Cabaret on the Fringe has come a long way since The Ladyboys of Bangkok first wowed an Edinburgh audience over twenty years ago with their glamorous variety show. The Thai showgirls, now as much of an Edinburgh Festival institution as the Tattoo, are back this year with the Summer of Fun tour in their Theatre Big Top in Festival Square, but elsewhere in Edinburgh, the broad church that is the Cabaret section of the Fringe programme encompasses everything from the tangential thinking of Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed, who presents Life is Soft at Summerhall, to the Revolting Arts Club’s Life Drawing Aboard the Blun-Doodle-Bus, featuring a different Fringe artist model each day, to any number of drag, burlesque and magic shows.
This year, the Fringe is replete with acts billing themselves as grumpy magicians, idiot magicians and, in lottery-predicting James Phelan’s case, the Greatest Magician. Kevin Quantum revels in a very magiciany magician’s name at Gilded Balloon Teviot, while plain old Jim the Magician presents a proper indoor show, The Magic Of Jim, after years of close-up magic in the Pleasance Courtyard.
Ash Pryce presents spooky magic in Edinburgh’s most haunted pub, the Banshee Labyrinth, as part of PBH’s Free Fringe, while Assembly George Square hosts Justin Williams’ and Sam Hume’s comedic Adults Only Magic Show, with free drinks for anyone brave enough to join them on stage, and the Edinburgh debut of Melbourne-based magician Dom Chambers whose Fake Wizard show features a signature trick called the Appearing Beers.
Still on the subject of libation, alcohol-based comedy duo The Thinking Drinkers are hosting a Pub Quiz at Underbelly Bristo Square. And if we remember rightly, the drinks are free in Club Tropicana, so raise a pina colada to queer cabaret artist Aidan Saddler whose Tropicana show at Assembly George Square celebrates 80s synth pop hits by the likes of Spandau Ballet and ABC.
Also at the musical end of the cabaret spectrum, Spitting Image and Dead Ringers impressionist Debra Stephenson offers singing impersonations from Billie Holiday to Billie Eilish as part of her show The Many Voices of Debra Stephenson at Assembly George Square Studios, while out on the wily, windy Assembly George Square Gardens, Sarah-Louise Young and Russell Lucas return with their 2019 hit An Evening Without Kate Bush, celebrating the remarkable artist who recently broke three UK chart records, including the longest gap between Number One hits. Stranger things have happened.
In contrast, Hertfordshire sister act Chloe and Tabby Tingey offer original sardonic songs of heartbreak, revenge and diabetes. These conservatoire-trained TikTok stars make their Fringe debut as Sugarcoated Sisters: Bittersweet at Just the Tonic @ the Caves, directed by Laura Corcoran of Fringe favourites Frisky & Mannish.
Some of the biggest, glitziest cabaret turns are the drag acts. Fierce and fabulous Aussie drag queens Briefs return with two shows, Sweatshop and Bite Club, the latter also featuring singer Sahara Beck. They had better hang on to their hairpieces as newcomers Queenz – The Show With Balls! are coming for their crowns with a glossy musical diva extravaganza at Assembly Rooms Music Hall. But our pick of the drag acts is the delightful Karen From Finance, a big favourite by the water cooler who is only now presenting her debut one woman show Karen From Finance is Out of Office at Underbelly Bristo Square.
Speaking of favourites, there is still no Fringe experience quite like the music, magic and acrobatics of exotic variety show La Clique, returning this year to Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows – however, Wanderlust will certainly be offering a similar burlesque diet at Assembly George Square Gardens, while Blunderland, also at the Circus Hub, has the makings of a late-ish night cult with its self-styled blend of “disastrous drag, burlesque and circus” birthed on New York’s underground but highly influential queer nightlife scene.
For those who don’t have to rush home to relieve the babysitters, there are a couple of witching hour options. The Kaye Hole Hosted by Reuben Kaye promises “late night done right” with a rag tag grab bag of artists backed by a live band at Assembly Checkpoint, while C Venue’s Electric Cabaret offers a nightly smorgasbord of comedy, burlesque and live music at C Place on York Place.
For those who fancy something less X-rated or closer to an old school variety or vaudeville show, Fruit Flies Like a Banana at Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose could fit the bill, with a trio of musicians engaging in knockabout physical comedy while performing pieces from Chopin to Joplin (Scott…we think).
And let’s not forget the outliers. Dr Naomi Paxton is academic researcher and writer by day, and Old Comedian of the Year Award-winner Ada Campe by night, who this year appears at The Stand’s New Town Theatre with Too Little, Too Soon, a show inspired by her female family tree. Andrea Spisto: El Dizzy Beast, meanwhile, looks like a pretty unclassifiable proposition at the Blundabus but hazards a description of a “queer autistic Latinx caterpillar on the brink”. Only at the Fringe, as they say.
Finally, for four lunchtimes only at Assembly George Square Studios, Mark Borkowski celebrates the art of the publicity stunt in his tell-all show False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to Unleash Your Inner Crazy – though you might think this celebrated PR veteran could have come up with a punchier show title.
All tickets available via: