that has brought me salt-heavy solace in many a stressful moment over the last decade.
Instead, the faster-food option: a fiery cheese dog from Piemaker (another old reliable in high season or low), then on to the Pleasance Courtyard, reduced from its usual labyrinthine crush to just two socially distanced venues – one of which was mine.
The less said about the waffle I filled it with the better: needless to say, among the pre-planned topics (Pot Noodles, parenthood, go-karting etc), the high point was a fantastically passive-aggressive chat with a local front-rower who’d just been to – and much preferred – a Frank Sinatra tribute. Even at an empty Fringe, you can still come second best.
Then to do my one bit of audiencing for the year: a trip to the Counting House for a midnight show by Alex Kealy – a biased choice regardless of the lack of alternatives, because a) he’s my oldest friend (posho recommending posho shocker!); b) he’s on terrific form this year (his “Winston Churchill wind turbine” bit was my Joke Of The Fringe, admittedly from the small pool of his jokes and mine); and c) he was putting me up on his sofa afterwards, so it’s only polite.
He’s in town ’til the end of the weekend – I was back in London by late morning. Did I dream the whole thing? Hours later, it already feels like it.