Fringe benefits: a report from Edinburgh

It is often said that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe wouldn’t – or couldn’t happen – without alcohol. Bars open round the clock and it’s not unusual to see people drinking pints at 10 o’clock in the morning. Bars pop up in the most unlikely places to support the temporary performance spaces that take over churches, Masonic lodges and lecture theatres. At the same time, it is a great time for bars which not only have weekend-like business every night of the week but, in many cases, also become venues for shows. One of the top venues this year was cocktail bar The Voodoo Rooms which was turned into two theatres specialising in cabaret and magic. With comedy making up 37 per cent of the Fringe, it is no surprise to see Foster’s branding across many of the venues as part of its continuing association with comedy. The Foster’s Comedy Award – won at the weekend by Adam Riches (pictured) – is now the UK’s leading comedy award.

Courvoisier taxis outside Pleasance Courtyard
The city has also been awash with Courvoisier with an extensive advertising campaign promoting its punches, including branded taxis throughout the festival. The stylish pop-up Courvoisier bar at the Pleasance Courtyard – one of the main venues – became one of the top spots for performers to hang out. Another landmark of the festival is the large Udderbelly venue – shaped like an upside-down purple cow – in the middle of the university’s Bristo Square which features the outdoor Magners Pasture thanks to support from the cider brand.

Even individual shows were supported by drink. Gordon & MacPhail is sponsoring the acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland production of the interactive show The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Clark through its single malt whisky Benromach. Any adults attending the performances at Ghillie Dhu were invited to sample Benromach 10 Years Old, Benromach Organic or Benromach Peat Smoke at the bar and also received a miniature of Benromach Traditional to take away.

Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham
In the midst of all this imbibing, drinks writers Tom Sandham and Ben McFarland were urging festival goers to drink less and to drink better through their show The Thinking Drinker’s Guide to Alcohol in a hut at Pleasance Courtyard. Their debut received rave reviews all round, and not just because everyone including the critics left at the end with a warm glow after sampling six different spirits. The chaps took their audience through a history of alcohol with a routine packed full of jokes good and bad. Drinks brands old and new were presented including The Kraken Black Spiced Rum, the blended aged tequila Maestro Dobel, Zubrowka bison-grass vodka, Ketel One vodka, Tanqueray No Ten and Pernod Absinthe. It is a funny and genuinely educational show, with plenty of silliness thrown in, most notably with Ben McFarland molesting an audience member dressed as an amorous bison.

In his show at this year’s Fringe, top comedian Arthur Smith recalls his alcohol-fuelled nights at the Fringe until he gave it all up 10 years ago when he nearly died because of acute pancreatitis. In Arthur Smith’s Pissed-Up Chat Show at the Pleasance Dome, he invited guests from other Fringe shows onto the stage to talk about their relationships with alcohol. Arthur has a perfect foil in the uptight character of Derek from the fictional Scottish Licensing Agency who provides sobering advice while breathalysing guests and members of the audience.

With its 9.40pm start, many of Arthur’s guests have already knocked back a few drinks themselves. One reviewer reports an early guest appearance by British actor Julian Sands, in Edinburgh for a one-man show of Harold Pinter’s poetry. He claimed to have had 19 vodkas and was able to respond to Arthur’s questions with little more than lines from his own show. As Arthur points out, theatre was invented by the Greeks as a celebration of Dionysus, the god of wine. It is a tradition that shows no sign of disappearing.

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