Diary of a Madman, Greater Belfast and Angel
Diary of a Madman, Greater Belfast and Angel

The Edinburgh Festival – both official and Fringe – is crack cocaine for theatre lovers; so addictive that at whatever point you pull yourself away, you always feel you have missed out on one last hit.

I went twice this year, convinced that I would manage to see everything I wanted and still caught the train back to London depressed at what I had missed. My biggest regret was not to see Us/Them, the universally praised show about the Beslan siege, from the Brussels-based BRONKS, which was one of the many shows vying for my attention in the early morning.

(On this subject, I do love a breakfast play. Sitting with a bacon roll and watching semi-staged readings of two thought-provoking plays on the theme of technology at the Traverse – one by Stef Smith, one by Rob Drummond – before most people have even got up is somewhere close to my idea of heaven.)

I was sorry too, on the comedy front to miss Richard Gadd (who I loved last year) and James Acaster (who I keep not seeing) but thrilled to catch Maestro by Kieran Hodgson, probably the most simply pleasurable hour that I experienced on the Fringe, a wonderful mix of passion for Mahler and rueful acceptance of life.

Maybe it was because of my regrets over the shows I didn't see that I left the city with a slight sense that this was not a vintage Edinburgh – or at least not for me. I loved things (Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, Daniel Kitson's Mouse) but nothing knocked my socks off like A Girl is a Half Formed Thing or Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour did last year. In theatre terms, only The Glass Menagerie in the International Festival seemed to me fully achieved, a production that I know I will think about for ever because it made me feel I was seeing a classic play for the first time.

But there is always something to hold your attention – a new voice finding its range (Liam Williams's Travesty) a new actor (Filipa Braganca in Angel) to catch your attention, a show that provokes you to think about a subject in a way you haven't before. So here, in no particular order, are some of my highlights :

Bridget Christie, Mortal, The Stand, until August 29
The queues for returns are long, but if you can find a way to get a ticket, this is Christie at her absolute best, promising not to talk about Brexit and to concentrate on the joy of gardening, but finally giving in to temptation and letting her anger with the state of the things fly in a passionate and furious show. I loved everything about it, but particularly the way that Christie's long-time gift for physical comedy illuminates her verbal wit.

The Red Shed, Mark Thomas, Traverse Theatre, until August 28
Thomas combines a search for the origins of his political idealism with a deeply moving evocation of the power of community and the need for the Left to rediscover the stories that give it soul, in a show that is both technically sophisticated, deeply funny and profoundly involving. There is hardly a dry eye in the house at the close. Magnificent.

Greater Belfast, Traverse Theatre, until August 28
This was the first show I saw, only an hour after I got off the train, and perhaps I undervalued it as a result. Recollected in tranquillity this poetic meditation on his home town by Matt Regan, part poem, part song, full of light and music, feels like a hugely original and overwhelmingly involving piece.

Diary of a Madman, Traverse, until August 28
I have a sense that this hasn't been the Traverse Theatre's best year. We are so used to taking its brilliance as a seedbed for new writing for granted, to seeing knock out show after knock out show that a festival that features the disappointing Daffodils and the underwhelming Milk feels like a failure. But the fact remains that the theatre has still hosted some of the best writing on the Fringe, and in Al Smith's searingly topical adaptation of Gogol, with an unforgettable central performance by Liam Brennan, it has a gem. This is a play that speaks very loudly for today in a way that most dramas only dream of.

Bucket List, Pleasance Dome, until August 29
A terrible and slightly misleading title for Theatre Ad Infinitum's powerful exposure of the appalling conditions suffered by Mexican workers and the way that pollution, exploitation and abuse affect the women in particular. It sounds such an unpromising subject for drama, but it is wonderfully realised by the most simple and effective means, and is definitely a show that opened my eyes to problems I knew nothing about.

Rainbow Class, Assembly Hall, until August 28
Actress and writer Vivienna Acheampong brings all her experience as a former teacher to the stage in her insights about events at Tiddlesworth Primary School, combining sharp political observation (the playground supervisor with views of which Nigel Farage might approve; the head who spouts educational platitudes) with broad comedy (the pregnant teacher who uses her impending birth as a biology project for the class). Each cameo is brilliantly portrayed and cleverly differentiated, a showcase for Acheampong's talent.

Ghost Quartet, Summerhall, until August 28
Summerhall has in general asserted its right to be considered a powerhouse of the Fringe; I enjoyed almost everything I saw at the venue including Kieran Hurley's Heads Up, an accomplished vision of a dystopian future. But Ghost Quartet stood out because it was so unexpected – beautiful, complex music and a literally haunting story in a song cycle presented like the sides of an album. I shall want to watch whatever Dave Malloy does next.

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