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35 must-see shows at the Edinburgh Festivals in 2019

2 August 2019

Edinburgh plays host to the world's biggest cultural celebration this month, but with more than 4,000 events taking place at the Fringe alone, it can be hard to know where to start. We've scoured the Fringe, International Festival, Book Festival and Art Festival to suggest some starting points.

Dazzling spectacles

Fishbowl | Photo: Fabienne Rappeneau

From jaw-dropping circus feats to mesmerising modern dance and fantastic physical theatre, Edinburgh is never short of sights to astound you.

This year YouTube cycling sensation Danny MacAskill brings his gravity-defying tricks to Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows for Drop and Roll Live, and the Atomic Saloon Show - described as “Moulin Rouge meets Blazing Saddles and America's Got Talent meets Westworld” gets its world premiere at Assembly George Square Gardens.

There’s an international feel elsewhere, with French physical comedy Fishbowl arriving at the Pleasance Courtyard after a sold-out European tour; and Belgian dance show FrontX showcasing an ensemble of extraordinary street performers from around the world – including one-legged Iranian-Australian breakdancer Roya the Destroya – at Summerhall.

Contemporary dance is well represented too, with the Scottish premiere of The Chosen, from the acclaimed Company Chordelia, among the many Fringe highlights at Dance Base.

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Danny MacAskill | Photo: Drop and Roll
Roya the Destroya in FrontX | Photo: MinH

Radical reinventions

The Crucible | Photo: Nicola Selby

All manner of classic plays, books and films are being adapted, rebooted and reimagined in Edinburgh this year, in events ranging from one-man shows to theatrical extravaganzas.

In The Crucible, Scottish Ballet turn Arthur Miller’s classic play about the 17th-century Salem witch trials into a gripping narrative ballet. The performances at Edinburgh Playhouse on 3-5 August will be among the highlights of the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Scottish Opera will premiere US composer Missy Mazzoli’s adaptation of Lars von Trier’s controversial film Breaking the Waves at the King’s Theatre from 21-24 August, and the National Theatre’s Peter Gynt – David Hare’s raucous reboot of Ibsen’s epic play with Scottish actor James McArdle in the title role – comes to the Festival Theatre from 1-10 August after receiving rave reviews in London.

Elsewhere, Eddie Izzard: Expectations of Great Expectations sees the comedian and actor showcase his work-in-progress performance of the Dickens novel at Assembly George Square Studios; and in Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster at the Traverse Theatre, the BAC Beatbox Academy take Mary Shelley’s book as the starting point for their tongue-twisting vocal gymnastics.

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Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster | Photo: Joyce Nicholls
Eddie Izzard | Photo via Edinburgh International Book Festival

Stand-out stand-ups

Olga Koch | Photo: James Deacon

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is synonymous with comedy, having long served as the ultimate proving ground for new talent as well as attracting the biggest names on the circuit.

This year is the usual embarrassment of riches, but among the highlights is Ahir Shah, who has been building an enviable reputation over the past couple of years and seems poised to make the leap to panel show ubiquity, so catch him at Monkey Barrel while you still can.

At the same venue, Russian stand-up Olga Koch, one-time computer programming student and daughter of a former Soviet politician, returns with If/Then, “a feminist investigation into what happens when we can't separate love and technology” at Monkey Barrel; and Guilty Feminist podcast regular Alison Spittle stages her new show, Mother of God, at Gilded Balloon Teviot.

At the Pleasance Courtyard, Ciarán Dowd returns with Padre Rodolfo, a follow-up to his spoof-swashbuckler character Don Rodolfo, which bagged him the Edinburgh Comedy Award for Best Newcomer in 2018; and Michael Odewale - a finalist in last year’s BBC Introducing Radio 4 New Comedy Award - presents #BLACKBEARSMATTER, his take on the world of protest movements.

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Ahir Shah | Photo: The Other Richard
Michael Odewale | Photo via Live Nation

National treasures

Stephen Fry: Mythos: A Trilogy | Photo: David Cooper

Edinburgh offers a great opportunity to see some of Britain’s best-loved public figures up close.

At the Festival Theatre, Stephen Fry has adapted his bestselling book Mythos into a trio of one-man stage shows, running from 19-25 August, which bring to life the gods, monsters and mortals of ancient Greece.

Two Bake Off favourites will be appearing at the Book Festival: uber-foodie Prue Leith launches her first recipe book for 25 years and shares some stories on 10 August, and comedian Sue Perkins talks about her book East of Croydon, charting her travels through India and South East Asia for a BBC documentary about the Mekong River, on 20 August.

Beloved actor Ian McKellen celebrates his 80th birthday by performing extracts from his iconic roles, from Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf to Shakespeare, as well as talking about his life and career. He’s at Assembly Hall from 22-25 August. And revered Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker presents his experimental new project JARV IS at Leith Theatre on 22 August.

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Prue Leith | Photo via Edinburgh International Book Festival
Ian McKellen | Photo: Oliver Rosser

Musical magic

LA Phil conductor Gustavo Dudamel | Photo: Adam Latham

Whatever your taste in music, there’s sure to be something to strike a chord in the Scottish capital this month.

The Edinburgh International Festival’s opening event is traditionally a spectacular one, and tonight is no different, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing at Tynecastle Park. Led by superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil will showcase the best of Hollywood - expect to hear themes from Star Wars, Harry Potter, E.T. and many more.

In the somewhat more intimate setting of Summerhall on 25 August, Welsh post-punk Cate Le Bon plays music from her Mercury Prize-nominated album Reward. Spoken word sensation Kate Tempest - herself twice a Mercury nominee - brings her poetic rap show to Leith Theatre on 9 August; and you can see legendary Scottish indie band Teenage Fanclub a week later at the same venue.

Meanwhile, comic James Acaster will be bridging the worlds of books, comedy and music when he introduces his memoir Perfect Sound Whatever at the Book Festival on 21 August. It’s a love letter to the healing power of music, documenting a year in the wake of a break-up in which he listened only to albums released in 2016.

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Kate Tempest | Photo via EIF
Cate Le Bon | Photo via Summerhall

Big issues

Travis Alabanza in Burgerz | Photo: Elise Rose

As ever, plenty of Edinburgh shows are addressing the major issues of the day - from Brexit and Trump to protest and discrimination.

Performance artist Travis Alabanza created the powerful and unsettling Burgerz show, which is being staged at the Traverse, in response to a transphobic street attack. They told The Skinny recently: “In the UK we've had [...] an 81 percent increase in trans hate crime just from last year. When we're dealing with those statistics we need trans theatre to be loud, bold and present.”

Amazon has faced repeated criticism over the working conditions in its giant warehouses, and Fulfilment, at Underbelly, is a puppetry show that explores the price people really pay for next-day delivery. It's based on anonymous testimonies from real workers.

Hip hop artist, writer and social entrepreneur Akala is in conversation at Gilded Balloon Teviot from 2-6 August, discussing his acclaimed memoir Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, and DeRay Mckesson, the US activist who helped bring the Black Lives Matter movement into existence, appears at the Book Festival on 11 August.

Also at the Book Festival, Stig Abell is joined by novelists Alexander McCall Smith and Kit de Waal on 9 August to discuss some of the era-defining books that will feature in the BBC’s new season The Novels that Shaped Our World this autumn.

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Fulfilment | Photo via Underbelly
Akala | Photo via One Inch Badge

Amazing art

Grayson Perry: Julie Cope’s Grand Tour at Dovecot Studios | Photo: John Sinclair

Beyond the culture you can see on stage, the Edinburgh Art Festival ensures the Scottish capital is also awash with visual art during August.

At Dovecot Studios, ever-popular Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry presents the final stop of Julie Cope’s Grand Tour. The exhibition features tapestries and artefacts taken from his installation A House for Essex, a 'secular chapel' dedicated to the life of Julie Cope, a typical Essex woman.

The National Galleries are hosting a major exhibition of Bridget Riley’s dazzling and compelling abstract paintings, including early works and rarely seen life drawings alongside key pieces from her 70-year career; while the National Museum is home to Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland, which explores how Highland dress and rugged landscapes became synonymous with the nation in art.

Trisha Brown: In Plain Site sees the US choreographer’s striking dance pieces performed across the floating rafts, rich woodlands and sculpted landforms of Jupiter Artland from 9-11 August; while the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz returns to the Fringe with Double Art History - The Sequel, a humorous one-man show about the world of contemporary art.

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Trisha Brown: In Plain Site Raft Piece (1973) | Photo: Christopher Duggan
Will Gompertz: Double Art History | Photo via Underbelly

More from the Edinburgh Festivals 2019

Arts highlights on BBC iPlayer