DECIDING what to see at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Edinburgh International Festival and their various sibling festivals can be a daunting task. That is particularly true this year, as the biggest arts showcase in the world returns to full, pre-pandemic strength.

That said, seasoned festival-goers often develop techniques for picking the sparkling needles out of the proverbial haystack that is the performing arts offering in Scotland’s capital each August. Based on my own tastes and experience, the following suggest themselves as a potentially rich and diverse set of shows.

Edinburgh-based site-specific theatre company Grid Iron tend to produce thought-provoking and invigorating work. Their Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) commission Muster Station: Leith (Leith Academy, August 15-26) promises to be one of their most exciting and ambitious shows to date.

Taking the audience in promenade through Leith Academy, the piece is the culmination of the company’s four-year residency at the school. The journey that the company asks you to imagine is one in which you are uprooted from your home – as so many people in our precarious world are, whether by war, climate chaos, persecution or poverty.

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Expect an engrossing, highly original theatrical experience with a strong moral core.

Also in the EIF programme, and also addressing the urgent crises of 21st-century humanity, is Jungle Book Reimagined (Festival Theatre, August 25-28) by the extraordinary dance-theatre maker Akram Khan. The piece resets Rudyard Kipling’s (below) famous story to a near future in which the child hero Mowgli is a climate refugee.

The National:

In this version of the story, the boy encounters animals in the urban jungle of a modern city. Combining an ensemble of 10 international dancers with an original musical score, innovative animation and Khan’s seemingly boundless choreographic imagination, it promises to be a spectacular festival highlight.

The always interesting Traverse Theatre Fringe programme has a number of intriguing productions. I am particularly looking forward to The Last Return (Traverse, August 4-28) (below) by Sonya Kelly. Performed by the superb Irish theatre company Druid, this absurdist comic play about four people in a queue for the hottest ticket in town might prove to be, well ... the hottest ticket in town!

The National: Fionn Ó Loingsigh, Anna Healy and Fiona Bell in The Last Return. Photo: Ste Murray Fionn Ó Loingsigh, Anna Healy and Fiona Bell in Druid’s world premiere production of The Last Return by Sonya Kelly, opening at The Mick Lally Theatre

The play, which The Irish Times called “shocking and very funny”, opened to critical acclaim in Galway earlier this month. It seems set to receive further adulation from theatre-lovers in Edinburgh.

If Druid’s show promises to shock, Isto E Um Negro? (Summerhall, August 3-28), by Brazilian theatre company EQuemEGosta?, comes with the advisory notice that it “contains distressing themes and nudity” and is intended for audience members aged 18 and over. Coming from the Brazil of the fascistic president Jair Bolsonaro, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the production offers a powerful confrontation with racism.

Performed in Portuguese with English translation, and drawing upon the works of important thinkers in the area of race theory and anti-racism (such as Achille Mbembe, bell hooks and Frantz Fanon), the piece seems bound to be a startling and unforgettable work of politically committed theatre.

This year, the great Edinburgh repertory theatre the Royal Lyceum is hosting its first ever full festival programme. This includes Truth’s A Dog Must To Kennel (Lyceum Studio, August 6-28) by the extraordinary experimental theatre-maker and performer Tim Crouch.


Extrapolated from Shakespeare’s King Lear (rather than based upon it), the piece throws Lear’s Fool into a world of real and imagined chaos. Promised as “King Lear meets stand-up meets the metaverse”, it may well prove to be another piece of dramatic gold from the maker of such gems as An Oak Tree and I, Malvolio.

Also part of the Lyceum’s festival programme, and playing as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is This Is Memorial Device (The Wee Red Bar, August 13-29). Adapted and directed by excellent theatre artist Graham Eatough from the acclaimed novel by David Keenan, and starring the brilliant Scottish actor Paul Higgins, the play takes us – as Keenan’s book does – to Airdrie in the 1980s and the journey of the fictional post-punk band Memorial Device.

Whether you go as a lover of Keenan’s novel, a rock music nostalgist or a theatre enthusiast (or all three), this new drama is a very intriguing prospect.

Some shows are just so good that they demand to be brought back. One such is the ironically titled This Is Paradise (Traverse, now until August 28).

Before the green half of Glasgow start jamming the Traverse box office’s switchboard, this is not a play about Celtic Park. Rather, it’s a darkly comic, deeply humane one-woman play set in Northern Ireland at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Beautifully crafted by writer Michael John O’Neill, the piece had a short run to small, socially distanced audiences at last year’s Fringe. Following the travails of Kate, a young woman whose precarious pregnancy and turbulent past mirrors that of Northern Ireland itself, it is blessed with a heart-breakingly brilliant performance from Amy Molloy.

Another welcome return at the Traverse is Wilf (Traverse, August 5-28), James Ley’s gloriously outrageous, implausibly poignant play about Calvin (played by the fabulous and explosive Michael Dylan), a young man who falls in lust with his car. Superbly directed by Gareth Nicholls, with fine supporting performances from Irene Allan and Neil John Gibson, it is a tremendous comedy with an unforgettable soundtrack.

Opera-lovers will be justifiably excited by the EIF’s staging of Dvorak’s classic Rusalka (Festival Theatre, August 6-9). Presented by the English festival company Garsington Opera, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the opera tells the story of the titular water nymph who risks everything in pursuit of her love for a human prince.

Inspired in part by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, the piece is Dvorak’s most celebrated opera. This production boasts the talents of Glasgow-born conductor Douglas Boyd and Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw in the title role.

In 2020, Romaniw was awarded both the Young Artist of the Year prize at the Gramophone Classical Music Awards and Singer of the Year at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards.

The Summerhall venue has established itself as one of the creative hubs on the Fringe. Sami Ibrahim’s play A Sudden Violent Burst Of Rain (Summerhall, August 3-27) could prove to be a highlight of this year’s programme.

The drama is a self-defined “poetic fable” about a displaced woman who stands at the gates to a city hoping the King will grant her entry. Addressed to an inflexible, inhumane and faceless asylum system, it should be obligatory viewing for British Home Secretary Priti Patel. It might touch her heart, if she actually has one.

Also at Summerhall is physical theatre piece Dreams Of The Small Gods (Summerhall, August 3-28). Part of the Made In Scotland showcase, the story of the emerging Wild Woman is, in the words of its creators Zinnia Oberski and Scissor Kick, “inspired by the timeless wisdom of faerie tales, mythology and ancient ritual”.

This show also contains nudity. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Actor, director, producer and writer Guy Masterson has been one of the great figures of the Edinburgh Fringe in recent decades. Best known, perhaps, for his great solo performances in shows such as Under Milk Wood, Animal Farm and Shylock, he comes to this year’s festival as director of two shows.

The National: 9 Circles.

House Of Cards writer Bill Cain’s 9 Circles (Assembly George Square, August 3-29) (above) is making its European premiere in Edinburgh. The play considers human conflict through the eyes of a convicted war criminal.

Described by its creators as a “taut psychological thriller [which] seeks justice from the collision of morality and empathy”, it has “Fringe hit” written all over it.

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The other Masterson-directed show is Adolf (August 15, 20 and 21, New Town Theatre). A one-man show about the final hours of Hitler, performed by Pip Utton (who is another veritable treasure of the Fringe), this production celebrates 24 years of Edinburgh performances. It is a well researched, nicely acted piece of humanist theatre which is frighteningly pertinent in a world of far-right “strongmen” such as Orban, Modi and Erdogan.

In selecting my festival picks, I’ve kept assiduously to the stage arts. However, for those seeking a musical haven in the morning and into the early afternoon, I strongly recommend the EIF’s wonderful Queen’s Hall series of chamber concerts. In particular, I urge classical music lovers not to miss the exquisite Takacs Quartet (Queen’s Hall, Aug 15).

Founded in the Hungarian capital Budapest, now based in Colorado in the United States, the group are old friends of the festival. Wonderfully bright and expressive in their playing, they will perform a programme that includes music by Haydn and Ravel.

That, dear reader, is, surely, enough to be going on with. You will, I hope, find plenty more artistic jewels for yourself.

Have a great festival!