21 things to see at the 2021 Edinburgh festivals

Our Edinburgh festivals editor lists his essential August events

Thursday, 5th August 2021, 10:51 am
BLACK EXODUS, part of the 2021 Fringe of Colour programme
BLACK EXODUS, part of the 2021 Fringe of Colour programme

After the eerie quiet of last year, it’s thrilling to see the Edinburgh festivals return, even in a diminished form, to something too big to get your head around. Over the next month there are hundreds of things to see, online and off, with more being added by the day. We’ll be covering as much of it as we can in weekly pullouts which begin in our print edition on Saturday 31 July.

This is a completely personal and subjective list. All such lists are, if we’re honest about it. It’s things I think are interesting, based partly on my own tastes and partly on my experience of editing the Scotsman’s Edinburgh festivals coverage for almost two decades now. I’ve tried to focus on things for which you can still get tickets in some form or other (for example I’ve left out Enda Walsh’s Medicine, long since sold out). The festivals being what they are, it’ll probably be out of date just a few days from now, but in the meantime I hope it’s helpful.


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Every Brilliant Thing, a comedy about living with depression created by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, has become a phenomenon since its Fringe debut in 2014, blazing a trail for a new genre of shows explicitly addressing mental health, from Fake it ‘Til You Make It to A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad). Donohoe returns this year with a ‘work in progress’ performance of his first new solo show in five years, exploring ‘the cycles of abuse that form and affect who we are’. Much like Every Brilliant Thing, it’s billed as ‘a funny and uplifting show about things that are not always funny and uplifting’.

www.shedinburgh.com, 25 August, 7.30pm.

Harry Hill’s Noise

“Harry is in a shed and at some point he’ll make a noise” is as much of a summary as you’re going to get for this live-streamed show by the most famous name in this year’s packed Shedinburgh programme.

www.shedinburgh.com, 7 August, 7pm.


This week the Film Festival announced the full programme for its return to August, and Annette is bound to be a talking point whether you love it or hate it. It’s a surreal musical directed by Leo Carax, who made the extraordinary and eccentric Holy Motors, it’s written by Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks (who also appear in the opening scene), and it stars Marion Cotillard as an opera singer and Adam Driver as her misanthropic comedian boyfriend.

Filmhouse, 23 August, and on general release from 3 September. www.edfilmfest.org.uk

The Soldier’s Tale

Based on a Russian folk tale, Stravinsky’s blend of theatre, dance and music was created in 1919, in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic, for outdoor performances. All of this obviously feels very timely. Star violinist Nicola Benedetti leads an ensemble of musicians to bring the story back to life.

Edinburgh Academy Junior School, 21 August, and online from 27 August. www.eif.co.uk

Salman Rushdie

One advantage of an online Book Festival is that you don’t have to worry about the biggest names selling out before you get a chance to book a ticket. In Rushdie’s case, you wouldn’t have got to see him live anyway since he’ll be appearing on a big screen at the Sculpture Court. The focus will be on Language and Truth, a new collection of essays written between 2003 and 2020, in which freedom of speech is a recurring theme.

Edinburgh International Book Festival, 20 August, 7pm. www.edbookfest.co.uk

Fringe of Colour

Now in its second year, Fringe of Colour’s online film festival already feels like an essential part of the Fringe, creating a protected space for artists and audiences of colour but also a means for white audiences to experience other perspectives without imposing themselves on a self-described ‘arts festival for us, by us’. For just £10 you get two weeks of films and discussions, this year grouped under four themes, Rituals, Flight, Protest and Self. The programme includes three new short film commissions, by Thulani Rachia, Paix and Mae Diansangu.

Frances Poet: Still & Sophia

The playwright who helped shape Adam Kashmiry’s extraordinary life story for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Adam has two new shows at the festival this year. Still is billed as “a celebration of Edinburgh, the souls who reside there, and the community they have created” and will be performed live to a limited capacity audience at the Traverse (and available online soon after). Sophia is the story of Sophia Jex-Blake, who campaigned for women's right to a medical education and became the first practising female doctor in Scotland; it will premiere online at the end of the month presented by Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the Royal Lyceum and Naked Productions. A formidable cast includes familiar faces Clare Perkins, Paul Higgins and Maryam Hamidi.

Still, Traverse, 2-22 August, and online. www.traverse.co.uk. Sophia, 27-29 August, www.lyceum.org.uk

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

The hit stage musical about a teenager dreaming of a career as a drag queen is now a film, released on Prime Video in September and getting a big screen showcase as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, with a special preview at Edinburgh Festival Theare and an outdoor after-party (dubbed ‘Edinburgh’s Talking About Jamie’) in St Andrew Square with cocktails, prizes and drag performances.

Festival Theatre and St Andrew Square, 20 August, www.edfilmfest.org.uk


In this debut show from Julia Taudevin and Kieran Hurley’s new company Disaster Plan, a group of women sing songs and tell stories about global migration across the centuries, drawing parallels between Scots fleeing the Highland clearances and the desperate stories of today’s refugees. It’s a powerful, empathetic hour, likely all the more so for being performed on a beach, where dreams of sanctuary are either fulfilled or tragically ended. The live performances are sold out but you can watch it online later in the month.

Apphia Campbell: Woke & Black is the Colour of My Voice

Have the George Floyd protests of 2020 given Woke, Apphia Campbell’s 2017 Fringe First winner, a new resonance? Probably only in the sense that they demonstrate the show’s central point, that black people keep having to fight the same civil rights battles over and over. Woke focuses on two women separated by four decades but united by experience – Black Panther Assatar Shakur and a fictional character beginning university just as the 2014 Ferguson riots are kicking off. If you’ve never seen it, you should. This year Campbell is performing both Woke and her earlier Fringe hit, the Nina Simone inspired Black is the Colour of My Voice, on alternate nights.

Pleasance – EICC, 6-15 August, 6pm. www.pleasance.co.uk


ThickSkin, who won a Scotsman Fringe First in 2019 for their asylum drama How Not To Drown, are the team behind this new audio play, which takes audiences on a journey around various Edinburgh locations. Written by Hannah Lavery and Sarah MacGillivray, it’s the latest in a series of ‘Walk This Play’ productions created in towns and cities around the UK.

www.traverse.co.uk. 20-31 August.

A Toast to the People: Inua Ellams and Saul Williams

This spoken word double bill should be a highlight of the EIF’s Toast to the People series; it’s also being filmed so you can watch online later in the year. The multi-talented Inua Ellams is the poet behind Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars and the playwright behind Fringe First winner The 14th Tale (a story he’s expanded on in An Evening With An Immigrant, screening as part of the Traverse’s programme). Saul Williams is a giant of the poetry world who has performed all over the world.

Old College Quad, 24 August, and online from 28 October. www.eif.co.uk

Lament for Sheku Bayoh

A global pandemic wasn’t going to stop the National Theatre of Scotland premiering Lament for Sheku Bayoh last autumn, and it’s easy to see why; as the George Floyd protests spilled over into the UK, there was a clear sense of urgency about a theatre show addressing the death of a black man at the hands of Scottish police. Now, almost a year on, Hannah Lavery’s powerful polemic is finally getting a live audience. Unsurprisingly it’s already sold out, but you can watch the show online - for free - soon afterwards.

www.eif.co.uk, 25-31 August.

Field – Something For The Future Now

Field began life as a group of Edinburgh-based performers gathering in Edinburgh’s green spaces during last year’s festival, as a choreographic experiment and a means to be creative while social distancing. A year on, it’s returning as an uplifting, free “durational outdoor dance-happening” against the backdrop of Arthur’s Seat. Stay for the whole thing or just drop by for a brief taste.

Holyrood Park, 22 and 29 August. www.eif.co.uk

Niqabi Ninja

On one night in 2013, more than 80 women were subjected to mob sexual assaults, harassment or rape in the midst of a carnival celebrating political change in Cairo’s Tahir Square. These and similar horrors were the inspiration for playwright Sara Shaarawi’s “graphic-novel style revenge story”, presented as an outdoor walking tour experienced simultaneously in five locations across Scotland. It’s billed as “a collective experience offering the space to think about what it means to walk in public without fear”.

Royal Lyceum Theatre, 12-28 August, various times from 6.45pm to 9.15pm, www.lyceum.org.uk

Erland Cooper

It’s hard to pick highlights from the EIF’s eclectic contemporary music programme, but the islander in me leans towards this (not yet sold out) appearance by Orkney composer Erland Cooper, whose beguiling music draws on classical, electronica, and Nordic history.

Edinburgh Park, 15 August, www.eif.co.uk

Mediocre White Male

In the year in which Assembly should have celebrated its 40th anniversary, one of the Fringe’s ‘Big Four’ venues is instead mounting ‘a last minute presentation to keep the flag flying’ consisting of (at time of writing) under 30 shows. These are sobering numbers, to say the least. But there is still new, promising, live theatre, including this ‘tragicomedy about ancient history, recent past and present lies’, about a man retreating into nostalgia for a ‘simpler time’ (also currently screening online).

Assembly Roxy Central, 4-16 August, 6pm. www.assemblyfestival.com

Dr Blood’s Old Travelling Show At Home

Back for a second year, Zoo Venues’ online programme Zoo TV includes double bills by Tim Crouch and National Dance Company of Wales as well as this ‘at home’ presentation of an outdoor, socially distanced show by imitating the dog, whose Heart of Darkness was a highlight last year. Heart of Darkness was a rare example of a theatre show that had an extra resonance when filmed for a small screen, with its numerous film references (from Casablanca to Apocalypse Now) and the way the cast constantly pulled you of the action to argue about creative decisions, as if performing a live commentary on their own show. Dr Blood is also heavily influenced by film, in this case horror movies.

Nothing Ever Happens Here

There have been numerous attempts over the years to give Edinburgh indie musicians more prominence at the Fringe, from Planet Pop to T on the Fringe and now the playfully titled Nothing Ever Happens Here. NEHH is more prominent than ever in this year’s Summerhall’s programme; the local focus is presumably for practical reasons, but it’s good to see the likes of Meursault, Withered Hand, Sacred Paws and Siobhan Wilson being celebrated as they finally return to a live stage.

Summerhall, throughout August. www.summerhall.co.uk

Here Today

Billy Crystal is the director, writer and star of this New York comedy that seems to offer a fresh twist on When Harry Met Sally’s ‘can men and women ever be friends?’ theme. He plays Charlie Burnz, an ageing comedy writer who bonds with a young singer (Tiffany Haddish) over the course of an eventful, life-changing day.

Filmhouse, 25 August and on general release from 3 September. www.edfilmfest.org.uk

Joan Bakewell and Richard Holloway

Finally, in the midst of a month often preoccupied with things youthful and new, this promises an insightful conversation about old age with two wise kindred spirits, as the writer of Godless Morality interviews the veteran journalist, broadcaster, playwright etc about her new book The Ticking of Two Clocks.

Edinburgh International Book Festival, 15 August, 10am, www.edbookfest.co.uk

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