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September 9, 2013

At the Centre of the Fringe: Melinda Hughes' Edinburgh Diary

By Spear's

How many other Fringe performers are buying M&S food, contemplating a Gucci belt and drinking cocktails at up-market hotels?

How many other Fringe performers are buying M&S food, contemplating a Gucci belt and drinking cocktails at up-market hotels? Melinda Hughes presents her untypical Edinburgh Fringe diary

I am an Edinburgh Fringe virgin and who better to hold my hand at the largest festival in the world than the Frog Prince, who, as it turns out, is the subject of my new satirical cabaret French Kiss. Mounting a production at the Fringe is nothing short of a military operation where accommodation, registration, PR, travel and technical requirement plans begin as early as March – that’s before we’ve even written the songs.

There’s so much to think about and it’s all new to me; as an opera singer, I would audition for a role, get the job, turn up for rehearsals and do the opera. I would get all the glory, a rest in between performances and wouldn’t have to worry about ticket sales or technical specs. It’s a whole new level of stress.

In the run-up to the Fringe my PR company has secured a slot on In Tune on Radio 3 and I’ve booked two London previews, the first at the glamorous Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel and the second at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, home to the award-winning company Opera Up Close.

Watch: Melinda Hughes singing A Foreign Affair

It’s home also to the most horrific backstage I’ve ever encountered in my fifteen years in the business. I’m certain the loo holds a cure for cancer as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the loo in Trainspotting. As for the sink: it has so many layers of grime it would make a Soho brothel blush. I refuse to touch anything lest I end up at the Chelsea and Westminster with a rare fungal complaint, having to miss my 11.30am flight to Edinburgh… Ah the glamour of the theatre.

We arrive in surprisingly sunny Edinburgh and discover that our rental apartment in the smart New Town is not only next to Harvey Nichols but above a famous comedy venue. I see Phil Jupitus on a daily basis and we are now on waving terms.

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Sandwiched between funny and fashion I decide to browse the new Gucci concession. Jeremy, my pianist, plumps for comedy, while the ever-resourceful Frog Prince goes to Marks and Spencer to stock up on groceries. Just your typical Edinburgh Fringe experience.

My drummer Jamie and Andy the bass player are currently driving up from London via Newcastle. Lord knows what state they will be in when they arrive. While I am eyeing up a rather fetching Gucci horsebit belt, I receive random texts from them, saying they’re about to visit a famous Newcastle curry house and that Andy’s already drunk far too much beer. The message ends with, ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ I’m fretting already.


An Edinburgh Fringe morning starts late – unless you are woken up by tram line work on North St Andrews Street at 8.30am. I have earplugs allowing me another hour’s slumber but the Frog Prince is very grumpy indeed, particularly as they seem to drill at maximum volume then, only to down tools from 9am for two hours. I’m positive it is a global vendetta by workmen all over the world.

Our landlord has assured me that this is the last day of work and that the Tramline on North St Andrew Street will be completed by Friday. This is the same landlord who told me the apartment was on the second floor when it is in fact on the third floor of a tall Georgian house with extremely steep stairs.

Watch: Melinda Hughes singing Just A Regular Mister Again

It’s Thursday and our tech run at the Surgeon’s Hall is at 6pm – plenty of time for the band, who have arrived safely, to wake up, sober up, have a nap and even start drinking again. We are reunited in the courtyard of the Surgeon’s Hall and go into our venue, a conference room converted into a performance space for an audience of 60. The acoustics aren’t great and the room is much smaller than I imagined but at least we’ve sold tickets because I’ve been told the average Fringe audience is five people.

The site manager kicks our tech off with a health and safety talk making it categorically clear that no liquids are to be spilt on stage, otherwise we’ll ‘see his bad side’. We start our first song, the keyboard stand wobbles and falls onto my prop glass, spilling Ribena everywhere.

Flyer, my pretties!

As soon as we finish the run we pile into a taxi, complete with double bass sticking out the window, and head off to the Scottish Arts Club where we share the dressing room with legend cabaret singer Peter Straker up here to do a Jacques Brel show. Our showcase performance is a hit and we are immediately plied with whisky, wine and praise from club members who promise to cross the great divide that is Princess Street to come and see my show.

Friday and Saturday are previews and surprisingly well-attended: more than twenty people each night. I’m sure its down to my lovely PR girl Fleur who we’ve nicknamed Flyer-Fleur. She has the thankless task of pounding the Royal Mile for two hours a day handing out flyers among the throng of students and tourists.

Edinburgh Old Town has an incredible atmosphere of heightened mania and joyous competitiveness with a mixture of tourists, dedicated Fringe-goers and performers vying for attention. Well, if Elizabeth McGovern can flyer then so can we. Fleur and I discuss strategy and see that Fringe Central has organized a ‘Meet the Media’ day so we arrange to meet an hour before as we hear the queues can be long.

Watch: Melinda Hughes singing Where Have All The Despots Gone?

Two hours in, we’re still queuing. As the main doors open, a scene resembling World War Z ensues as people in costume run to be first in line with their chosen media contacts. There are some desperate attention-seeking antics going on but I have chosen not to dress up as a chicken or a sorceress and simply queue quietly, finally managing to obtain the attention of the coveted Scotsman.

Fleur queues for the BBC and holds a place for me only to be told the line is suddenly closed. Later I’m told by many people there’s absolutely no point in queuing for the BBC as all their ‘hot picks’ of the Fringe are scheduled back in March. It seems the days of BBC scouts looking for good shows and new talent are long gone. This is a great shame as the whole raison d’être of the Fringe seems to be slipping away. We crawl out weak and starving at 4pm unable to drown our sorrows as I have a show tonight. Damn, this Fringe malarkey is hard work.

Thankfully our show goes well and the Frog Prince has arranged dinner for the band to keep morale high and stomachs full at the very hip Missoni Hotel, where gorgeous Scottish doormen in chic Italian designer kilts lead us to a glorious cocktail bar. Needless to say I can’t remember much of the evening. And no, I wasn’t trying to look at anyone’s sporran.

An obscene aria

It’s Sunday and I’ve arranged a showcase at the Newtown bar, a gay haven holding a charity afternoon of acts. I’m tentative as I fear I’ll be far too posh for this colourful crowd. They’re a pretty rowdy bunch and I’m panicked they won’t listen to our wordy satirical songs so I consult Jeremy, my co-writer and all-round Fringe Oracle.

‘Jeremy, what do you think of this idea: I offer to sing a phrase operatically, something suggested by the audience, whatever they want… We could do it for the charity to kick off the set. Do you think it would work?’

 ‘You know what they suggest will be very dirty indeed.’

‘Yes well that’s the point. Should we do it? Will it work?’

‘Well we can only see if it works if we do it.’

‘Jeremy, you’re no help at all.’

‘I know.’

‘Thank you.’

‘You’re very welcome, mine’s a white wine.’

I decide to offer out my operatic skills and a chap at the bar shouts out a most complicated and unbelievably obscene phrase I’ve ever heard, and I belt it out Puccini-style. This cheap trick is a huge crowd-pleaser and we’ve got them on side. After singing three songs from our show, we are hailed the toast of Newtown. They love us, they love the songs; it’s just one big love-in at the New Town Bar.

‘I told you it would work,’ declares Jeremy.

Eat the press

Edinburgh is really busy now; I’m petrified of walking up the Royal Mile having never seen anything like it. I’ve done hundreds of classical festivals in my time but they are genteel by comparison. Here the sheer volume of shows, performers and tourists is quite overwhelming; I had no idea quite how many people would be flyering and I have to fight with aliens, zombies, buskers and choirs on my way to the venue.

I’ve been told today is commonly known as ‘suicide Tuesday’: the weekend is over, reviews are trickling through and if they’re not good, it’s a critical time for companies, many of whom give up and go home. Thankfully we’ve just got our first great review and as we arrive people are already queuing in the foyer for the show.

Karl the stage manager nervously greets me and explains there is a very drunk man in the room refusing to leave. In fact he is convinced he’s in the show and he is swaying side to side trying to do a mic test with a rendition of ‘Ye Banks and Braes’. He is completely blotto. Karl and the tech crew nervously cajole him out but it means we’ve started late and to top it all there’s a critic in the front row. What a disaster.


Now that we’ve settled in a little I have time to catch other shows and see just how much amazing talent there is up here at the Fringe. There’s nothing I won’t see but my love for cabaret and stand-up ensures I gorge on up to four shows a day, but there’s some pretty bad cabaret out there too: poorly-written songs about penises that don’t even rhyme.

I manage my first walkout, which is mortifying as we’ve taken our seats at the front and my chair makes a horrible screeching sound. This was the first of three walk-outs but one must be ruthless up here as time is precious; there’s drinking to be done and shows to be seen.

Watch: Melinda Hughes singing Carbon Footprints In My Jimmy Choos

There is everything: classical music, theatre, stand-up, cabaret, circus, physical theatre and dance – over two thousand shows, in fact, and no matter how organised I am, drawing up schedules and updating my calendar, the Frog Prince and I always seem to be tearing across Edinburgh trying to catch the start of a show.

Our run of French Kiss has ended all too soon. We’ve had good reviews but the band have other gigs to go to and we are off to France. Now that I’ve dipped my toe in the water, I’m hooked and am pretty certain I will return next year. I’ve loved Edinburgh so much, met some wonderful people, seen some incredible shows and am inspired by the sheer volume of talent concentrated in one beautiful city. Even the weather has held up.

Wait for me, Edinburgh. I’ll be back next year and who knows – maybe the tram line will be operational by then.

Melinda Hughes will be singing at the Pheasantry in London on 15 and 16 October. Click here for tickets


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