Space Odyssey: Some thoughts on Edinburgh venues…

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This first appeared on fringebiscuit.co.uk

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The Banshee Labyrinth is a sweaty underground maze. Its doors and stairways are narrow, its ceilings low, the rooms oppressively small and dark. It’s brilliant.

Well, it is for a bit.

It isn’t quite as brilliant after six solid hours, which is the length of time I stayed in the same small room last Tuesday. I watched, in succession, Lucy Ayrton’s gorgeous Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry, Tea-Fuelled’s fantastic (two hour long) Slam Poetry Flea Circus, and the witty wordsmithery of Jack Heal’s Murderthon. By the time I was done, my pint in the upstairs bar was much-needed. Don’t get me wrong, the performers were great, but the room was a sauna by the end, and there are only so many moist, hairy men’s arms a gal wants pressed against her in one night.

This got me thinking about venues, and how they affect performers and audiences.  There are certain venues I dread going to. Many of the Underbelly Cowgate rooms are dank and stinking. Their ceilings leak and their stone walls glisten. I’ve seen roasting-hot performers actually steam in those rooms, like horses after a race. Shows like Jonny and the Baptists are so good I quite frankly wouldn’t care if they took place in a sewer, but some shows that I’ve quite liked, like Letter to the Man From the Boy, would certainly have been more enjoyable in a more pleasant venue.

There’s a bit of a noise-pollution issue at Surgeon’s Hall. During a few performances there, such asThe House of Shadows, I’ve heard the chatter of people milling about outside as well as the chastising ‘ssshhh!’ of the venue staff. Lack of closing doors in the Banshee Labyrinth also allows noise to interfere with performances, and during the Flea Circus this did irritate me.

A couple of the spaces in Summerhall are just plain weird: cold, bare and uncomfortable, though this has actually suited the wonderfully experimental feel of the shows I’ve so far seen there, such asHow a Man Crumbled. The surreal, unsettling nature of that performance was heightened by the bizarre space.

My enjoyment of the excellent Midnight at the Boar’s Head was marred by the awkward setting within Zoo Southside. The performers had to move clumsily around tables and chairs in a too-small space, and the audience had no access to the bar which was such an integral part of the show. I gave the show 3 stars but I feel that, within a more appropriate space, it would gain more than that. It’s not the performers’ fault, but space is important to this show and its interactive quality.

There are some stunning venues. Bedlam Theatre is a beauty, as is Merchant’s Hall. The seats are comfy, the carpets plush, the décor just lovely.  Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, Assembly and C venues have all been perfectly pleasant so far. But whether this has increased my enjoyment of the shows I’ve seen in these places is unclear. If a show is great it doesn’t matter where it’s set, and if a show is terrible no amount of comfort or jazzy décor will redeem it. But issues of noise pollution and discomfort can knock the edge off an otherwise great experience, and if a space is all wrong for a show it can set it off-kilter.

But this is all part of the beauty of the Fringe. In order to fully experience its highs and lows you need to feel the slick of a stranger’s perspiration against your own overheated flesh. Just sit back, enjoy the show and try not to think about what you’d do in the event of a fire.

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