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Edinburgh Fringe Makes Dreams Come True


NPR's Rob Gifford went to the Fringe this year and found one playwright for whom Edinburgh really has been a dream come true.

ROB GIFFORD: Unidentified Woman #1: Dramatic apocalyptic horror (unintelligible) four survivors in a world consumed by a plague of walking dead? Ten past five tonight (unintelligible) market.

GIFFORD: Unidentified Man: We're doing "Oklahoma" with (unintelligible) with a cabaret group with the London Gay Men's Chorus.

GIFFORD: Unidentified Man: "Oklahoma."

GIFFORD: Unidentified People: (Singing) Oklahoma...


GIFFORD: Unidentified People: (Singing) Prepare ye the way of the Lord, prepare ye the way of the Lord...


GIFFORD: It's all here, quite apart from the usual mix of bagpipers and sword swallowers that throng the sidewalks of the city. The reason they're here, says Sam Friedman, editor of the authoritative Fest magazine, is because the Edinburgh Fringe is quite simply the place to be discovered.

SAM FRIEDMAN: I think it is the main springboard in the UK. And I mean more than a springboard. I would kind of describe it as a kind of one massive sprawling trade fair. I just a few days ago spent a day scouting with head of BBC Radio comedy here, and she is one of hundreds of scouts that come up to the Fringe looking for new talent.

GIFFORD: Friedman says the problem is there's so much to see that it can be difficult to sort the gems from the dross. As far as the theater is concerned, he says each year there tends to be one play that grabs the headlines and the awards. Last year it was a play called "Eight", by an unknown 23-year-old writer called Ella Hickson. This year the hot ticket has been a play called "Precious Little Talent" by a slightly better known 24-year-old writer called Ella Hickson. Friedman says Hickson epitomizes what Edinburgh is all about.

FRIEDMAN: Ella is a young and exciting playwright. And I think it is particularly because she is basically living the Fringe dream, essentially. You know, she'd never written anything in her life before last year and within a few weeks of the festival she was the talk of the entire festival. She's won awards. You know, she got a run off-Broadway, she got a run in the West End, and I think therefore, you know, people are very excited about a follow-up play this year.

ELLA HICKSON: I studied English (unintelligible) and I had a secret - sort of guilty secret I wanted to write. I had always written poetry and prose and things, but had the background and the education that dictated I was probably going to be a blonde doing PR somewhere.

GIFFORD: Ella Hickson herself is disarmingly modest, though she admits that like most British people she is quite cynical, and it was her British cynicism that was challenged when while in the U.S. in January for her first show's run off-Broadway, a friend took her to Washington for President Obama's inauguration.

HICKSON: Everything in Britain felt quite underwhelming, in terms of there weren't any jobs to be had, and I didn't know what I wanted to do. And then I went to the inauguration, and there was this of mass swell of faith, and it was political faith, but it also is sort of a faith in change. And I felt jealous, essentially. I thought it's not really fair that us British kids, English kids, don't, you know, don't have that, that - A) that ability to believe, and B) that figure to believe in.

GIFFORD: So Hickson's new play, "Precious Little Talent," has turned out to be something rather unusual in artistic circles or any circles in Britain or Europe generally - a love letter to America and the American ability to believe and hope. The play centers on a cynical young British girl called Joey, who loses her job and flies to New York to visit her sick father. There she meets Sam, a young American whose idealism and belief in the need for heroes is as strong as her cynicism.


GIFFORD: Unidentified Woman #2: (as character) Because they're not real.

GIFFORD: Sam whisks Joey off to the Obama inauguration. There she sees complete strangers embracing each other on a freezing January day. And she sees the hope and optimism that she so clearly lacks. Slowly, the cynical English girl feels the thaw in her cold English bones. The plot leaves plenty of opportunities for playwright Hickson to skewer British and American foibles.


GIFFORD: (as character) Sure, there were differences. Sex, for example. I like the British kind. Passionate, angsty, but essentially joyless. And for him, well, it was more like going to the Oscars. Lots of tears and thank-yous. Felt like he fought with an overwhelming urge to clap at the end.


GIFFORD: But by the end, you feel cynical Joey really might change.


GIFFORD: (as character) I'm not like Sam. I'm not flying the flag of revolution. I don't have fire in my belly and idealism on my tongue, and I'm not singing the song of change. And why? Because I don't know the words yet. But I will. I promise we will.

GIFFORD: Bearing in mind the battering that President Obama has received in recent weeks, it's perhaps not a bad thing that Joey's transformation hangs in the balance. Ella Hickson is hoping to take this show to New York too, and she says it's not just a play. She really does hope that Britain can learn from America. And considering how her dreams have been realized here, that's perhaps not surprising.

HICKSON: The ethic in the play and the journey I have had as a result of Edinburgh are incredibly similar. Edinburgh festival to me is one of the very last and remaining truly democratic institutions out there. Anyone can come, everybody has the same opportunity to be noticed and to be taken somewhere. And that to me is so worth defending. So long live Edinburgh, I say.

GIFFORD: Rob Gifford, NPR News, Edinburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.