Even after several visits the scale of the Edinburgh Festival staggers me; 40,000 performances and more than 2,500 shows packed into 250 venues. That’s just the official Fringe festival and doesn’t include the events at the Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival. It’s one thing to know that it’s the largest arts festival in […]

Even after several visits the scale of the Edinburgh Festival staggers me; 40,000 performances and more than 2,500 shows packed into 250 venues. That’s just the official Fringe festival and doesn’t include the events at the Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival. It’s one thing to know that it’s the largest arts festival in the world, but it’s quite another to walk down the Royal Mile on a Saturday afternoon in August. Before you know it you’ve spent the first day wandering around in a daze, having seen no shows and gathered a small forest’s worth of leaflets.

In fact that’s probably the best way to spend at least one day, because you get to take in the marvels and the bravery of the street performers who in my opinion embody the spirit of the festival. True, many of them are performing similar acts and while juggling fire on a six-foot unicycle is impressive, you don’t need to see it over and over again. But every now and then you happen upon something truly wonderful, such as a man with a large crowd entirely entranced by his dancing – not a single joke or straitjacket escape in sight.

Perhaps more astonishing than the size of the Fringe is how it all got started. In 1947, eight theatre companies turned up uninvited to the first Edinburgh International Festival; seven of them performed in the city and one in Fife. They were attempting to draw attention to their activities, which were considered outside the mainstream of theatre, by performing when there were large crowds in the city anyway. The next year when a journalist remarked on the activity on “the fringe of official festival drama” (Robert Kemp, Edinburgh Evening News), they had a name.

By 1959 the festival had grown to the point that an official body was needed to organise it and the Festival Fringe Society was born, guided by the founding principle of being an open-access arts event that accommodates anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them. A most excellent principle indeed. Their policy of not restricting who performs is of course wonderful for access, although it has also been criticised on the grounds of quality control.

It’s not an unfair complaint, because the shows can vary wildly. Still that’s what makes the ticket lottery game fun – walk down the Royal Mile and go to the show on the first flyer you’re handed, or stick a pin in the brochure, or flip a coin at the half price ticket hut. That spirit of discovery is a wonderful aspect of the festival and you will almost certainly see something that surprises you. Mine was Shane and Eddie: Picking up the Pieces (lesfreresdumonde.com). The flyer was full of neon and I expected a cheese-fest, but I was treated to a skit on celebrity culture that had tears flowing down my cheeks.

From stand-up comedy to expressionist dance, from classical theatre to juggling on the streets and everything else in between, the Edinburgh Fringe festival is a singular experience to say the least.

Some excellent shows from Sheffield at this year’s Fringe:

Hairy Feet (skinnytheatre.co.uk) Performed by Stan and Matt Skinny of Skinny Theatre, Hairy Feet is a sketch show with a variety of characters and an occasional lack of trousers.

The World of Shrimpology (shrimpsimprov.com) Performed by the Shrimps Improv Troupe and tackling the thorny issue of organised religion by creating one with suggestions from the audience.

Comedium (isyourmindsafe.com) Performed by Peter Antoniou and comprising a series of ever-escalating mind-bending head-scratching tricks, but not magic tricks – mental ones.

Chella Quint and Sarah Thomasin of Adventures in Menstruating (chartyourcycle.com) A one-off as part of Ladyfest which included the launch of a new zine, original poetry and a best of Adventures in Menstruating.

For more, including reviews of Sheffielders at the Edinburgh Festival, visit nowthenmagazine.com/blog

SARA HILL.