Free Fringe: A festival filled with hidden gems ...

The Creative Martyrs , Gustav and Jakob. (Pic: Dan Phillips)
The Creative Martyrs , Gustav and Jakob. (Pic: Dan Phillips)

The Free Fringe is home to some of the best shows at the Edinburgh Festival – not to mention venues you probably never even knew existed!

Strictly speaking, the shows ain’t free as the performers will ask for a donation at the door, but it’s your call what you pay.

Dave Alnwick, the Cult of Dave (Pic: Cath Ruane)

Dave Alnwick, the Cult of Dave (Pic: Cath Ruane)

Don’t be stingy though – walking out with your hands buried in your pockets is not considered cool!

The ethos of the Free Fringe is it gives a platform to performers who simply can’t afford the astronomical fees associated with some of the major venues

What they take on the door, they keep – so every quid or two you tip into their buckets helps them survive a month in the madness of Edinburgh in August.

It aims to get back to what the official festival stood for when it first launched in 1947, and also to make it more accessible to performers unable to afford the huge fees levied by some of the major promoters.

Paul Dabek (Pic: Cath Ruane)

Paul Dabek (Pic: Cath Ruane)

It’s entirely possible to stage a five-star show, sell every ticket and still end up in debt come the end of August, hence a Free Festival that turns that approach on its head.

It’s grown steadily since the mid 1990s, and is now very much part of the city’s month-long cultural extravanganz.

But are the shows any good?

In a word – yes!

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s inferior.

The festival will absolutely take you to places and streets you’ve never heard of, and venues and backrooms you never knew existed (‘cause they don’t, outwith the Festival), to see acts you’ve never heard of.

But, go with an open mind, be prepared to take a punt on a listing, and, trust me, you can be pleasantly surprised.

The Free Festival brochure is a must – grab a copy from any of the venues when you’re in Edinburgh – and it also has a smashing wee app which will highlight the shows nearest to you, and the ones about to start if you’re prepared to make a quick dash across town!

You’ll find some of the acts listed in the main Fringe brochure, but there is a lot more to the festival, so you really need the companion booklet to get the whole picture.

The Voodoo Rooms, up the lane behind the swanky Apple store on Princes Street, is packed with great shows – the queues which snake around the cobbled streets underline their quality and popularity. It’s entirely possibly to spend a day there taking in three or four shows back to back. The grub’s pretty good too!

You’ll also find free shows around the Cowgate, and in the Liquid Rooms up Victoria Street, both just off the Grassmarket, as well as a myriad of venues across the city centre.

Much of the comedy can be interactive, so don’t be too surprised if you end up on stage – one of last year’s big hits was Anna Morris’ It’s Got To be Perfect, in which she had audience members playing every role in what was meant to be a dream wedding. It was a stand-out performance and a genuine Fringe highlight; one which changed every night depending on who she pulled up on stage.

Browse the brochure and you’ll find many shows just as good and innovative.

I’ve seen some smashing cabaret shows, top notch comedy and, for late night shows, it has a number of gems worth unwrapping.

So, to ease you into the Free Fringe, here’s a few we can recommend:

Let us introduce The Creative Martyrs, and their show, Kabakunst, at the legendary Fingers Piano Bar, Frederick Street.

The Martyrs pop up everywhere at the Fringe. Regulars on the Free Festival, the duo are easy to spot with their faces painted white and their dark suits - and once seen, you’ll spend the rest of the day humming the refrain from one of their wickedly subversive songs.

The duo bring the lightest of vaudeville touches and the most incisive of lyrics and observations to some strong issues of our time. The world of Kabakunst is one we are happy to usher you towards …

Or how about an hour of free poetry?

Phil Jupitus is a long-time supporter of the Free Fringe, and an advocate that all the big names who come to the festival should do a free show to put something back.

As Porky The Poet, you’ll find him at Bannermans in the Cowgate,at 1.00m daily for an hour of fabulous poetry.

He’s a fabulous wordsmith, and his sets include a daily ten-line Edinburgh Fringe poem based on whatever catches his eye, and, at the end he’ll shake your hand and thank you as you leave the building.

It’s a joy to see him back after missing last year. A Fringe without a bit of Porky the Poet just isn’t the same.

He’s also one of the hardest working guys at the Fringe. I once saw him appear for his curtain call with his rucksack on his back ready for a dash across the city to his next show – also saw him flyer for one gig to a queue waiting to see him on stage in another production!

Oh yes, and he also does a daily sketch in the gallery at the Mound. You’re welcome to join in!

If freaky mind reading and mentalism is your thing – the sort of stuff Derren Brown does on a huge scale – check out Dave Alnwick at the Voodoo Rooms.

Billed as Literally The Best Magician, he’s a canny young chap who is highly engaging and incredibly talented.

He has played to packed rooms for years at the Fringe, and never ceases to entertain with his sharp skills. Look as hard as you want, you won’t see the joins.

Paul Dabek is another stalwart.

I first came across him at Kirkcaldy Comedy Festival where he re-enacted the Lion King using nothing more than hand shadows created on a screen.

He’s slick, sharp, and mixes magic and comedy in a well-honed routine .

Catch him at the Liquid Rooms Annexe, Victoria Street, at 9.05pm.

Abi Roberts packed ‘em in last year for her story of becoming the first ever UK comedian to do stand-up in Russia – a remarkable, and true, tale which had them queuing round the block pretty much every day. If you missed Anglichanka then catch it at the Underbelly Cowgate.

For 2017, Abi is also staging Fat Girl Dancing, a work in progress show on the Free Fringe, back at the Voodoo Rooms.

If you haven’t seen her before, then this is a great introduction …

And, if you haven’t dipped your toes into the Free Fringe before, then do so this August.

Like the Fringe, it can be a hit and miss affair, but with a spirit of adventure you will be richly rewarded.

Somewhere in the smallest of venues, in the back room of a pub or club, lies a gem of a show just waiting to be discovered, so grab a brochure, get the app and go searching.