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The Theatreguide.London Reviews


The Edinburgh International Festival of the Arts and the much larger Fringe Festival bring over 1500 shows to the Scottish capital in August. We managed to review over 100 in a typical sampling.

Bill Bailey Assembly
Just as vegetarians are becoming born-again steak-guzzlers and erstwhile activist supermodels rediscover the joys of fur, it has suddenly become cool again for stand-ups to rip the piss out of national and regional stereotypes - so long as they're Anglophone or Belgian, that is. A surprising amount of Bill Bailey's show revolves around lampooning the likes of Welsh minus-culture, Geordie mating rituals and English low hauteur. And he gets away with it resoundingly for three reasons: he gives Meryl Streep a run for her money in the accent department, he gets every seat in the hall involved in the act and he's very funny with it. If I may return to reason two. Terry Pratchett-like, Bailey creates a self-contained world of which each punter becomes a denizen for the evening. Off this living springboard, he bounces a string of insights triggered by a reaction there, a giggle here, an ill-advised visit to the loo there. Indeed, anthropologically speaking, it's compelling to watch a performer who wholeheartedly feeds, nay feasts off his audience. Oh, and the songs? Well that's like waiting for Tommy Cooper to do a trick - exquisitely frustrating. The missing Satanic middle eight from the Magic Roundabout theme and the Elizabethan porn soundtrack are stand-outs. Nick Awde

Balkan Dreams Rocket @ Theatre Arts Centre
The Fringe wouldn't be the Fringe without a massive dose of physical theatre and dance - much of it inevitably from East Europe or influenced by it. To be honest, most of us can live without it. But Balkan Dream is one of the better, more accessible works as as such should be on your recommended list even if all you want to do is get your feet slightly wet. This Yugoslavian rustic tale of love, marriage, betrayal and death (just your average day in the country) is told through traditional dance, chants and rituals. What lifts it from being a mere folklore museum piece is Sanja Ilic's vibrant techno-folk soundtrack and the pure pagan energy of performers Vesna Stankovic, Dusica Popovic and Sinisa Ubovic. This is exciting, vibrant stuff and sensuous too - you'll never quite look at an apple again after the courting duet, and the passionate grapple in the woods is one of the most natural yet erotic love scenes I've seen. Knocks spots off the tat you'll see in the International Festival.Nick Awde

Arj Barker Pleasance
Stand-up comedian. American. Of the black-T-shirt/dramatic mike technique school. Won awards. Would like to be Bill Hicks. Isn't. So who is Arj Barker? Well that's what I pondered a long, long hour in a full house that cackled its way through descriptions of life on the road in Norway and, well, just about everything else there is to describe in a witty manner befitting his trade. His gimmick is to intone a rambling gag with a leaden punchline, then demand the laugh by explaining the joke or merely fobbing it off. Delivery comprises making it up as he goes along - or is Barker very cunning and just pretending to make it up as he goes along? Either way, he unwittingly lays bare the arcane structure of the stand-up process. Is he therefore like the Pompidou Centre, a frequently misunderstood masterpiece of architecture with all its insides exposed on the exterior? Or, on the other hand, is he a man who elects to wear his Y-fronts over his trousers? You'll have to judge for yourself. Nick Awde

Beverley Komedia
It's easy to see the buttons this solo tale of a goodtime girl's descent into the bad times will push in the trendier rags - 'compelling' they'll whisper, 'porn for the mind' they'll say, 'pillzapoppin'!' they'll scream. But what does it all mean dramatically? Quite a lot, I think. If you push past the surface glitz of F and C words, pierced clits and chemically addled lifestyle, you've got a remarkable piece that transcends traditional Fringe fare. Valerie Frances brings a quirky presence to Beverley, a club chick who sells tickets to hi-energy events and buys into the lifestyle hook, line and no-knickers. But this life, as fiercesomely documented by Natasha Langridge who also directs, careens from the fast lane to the hard shoulder via moving in with no-hoper ex-jailbird who takes all her money and the inevitable strap-on dildo encounter. In many ways there's more than a nod to the likes of Steven Berkoff's East and Berkoff's Women, and Langridge does it better. Funny, shocking, sad - and I'm praising Frances in admitting here's one tight skirt I won't be tempted to look up. Nick Awde

Big And Daft In Space Gilded Balloon
Jon, Ian and Rob, for reasons too complex to enter here, end up in a flatshare on the moon. Within minutes Rob has the entire building buried under tons of concrete as part of a sponsored bury-athon. The lads' boredom sets in quicker than the rubble. In a bizarre Big Brother meets Dark Star, they predictably start to bicker, gang up on each other and generally clash egos, libidos and repeated requests for food with highly amusing consequences. Although ideas begin to run thin in the last 15 minutes, there's an attractive fluidity going on here via a stringent hit-and-miss policy. The spoof Broadway sung interludes work well, as do the midnight puppet alter-egos, while reworking Robbie Williams' Angels as a tempted dieter's ode to a doughnut is, well, remarkable to say the least. Less successful is the punning expletive sequence and there's a nagging feeling that the semblance of plot is a minor distraction. BAD is your classic comedy trio: straightman Jon Williams and bolshy Ian Boldsworth underpinned by Rob Rouse's rubbery face and general dementia. In this latest concoction the chemistry's firing smoothly on most cylinders. I'm booked for their next blast-off. Nick Awde

Black Angel: The Double Life Of Arshile Gorky Hill Street
Like many of America's great creative giants of the mid 20th century, Arshile Gorky came of immigrant stock hurled by adversity into the Land of the Free via the portals of Ellis Island. This refugee from the 1915 holocaust in Turkey - when an estimated 2.5 million Armenians were slaughtered - grew up to become the States' greatest surrealist painter. Once described as 'the tallest man in New York who paints and does shepherd dances', Gorky was a romantically complex creature. Based on her own biography of the artist, Nouritza Matossian recreates scenes and characters from his life to form an intimate portrait of the man behind the canvas. This is shaped by projected images and the voices of the women in Gorky's life: his mother tells of childhood and flight to America, his sister recounts his entry into bohemian life, his wives mark the stages of his commercial rise and personal decline. But the balance is a little uneven. The slides of Turkish Armenia are stunning but actually say very little within the time available. What is lost is a unique opportunity to dissect the Armenian/American fusion that created such a clear yet demented vision. Quibbles, though, in what is a compelling and original experience. Nick Awde

Blandeloquence And Flapdoodle Bedlam
This double bill of plays by John McGie proves that there is more to the absurd than grotesque characters and non sequiturs. The first play, about a bizarre couple who entertain an equally bizarre caller, doesn't attempt to disguise its debts to The Bald Prima Donna. But the imitation is purely external, adding nothing to what Ionesco discovered about language, relationships or theatre a half-century ago. With no evident purpose beyond imitation, and no real feeling for language or theatrical rhythm, the rampant wordplay, false starts, dropped trousers, stylised movements and self-conscious breaks in the frame are not intriguing or even confusing, but merely soporific. Flapdoodle makes the same error with Arrabal and Handke, not realising that profound-sounding but ultimately empty philosophical pronouncements alone do not a play make. Again the playwright imitates something not worth imitating, and copies only the externals, capturing none of the spirit. Energetic and committed performances by the casts of both plays suggest that they might have been able to make ten-minute versions of these concepts seem clever pastiches. But both plays drag on far, far beyond their natural lengths, making for a very long afternoon. Gerald Berkowitz

Simon Bligh: Zips, Whips And The Bloody Chains Of Christ Assembly Rooms
It's a funny old world, isn't it? I saw Jackie Mason the other day and the house was packed with Jews and Gentiles alike roaring at his dissection of all things kosher, and I found myself lamenting the fact that us Catholics don't have our own Brit version to rip the bells out out of the smells. Until I saw Simon Bligh, that is. Courtesy of The Comedy Store, the antipope of satire mercilessly unleashes parallel histories of the Mother Church and his own guilt-ridden schooling in Irish Liverpool. An analysis of caning techniques rubs up against a martial comparison of Crusaders and modern football hooligans, and naturally the subject arises of matters carnal: sex education (just the one lesson), pervie popes (in their scores), Sharon Stone (Bligh's black leather kilt), masturbation (the audience). Remarkable is Bligh's crowd control - rampant springs to mind, after experiencing his olefactory classification of each one of us according to presumed sexual deviancy.Lashings of leftfooter lunacy, bless him. Nick Awde

The Blue Grassy Knoll And Buster Keaton On The Big Screen Pleasance
Another tricky one here - how to review three strands of a single show, i.e. Buster Keaton's first silent feature Our Hospitality, The Blue Grassy Knoll's newly composed music for the movie, and the combined spectacle thus created. Our Hospitality was made in 1923, a brilliant comic retelling of Romeo and Juliet where Keaton plays the last member of a feuding clan who returns to his hometown to claim his inheritance. His family's sworn enemies are waiting to polish him off but their daughter complicates things by falling for the interloper. As Simon Barfoot explains in his amusing and informative introduction, silent films were never intended to be silent and so Australian band The Blue Grassy Knoll (a bluegrass Penguin Cafe Orchestra) has devised a score that is performed with studio quality yet creates a vibrant live experience. Barfoot is joined by Gus Macmillan, Philip McLeod, Stephan O'Hara and Daniel Witton who swap instruments and sound effects as fast as Keaton's thrills, spills and laughs. Gypsy and avante garde bounce off a cheeky bluegrass/swing soundtrack that always has a surprise up its sleeve. The result is a magical, dazzling 'natural' multimedia experience where heroes are cheered and villains booed. Carl Wayne eat your heart out. Nick Awde

Marcus Brigstocke - Get A Life Assembly
Personable and inventive comic Brigstocke offers a satirical survey of improve-your-life gurus, taking on eight or nine characterisations with telling effect. His targets range from the smarmy American-style self-help book author (who takes pains to remind us frequently that he is really Canadian) to the upper class twit who spent his gap year in Asia and now peddles enlightenment on his web site. No purveyors of spiritual salvation are spared, from Alcoholics Anonymous to rebirthers; and his satiric point is made by combining all the leftovers into the patter of a street trader. On the other hand, a lecture on psychology using Rubik's Cubes to illustrate its points has the rather frightening effect of actually making sense. Not all the bits work, the oily author returns perhaps one too many times, and the act does involve humiliating a few members of the audience. But there's a lot of wit here, some impressive quick changes and instant characterisations, and perhaps even a bit of thought provoking. Gerald Berkowitz

The Bogus Woman Traverse
What with all the recent invective against asylum seekers vomited from the press, it's high time someone came up with a decisive reply drama-wise. The Bogus Woman is a worthy contender. A distressed and beaten African woman is interrogated at Heathrow, unable to explain how she arrived there. Directed sensitively by Lisa Goldman, Noma Dumezweni gives it her all as she unravels the mystery of this refugee's plight, portraying also the unsettling gamut of officials and members of the public she encounters. In the final part, the play's mesage kicks in as the shards of the asylum seeker's shattered reality fuse together to reveal that liberty is as much a prison as the detention cells. Not that writer Kay Adshead has got it all right. Constant references to the spirits of ancestors and a 'witchdoctor' grandfather are about as relevant to the modern African citizen as goblins and the Loch Ness Monster to your average Brit, while no explanation is offered for the conflicts that spark these journeys into hell. Disturbing, powerful and no quarter given. Nick Awde

Brendan Burke - One Night In Baghdad Gilded Balloon
A stint as an Irish microbiologist for a year in the ex-pat hell of Iraq's capital during the Gulf War turned out to be stand-up heaven for material - at least as far as Brendan Burke's concerned. Obviously none of that scientific training went to waste as he filed away every last incident, encounter and bodily affliction into the test-tubes of his teeming, er, brain. At first I sweated uncomfortably in this hot studio wondering where it was all going. An engaging enough fellow, but Burke's tales of haggling with taxi-drivers and analysing the stools of fellow salmonella sufferers didn't quite a show make. And then something went click. No idea when, where or how, but suddenly I was hooked and realised all along I had been in the hands of a master comedian. The Baghdad reminiscences are red herrings really, as Burke veers into so much other territory such as, via the usual national stereotype cameos, a cosmetically correct analysis of how women differ from men and the Antipodean-like laissez-faire of the Irish. The dancing bouncer routine alone makes it money well spent. Nick Awde

Brendon Burns Pleasance
Go see Brendon Burns, they say he's just had a baby (well, not him exactly) but it hasn't changed him one bit. Yeah right. Male stand-up, first-time father. Seen it all before - the descent into IKEA gags and let's all make the world a safer place. But under the six-a-second expletive delivery, Burke's always ranted for a safer world, and if he's really a dad then it's only wound him up more, ready to uncoil his venom on the big bad world out there that's threatening not just him now but his offspring. This multimedia motormouth (there's a dirty video sideshow) has his priorities of course. He mercilessly attacks the festival and other comics, moving on to women, Londoners and setting a good example to babies, before inserting his Solomon's, er, sword into institutions and minorities alike. His analysis of what makes homophobes and gay pride queens tick is sublimely borderline, but attentions possibly wander when he designates dyslexics as the new minority to be excremented on. Nineteen walked out the last time I saw this oral mugger, is that a record? Oh, and best trousers so far on a stand-up. Nick Awde

Darling Bea Gilded Balloon
Richard Vergette's salute to the legendary Bea Lillie follows a familiar format. On the set of her last film, Thoroughly Modern Millie, the veteran performer is haunted by fading mental powers and growing insecurity. Alternately comforted and bullied by her companion/agent, she escapes into memories of her life and career. As she relives the journey from would-be serious actress in Canada to celebrated comedienne in Britain and the USA, we get an inevitable mix of public triumphs and private tragedies, notably her son's death in the Second World War. Along the way we also hear several of her signature songs, most by Noel Coward. Sandra Sheperdson doesn't resemble Lillie in appearance, manner or voice, and rarely reaches beyond generic aging star in characterisation. In the songs, though, especially Fairies in the Bottom of my Garden and Coward's Marvellous Party, she does catch a hint of Lillie's fey madness.Gerald Berkowitz

The Erpingham Camp Assembly Rooms
One of Joe Orton's least-produced plays, this is a bit of political allegory set in a Butlins-like holiday camp. [Note to non-Brits: a bit like summer camps for adults and families, these were big in Britain in the 1950s.] The Hitler-like boss runs everything from his bunker, while his staff organise compulsary fun with the fixed grins of flight attendants. With the chaplain just released from prison as the result of a misunderstanding with a small child, and the entertainment director mysteriously dead, the job of hosting tonight's audience participation show goes to the eager but bumbling underling nicely played by stand-up comic Johnny Vegas. His ego bigger than his abilities, he quickly alienates his co-workers and offends the customers, so there is soon a full-fledged riot in the camp. As with all his plays, Orton takes delight in skewering all figures of authority, and in spotlighting the curious moral imbalances that make people more upset by small things than large. This is one of his weaker plays, though, and it too quickly runs out of steam, rather than building with farcical energy. No onhe else but Orton could have written it, but there is too little of vintage Orton in it. Gerald Berkowitz

Simon Evans Assembly Rooms
In this day and age of speedy street-cred stand-ups, those comics who view the world that surrounds us with a more finely-tuned observation frequently have to shout to be heard. Not so Simon Evans. Laconic yet thoughtful, obscene yet uncomfortably familiar, the controlled invective that spills from Evans's sphinx-like visage is simply unmissable. IKEA, speed bumps, Britney Spears versus the Spice Girls, commercial uses for endangered species and legal means of disposing of estate agents, he's got an answer for it. Don't get me wrong, but if you happen to be a couple he's a perfect act to keep both halves laughing (his riffle through a mental copy of The Joy Of Sex should help explain) - always an important factor when shelling out in good company. There's many who'll crucify me for this, but here is a talent that's so enduring that I have to put Evans down as approaching Bill Hicks on very heavy sedation. Put top of your ticket list for comedy this festival. Nick Awde

Feds And Meds Randolph Studio
With hindsight there's a clue in the title of this one-man narrative. Of course it's about federal and medical collusion to obstruct potential Aids cures. And of course we're talking corporate conspiracyland. American writer, director and fundraiser extraordinaire Dan Bredemann has created a fusion of personal and hi-tech scenarios in the vein of whistleblower films such as this year's The Insider, the difference being that no one really gets caught (sorry to give the end away of sorts). As the curator of the fictitious Museum of Cures, Bredemann embarks on a guided tour of the exhibits, but each sparks a sideways broadside of reminiscences about his mate Derek's quest for alternative treatments for HIV/Aids and the pair's battles with dodgy doctors, murky bureaus and society itself. The Truth, naturally, is Out There. I used the word 'narrative' because this is not a monologue in the dramatic sense but a piece by a highly skilled storyteller, who uses a battery of storytelling techniques both physical and structural - something of an acquired taste for many theatregoers. As such, however, it is an intriguing, provoking success. But be warned, you'll never keep up with the name-dropping unless you're a cocktail queen - or co-conspiratorialist. Nick Awde

51 Peg Assembly
In Phillip Edwards' play a pair of mates and co-workers, one black, one white, spend their break times in typically half-insulting jokes and in complaints about their work and sex lives. There is a slight tension to the racial joking, but nothing too upsetting until the white man suggests to his more ambitious friend that their boss's racism will limit his future in the company. With what seems at the moment logical inevitibility, this leads to the suggestion that they rob the place; and for the rest of the play they take turns being enthusiastic and hesitant about the project. Who's serious, who's conning who, who's just winding the other up -- we reamin uncertain until a particularly unlikely conclusion. With some strong sequences, this is basically a half-hour script stretched to twice that length, so that tension and ambiguities repeatedly flag, and the two actors (Stephen Beckett and Phillip Hurst) must constantly strain to recapture a reality -- and audience attention -- they keep losing control over.
Gerald Berkowitz

Fist Of The Dragon Meadows Theatre Big Top
Hailing as they do from Jilin, the Chinese province that gave birth to Shaolin martial arts, Fist of the Dragon's strapping performers promise a good show, which they deliver. Performed by what is evidently a stripped-down touring unit, the spectacle is perhaps a little less grand than might be expected. Crashing cymbals start a non-stop series of groups large and small in choreographed pieces with flailing limbs and weapons, the pace dropping only to perform unfeasible feats of blocks smashed on foreheads, legs and fists. The music balances taped contemporary keyboard swirls with live traditional instrumentation and The Mice Wedding, a musical interlude played on percussion, was an unexpected pleasure. Innovatively, there are female members in the company who, while still not party to the actual ritualised acts of destruction, are allowed to muck in elsewhere with the rest of the lads. This is a welcome move, and two young women dressed as men laying into each other with rampant swords is a thrilling sight to behold. But that's possibly too much information. Nick Awde

Freebird Pleasance

Jon Ivay's play is unapologetically an Easy Rider Revisited, as three overage motorcyclists travel from London to Cornwall on a drug deal that goes sour. One is terminally stoned, one has fantasies of being a hard man, and one is just trying to find a way to grow up and move on with his life. Much of what happens on their trip is predictable, but Ivay and his cast give everything the air of freshness. Of course they're carrying drugs, which makes being stopped by a traffic cop an adventure in comic paranoia. Of course they get into something deeper than they planned, and have to figure a way out. And of course they have their moments of uncharacteristically deep philosophising or emotional exposure. There's a very funny scene in a village shop when, trying to look straight, they load up on rolling papers and munchies, and another when they take some dubious mushrooms. The show desperately needs tighter pacing and higher energy than it had at the performance I saw, but the raw materials for a first-rate theatre piece are there.Gerald Berkowitz

A Good One Is A Dead One C
Ben Street's solo show is more an exercise in story telling than a play, as he narrates and plays a number of roles in a black comic tale. A bit of illicit sex gets translated through rumour into the invasion of a mad rapist, and the village panics. As people huddle in their homes, ironically having their first experiences of family togetherness, bumbling vigilantes prowl the streets and fields. Meanwhile, a local teenager who imagines himself a young Marlon Brando observes with amusement and amazement until things turn tragic. An excellent audition piece, this is really a 15 or 20 minute sketch stretched to almost an hour, losing a lot of the power it would have with tighter editing.Gerald Berkowitz

Graft: Tales Of An Actor Komedia
Bit of a conundrum here. Anything Steven Berkoff writes comes with a built-in blueprint that moulds the aspiring performer unto his likeness. Any hint of innovation can provoke an inevitably terminal case of no-play. George Dillon has embraced the great man's one-man travelogue into the infenal underbelly of a fading actor's life, and his Faustian pact is clear for all to see. The prize: to revel in a wonderfully piercing role. The price: having to out-Berkoff Berkoff. That's the conundrum. The performance is virtuoso, no doubt. Dillon prowls the stage and keeps such a tight hold on mood-control that come final curtain you feel as spent as the man on stage. His tales enthrall of halcyon days romping with nubile starlets in rep, middle years slipping down the provincial ladder, of the fateful final rendezvous in the agent's office. Yet Dillon fails to break out of his mentor's mould, which hinders performance and material equally, unhelped by the fact that Berkoff puts the boot in to the acting profession and forgets to take it out.On balance, however, well worth the price of admission. Nick Awde

Harem: Secrets From Beneath The Veil The Nomads Tent
For the most most evocative venue in town - every surface bedraped with exotic carpets illuminated by water candles in belljars - Harem offers an equally evocative story. Time turns back to the great Victorian traveller, writer and translator Richard Burton (Gus Brown) - a hard Michael Palin with syphilis. Burton delves into his groundbreaking translations of the East's great books to provide a guide through the exotic world and characters he knew, much to the exasperation of his long-suffering wife and editor Isobel (Madeline Worrall). From the pages of The Thousand and One Nights cascades the slinky Scheherazade (gorgeous Nasreen Hussain), from the Kama Sutra sashays the outspoken Princess Kindari (Mona Ambegeonkar), while minor roles and appropriate dance routines come from Julian Furtuna and Amina Elawi. The cast are vibrant in their roles, the costumes are lavish, the lighting moody, and Rory Barrack's multi-layered music creates the perfect setting for this atmospheric fantasy. On a trainspotting note: surely Burton would have opted for Persian, a far more poetic language, when speaking with Scheherazade and not cod Arabic? But any such gripes are more than compensated by the graphic description of castrating eunuchs and the tender demonstration of Kama Sutra lovemaking. Nick Awde

Hey Gringo! - A Chile Christmas Komedia
Out of work actor backpacks and oddjobs his way around the teeming republics of early eighties South America. Cut to the present and hey, the holiday scrapbook's proved to be a highly entertaining mealticket. Peter Searles has already made two similar outings as writer/performer and the transition has been an intriguing one. After covering the surreal borderlands of Peru and Bolivia where every Latino stereotype evidently thrives, he now crosses to Chile, a republic that's less banana and more Thatcherite than he'd care to admit. Searle now confronts a society of recognisable characters and institutions, and this time he takes the plunge and gets involved. He falls for the charms of a shanty-town activist, does drama with an Irish revolutionary priest and even gets frisked by Pinochet's bodyguards. Gone are the quaint anecdotes, in their place is a stream of polished observations that create what is essentially a well-honed play, nudged to a fresh dramatic level. Although dogged by a dodgy Chilean accent and a bad case of expletives, Searles has struck it rich for a third time. Nick Awde

Adam Hills: Goody Two Shoes Gilded Balloon
A persuasive Australian slips in to relentlessly work the front rows and blithely dissects relationships and careers for all to hear. Each meet and greet victim is earmarked for later use in one of the Fringe's most fun-packed shows. The concept is simple: to prove Adam Hills' theory that creative application of light and sound can make anything appear a million dollars. By way of example he drags two guys up on stage to make them perform air guitar/drum solos to a rocking Prince track. They soon get the hang of it and have to be dragged back off. You'll have to use your imagination for the mind-boggling 'boyband in four minutes' routine - just remember not to let him near your underwear. And if you're thinking he's yet another gimmick merchant, Hills also gets the laughs on the verbal side - musing on how erect is erect he reveals a novel use by the film censors for Cornwall, and there's an alternative pop Lord's Prayer to the tune of King of the Road which is almost as borderline and Sir Clifford's attempt. Much careful thought goes into all this mime karaoke mayhem, and so it's no surprise to learn that Hills is the only comic here to have someone who signs on some nights - which works a treat since he claims he doesn't do puns (but he does do everything else). Nick Awde

History Of Communism As Told For The Mentally Ill Gateway
Teatrul Eugene Ionesco from Moldava took a gamble by entrusting western director Charles Lee to reinterpret its highly personal production of the madhouse mirroring totalitarianism. It has paid off magnificently. Matei Visniec's absurdist tale is set in the USSR a few weeks before the death of its adored monster of a leader Stalin, when a people's poet arrives at a mental institution to begin a literature therapy programme for the inmates. The therapy has a more potent effect than anticipated and the proverbial lunatics taking over the asylum scenrario develops. As if Gogol did the script for Carry on One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest!, there are gorgeously comic touches - the matron is sexually aroused by any man who has met Stalin while the hospital director's gloved right hand has Dr Strangelove tendencies. Encouragingly it's mostly in English, and excellently translated - so rarely encountered in such productions. And be warned that audience participation enters a whole new dimension as the inmates take their seats in the auditorium (I had Trotsky next me I think). Improved diction (the kulak scene) plus explaining references to Orjonikidze (Bolshevik general/leader) and Stalin's wife (committed suicide) would widen the production further. Nick Awde

Ingoma Song And Dance Bongo Club
African performing arts generally and those of South Africa in particular have suffered a frustrating crisis of identity. Rather than evolve to informed sophistication, European audiences will clap wildly at anything so long as it's in a tie-dye wrapper and jigging along to a drum beat. And so this reviewer plodded off to Mamelodi Theatre Organization's new production heavy of heart. Two seconds into the show, however, and a revolution of taste and talent positively explodes from the stage. Two drummers flavour a lyrical melody to their rhythms, providing the backdrop to a tale through dance and song of the impact of traditional youth initiation on Sotho/Swazi communities. A bubblingly talented company of girls - from under-tens to late teenagers - dance solo and in groups to weave narrative with movement, throwing in awesome high-kicks for good measure. Putting any GAP ad to shame, this is an infectious show for family and enthusiasts alike, with an intelligent structure that touches far beyond the fun muscles. The phrase been used about them before but the Mamelodi girls dance as if they invented it: sheer, joyful exuberance. Nick Awde

Jive Junkys The Garden Party
Quicker than you can uncoil a quiff the Jive Junkys are back with their unique brand of music and dialogue and it's uh-oh time. The agent has just phoned and the lads' big break is closer than they think, in fact they've less than two days to rehearse a new show from scratch. The countdown's on as the audience settle back to revel in classy mayhem. Wayne Scott Kermond, Andrew Marshall, Aaron Cash and Rohan Seinor sweat hard to give a great, great show, and mercifully they don't take themselves too seriously. As a result, the rehearsal scenes contain some wonderfully observed scenes of the creative mind at work, or not, as the case may be. Slick routines accompany golden oldie songs and although the set-up scenes are way too long, the explosive concert our hopefuls put on at the end more than compensates. In many ways jive was the heavy metal of its day - guys got to dress up as glitterbugs or scene clones, preen their hair and prance about on stage with other men but they always sang about manly things. So whatever the jive equivalent was for moshing, that's what the audience was doing. Nick Awde

The King Of Schnorrers Roman Eagle Lodge (reviewed in London)
Labyrinth Theatre's two-man staging of Israel Zangwell's comic novel is an inventive high-energy romp that combines Story Theatre methods with highly athletic choreography and clowning. We are first introduced to the master beggar-conman Manassah by watching him convince a generous donor that he has insulted him with his giving and that the only remedy is ever-increasing charity. The central story involves a young man who loves Manassah's daughter but who rouses the father's suspicions because he actually has a job. He is set a seemingly impossible task of schnorring to prove his worthiness, and his success rounds out the fable. Under Laura Farnworth's direction, Robert Messik (who also adapted the text) and Matthew Reynolds play a half-dozen characters and various pieces of furniture, aided by nothing more than a few hand props. Rubber-faced Reynolds can switch in an instant from Tom Smothers goofiness to Steven Berkoff grotesquerie, while Messik at one point manages to portray both a supplicant before a community court and the chair on which the judge sits. There is a hint of seriousness in the tale's account of class and ancestral bigotry within the Jewish community. But the dominant tone is festive and the dominant impression one of constant motion, as the two performers match every line with comic mime and mugging in a fast-moving hour.Gerald Berkowitz

King Of Scotland Assembly
Writer delves into Gogol and surfaces with Diary of a Madman. Quick to the iBook and a freely adapted one-man satire of contemporary Britain evolves. Delivering the message is Brian Pettifer, a masterful actor with a strong comic feel, whose bearing, looks and voice are achingly spot-on. After 18 years on the dole, Tony finally gets a job as a call centre assistant and promptly dumps everyone he works with into his fantasy world - at times the real-life Ministry of Inclusion that is sucking him in is no different. With each monologue, he reveals a little more of his deepening madness. There are good laughs in Iain Heggie's script and the manner in which the satire is pumped through Tony's persona is inspired, but it plays lazily to the moneyed middle classes in the front stalls - Tony's unintended Tourette's syndrome glosses over the politics by getting them cackling at every expletive instead. Pettifer himself charms throughout but is given so little leeway in pitch or intensity, the play rises only a notch above rehearsed reading. For, insanely, King of Scotland boasts no less than two director/designers who have mightily achieved a chair and lightbulb on a stage and a criminal waste of fine actor and fine writer. Nick Awde

The Lapse Of The Gods Gilded Balloon
Good and Evil take their eternal struggle to the modern arena and campaign US/Blair-style for the right to take over the world for the next millennium. In between televised debates, they wheel and deal behind the scenes, enlisting the support of historical luminaries a la The Frogs or A Matter of Life and Death. Machiavelli turns up as spindoctor for Good, and promptly turns into a Casanova with more than one type of service on offer. In reply, Attila the Hun is courted by Evil but the genocidal genderbender has more than one type of camp to enter. And so this house asks is The Lapse of the Gods any good? Against: The show falls somewhere between uni debating society and That Was the Week That Was and is unsure what it's lampooning - the media, politics, sketch shows. For: It's slickly done and quick-moving, cramming as many scenes as the format can hold in an hour with Pythonesque precision. Wag the Dog it ain't, but Jamie Campbell, Tom Mallaburn, Miranda Scott-Barrett and Joel Wilson make it a compelling experience thanks to their considerable enthusiasm and comic acting skills, plus the added bonus of courtesy of Gareth Weedon's sassy live music. Nick Awde

A Large Attendance In The Antechamber Assembly
Amateur scientist, cousin to Darwin, and inventor of eugenics, semi-eminent Victorian Francis Galton is, in Brian Lipson's solo show, a compulsive tinkerer who turns everything from introducing himself through making a cup of tea into a complex exercise in construction, measurement and note-taking. Amiably loopy, he only occasionally lets slip a darker side, as when his proud display of composite photographs becomes the means of isolating and categorising racial stereotypes, and his hobby of counting pretty girls on his travels, to construct a beauty map of Britain, becomes an argument for selective breeding. Eventually, his mild bemusement at finding himself portrayed by an actor after his death turns into a bitter conflict between the sensibilities and moralities separated by a century. The title comes from Galton's term for the jumble of thoughts in his head awaiting conscious awareness, and a certain degree of rambling is built into Lipson's script and characterisation. A little tightening of the focus, particularly in the later sections, could only improve what is both a fascinating character study and an intriguing reverie on the nature of theatre. Gerald Berkowitz

Stewart Lee's Badly Mapped World Pleasance
Stewart Lee is a man in evolution and his Badly Mapped World is a revealing half-way stage to wherever he's going next. A strange fish in the comedy world acquarium, his is a vicious act but minus the limiting expletives and loud voice bit, with the result that he lures audiences of all ages, shapes and creeds. Armed with mike and slide-projector, Lee gives a guided tour of the world as he knows it, juggling holiday snaps with vistas from outer space. The delivery is a little ropey but that will sort itself out as the run progresses. Subjects range from whimsy (the running theme of the Owl and the Pussycat's diary) to anthropological (why middle-aged South American women don't exist) to downright offensive (Americans and dogs). There have been more a few mentions of the Concorde crash this Festival and Lee's was hardly the most tasteless, yet it was the perverse but logical manner with which he used it to prove God's existence that seemed to spark a minor exodus of the audience. Or maybe it was the deep-fried heroin gag. Attaboy. Nick Awde

Les Lieux De La Playhouse
The title of Mathilde Monnier's richly austere piece, Les lieux de la (Places from there), says it all. Described as a 'choreographic diary' it is a focused exploration of space and sound. Monnier's choreography, therefore, is deeply linked to Heiner Goebbels' minimalist score for electric guitar, indeed hangs off it like washing from a line. Working between two walls of wood and cardboard boxes, 12 dancers create a ripple of loose movements strung across across three pieces. Les non lieux sees individuals meet, constrict each other and then move away - writhing rugby-like packs form. Dans les plis takes up the theme of the pack, forming and reforming in the manner of lone clouds on a clear summer sky. When dispersal comes, the dancers add characters to the interplay, bringing elements of humour such as a dancer banging his head repeatedly on a live microphone. Quelque part, quelqu'un strips away the boxes to reveal a lower wall made of a single massive strip of grey cloth. Soon the dancers are lugging it over to the other side to create a mirror image, riding its waves and playing between them. There is a great richness here but unbalanced by taking a single idea and leaching it of almost all substance. Taken as a whole the linear structure creates blurring of the parts and, really, it is only changes in lighting that indicate their passage or indeed conclusion. While appreciating the economic Miro presented them, on leaving one got the distinct impression the fee-paying public expected a lusher Chagall. Nick Awde

Life - The Consumer's Guide C
If you don't know your Posh from your Beckhams or are simply unsure how many Kosovan au-pairs it takes to make a satisfied husband, then this is the show for you. With Life - The Consumer's Guide, writer Graham David has concocted one of those stylised, stylish comments on society that interweaves verbal satire with Brechtian movement. Or, to put it another way, a damn fine slag-off of consumerism in which eveyone wears Goth makeup. The structure is a simple one: the many stages of Homo Topdoggus are enumerated with as many dos and don'ts inserted as time and space allow, and instead of changing scenery, the players change position with the precision of Sainsbury checkout girls (um, that means they're very good at it). Topics covered include keeping the common folk at bay while fighting off your shark-like mates and learning that a good wife doesn't have to have to be rich so long as she looks good. Catty mistresses and back-stabbing squash partners abound. Debbie Nixon, Ami Radcliffe and Mark Robinson join David as performers and, to provide the appropriate credit rating, they're Amex Gold. Nick Awde

Look Out Ol' Mac He's Back Queen's Hall
If you're a Craig McMurdo fan, then you already know he got the place swinging last night. The rest of you might want to read on to discover what you missed. An old-time entertainer in many ways, crooner McMurdo shamelessly plunders the vaults for golden oldies such as Chattanooga Choo Choo and Fly Me to the Moon and sings them as as if they were written yesterday. The selection is predictable - a hardcore of every Sinatra/Martin/Bennett et al hit in the book - but McMurdo's voice is soaringly effortless and he's never over-respectful of the material. Numbers are imaginatively arranged via mini big band That Swing Thang, a piano trio, the addition of backing singers The Swingettes and even solo on acoustic guitar. He also has such skill in the banter department that it verges on full-blown stand-up - one only has to witness him interrupting his own souful rendition of New York New York to invite hecklers from the audience. Bizarrely, it doesn't ruin the song but enhances the experience. A welcome return indeed to the Fringe after almost a decade away. And it would have been even more welcome if I had a seat that wasn't smack bang behind a pillar. Nick Awde

Loveplay Pleasance
Two actresses, Alison Goldie and Kath Burlinson, play more than a dozen roles between them in this tale of an extended disfunctional family. Grandmother is bitterly dying while a daughter dissipates her life in random debauchery and a granddaughter explores her own sexuality. A bickering couple sink into a loveless marriage while a divorced neighbour hangs on desperately to memories of her departed husband. Along with assorted friends and lovers, the girls also play two kitchen taps, a particularly cynical lamp, and various sex organs.The skillful and seamless role switching, sometimes in mid-conversation, inevitably requires a degree of exaggeration and caricature, and sometimes the actresses' virtuosity threatens to overpower the reality they are trying to create. Still, there are telling insights, as when the boorish husband turns out to be the one most committed to saving the marriage. And there are moments when virtuosity and character truth come together, as when simultaneous scenes show aunt and neice reacting to troubled love lives in different but parallel ways. One of the best of this genre that I've encountered. Gerald Berkowitz

Norman Lovett Pleasance
Okay. Here's the deal. The audience clapped like mad and spilled into the street radiating a wonderful warm feeling like that kid in the Readybrek advert. Leaving me standing there wondering what I'd missed. Asking why superlatives weren't spilling from this febrile critic's grey matter to pass on to a hushed readership the immensity of Norman Lovett's comic talent. Of course he looks funny - his hangdog features automatically trigger every laughter muscle within a 25-metre radius. As does his effortlessly laconic delivery. He spoke at length about his dead dog's dick and pooperscooping. Riffled through the Innovations catalogue and produced some pretty impressive products purchased from its pages. And really got the audience going when discussing the Saturday queues at Ikea. His biggest laugh came when he physically left the hall to chase back a front-row ticket-holder from the loo only to find him having a fag down the stairwell. That one'll stick in my memory. Ah, but 'discussing'... that's it. That's what I missed. Now it's clear. The set-up is comedian goes in and chats to everyone Parkinson-style mostly about themselves. And then it all makes sense as a sort of Audience with Norman Lovett's Audience. If that was it, then he's brilliant. Move over Michael. Nick Awde

Lulu: sometimes in dreams Assembly
A musical may not be your first port of call at the Fringe but mark this gloriously stylish retelling of Pandora's Box right up there on your must-see list. In a nightclub at the end of the world, the blind owner directs a show which each night retells the tale of femme fatale Lulu. Paranoia grows as he recasts the title role, while boundaries between his show and its audience blur and reality takes a waltz on the dark side. Cocktail bar harpies, harp-playing judges and randy clerics abound, sexual preferences are reversed as easily as jealousies are aroused, all to a backdrop of sexy jazzy numbers, courtesy of Chris Jordan on music, lyrics and MC duties. Every song's mini-musical in itself and their instant hummability gives Jordan the freedom to pump up the dramatic satire without taking out the heart and soul. A stand-out is Careless Rapture - one of those 'and now a word from our sponsor' moments about an antiperspirant - which transcends parody in combining humour with haunting melody. The Odense Internationale Musikteater cast are consummate all-round performers and of course it's grossly unfair of me to single out Sonja Richter for her innocently seductive Lulu. Nick Awde

McDougall & Donkin Gilded Balloon
Two bright and personable comediennes offer a fast-moving hour of sketches without a dud in the bunch. Topics range from Aussie tourists to sexual quirks, from dog training to sci fi, while comic style jumps seamlessly from satire to absurdism to verbal invention. High points are two sketches built on rapid-fire word play, one involving puns on bird species, the other a conversation built on double words like lovey-dovey and tutti-frutti. A conversation between two switchboard operators who are simultaneously fielding calls is a display of virtuoso timing and delivery. Even the more familiar material, like a parody of a talentless improv act, is carried by the duo's engaging personalities. And they never fall into the trap of extending a gag too long, some bits being little more than one-line blackouts. More constant chuckle than guffaw, more put you in a happy mood that make you die laughing, this is just right as an afternoon break.Gerald Berkowitz

Mark Maier Assembly Rooms
You can't help liking a comic who provides his own opening act and then gets involved in offstage arguments with himself before coming on in his own person. Mark Maier opens in the guise of an Israeli minicab driver turned comedian, with jokes on peace talks and airport security, and an engaging grudge against John Lennon. In his own name, Maier takes us on a seamless journey from observational humour through flights of fancy. Memories of an unpleasant gig in Brighton lead to thoughts about fun fairs, and mention of the ghost ride somehow leads to the topic of all-night buses, and we end up considering the possibility of a darts match for drunks. The most innocuous material, like the British response to hot weather or the pains of street performing, has a way of morphing into something more bizarre and reappearing later in the act. Confident, personable and always in control of his material and his audience, Maier may not break any new ground, but delivers a thoroughly satisfying hour of laughs.Gerald Berkowitz

Maybellene - The Living Fashion Doll Pleasance
Wade through the dark sea of black-garbed media wannabes in the Pleasance courtyard and there in a tent in the corner you'll stumble across an oasis of colour. Here you may purchase a ticket to camp heaven in the form of two fifteen-minute shows featuring a human head stuck through a black backdrop onto the dancing body of a barely two-foot high doll - Maybellene. In The Road to Shangri-La, our plucky heroine endures terrible perils in rescuing her lover, kidnapped by an evil enchantress. But she remembers to use her magic shape-changer ring. No girl should be without one. Similar motifs pop up in Kitsch 'n' Sync Drama where Maybellene is washed down her kitchen plughole after shrinking in size. Transported thus to the planet Omo, she encounters strange aliens who abduct humans and feed off their glamour. Throughout both adventures, Maybellene keeps her dander up by singing songs that express her mood, ranging from Earth Kitt's I Wanna Be Evil to Doris Day's Harry I'm Planning to Marry. Barbie, Ken and friends supply suitably rousing chorus-line finales. Actually, 'camp' is too small a word to convey the immensity of such an experience. Glamorous it is and glamorous it shall be. Nick Awde

Mika: Tribal Hollywood Dynamic Earth
Hot from New Zealand, one-man drag extravaganza Mika has a personality big enough to fill Madison Square gardens ten times over, yet his personal touch means you half expect his gran to pop in with a tray of cuppas. Techno to Streisand, Whitney to Kiri Te Kanawa, he sings each with style and loving irony. Not only a smooth-tonsilled kind of guy, he's also a magnificent clotheshorse thanks to his svelte All Black flyhalf frame, and the costumes could grace the snootiest Paris catwalk. I Will Always Love You gets the Doppler effect, Stand By Your Man is expected but hilarous, You Don't Bring Me Flowers reinterpreted as a family singalong, Mika's proud of his Maori roots - a expected break into a spot of hoofing becomes a glorious showtime haka and his switch into Maori for Celine Dione's turgid Titanic theme is utterly spinetingling. Despite the lavish ball gown, the operatic section was over-specialised for this middle-evening Fringe audience and attentions wandered. A near perfect evening of glamorous fun for all the family (oops, but you might want to be warned about the crotch-wincing splits, the cruising anecdotes and the fellatio jokes - oh, and the Dynamic Earth umbrella). And be warned, there's no Abba. Nick Awde

A Millennium Measure Of Measure For Measure Hill Street
If you thought Shakespeare in a modern setting is a bit seen-it done-it, you have to believe me that Siege Perilous Project has come up with a potent, refreshing angle on one of Shakespeare's darker comedies. The tale of of the Duke of Venice attempting to keep his subjects in order is neatly downsized and pumped up for the modern corporate environment. Equally hierarchical, each member of staff is power-dressed to the hilt, disporting a battery of power toys, while office politics bring Machiavelli to the desktop with the click of a mouse. Against a backdrop of much exchanging of business cards and comparing of PDAs, the Duke is an MD fast losing the boardroom battle to maintain company morale. Faced with a rising tide of backbiting, behind the scenes dealing, sexual harassment and sleaze, he has no option but to play the long game. There seems to be a new wave of productions where the Bard's words are rendered as if a contemporary dialect, enabling them to be spoken and heard as if for the first time, freed of centuries of baggage. That is the case here, producing unexpected opportunities for humour and revealing extraordinary depths of characterisation. Slick, scary and scurrilous, this is my type of Shakespeare. Nick Awde

A.A. Milne's Winnie The Pooh in 'Eeyore Has A Birthday' Dynamic Earth
In case you didn't already know, this is the one In Which Everyone Watches a Captivating Puppet Show and Has a Jolly Good Time Too. The lights go down and here's AA Milne inviting the audience to follow him up to the attic (accompanied by a special going-up-the-stairs hum) to find Pooh and his friends. Guesses are yelled as to where the puppets have hidden themselves and once each has been found and introduced, the story of how Eeeyore Has a Birthday begins. Naturally the problem is what to get the grumpy donkey. Pooh has his usual suggestion of a honey pot (mysteriously emptied of contents) and Owl helps him misspell the greetings for his card. Piglet meanwhile has an unfortunate mishap with the balloon he intends to bring. Each classic episode in Richard Medrington's bewitching retelling provides ample opportunity for audience reaction: there's a rousing singalong to Pooh's wonderfully scatty ditty Cottleston Pie and howls of laughter as Piglet tries to climb things very badly indeed. In fact, Pooh's story it may be, but it's Piglet who shamelessly steals the show. Nick Awde

Neil Mullarkey: All That Mullarkey Gilded Balloon
It's not every day a comedian finds vicious critic (me) and vicious magician (Jerry Sadowitz) at either end of a pew, faces grim, arms folded in defiant 'so make make me laugh' mode. Well, Neil Mullarkey got me pissing myself (and I swear out of the corner of my eye I caught a flicker of a smile from Jerry). It's a simple enough formula: Mullarkey lures you into his genealogical lair to discuss the meaning of surnames and their effect on your personality. Stung by jibes at his own similitude to 'malarky' - as in 'all that' - he launches into a Twilight Zone of loopy ancestors and namesakes to unstain his besmirched appellation. I'm not sure how Mullarkey does it, but he deftly weaves his own personal magic to blur the boundary between reality and fantasy as well as that between audience and performer, provoking an unexpectedly sweet fear of being pounced on to answer the man's probing questions. Er, for those of you who aren't so anal: disarmingly comic, surreally uncategorisable. Nick Awde

Mundo Jazz Pleasance
As a cod German intellectual opens by emotionally describing his first encounter in a public toilet with world music legend Mundo Jazz, you're well inside Spinal Tap territory. This ethnomusicological orgasmatron from Panama is in town to talk about his long career in music, the albums he never made with Michael Jackson and his four wives. In psychobabble metaphors, he rabidly opposes fascist culture yet offends Guardian readers. When he does stop talking long enough to pick up an instrument, he may do a song: citing Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as inspiration, he doles out his own version of a farmer's song about, er, farming, later deconstructing a blues lament to render it joyful. With elements of the Pub Landlord plays Carlos Santana meets Ruben Blades, Mundo's success is based on an accent and personality that steer clear of parody - although seat-wetting asides like 'I take only take cocaine to support my nation's agriculture' slip the net. Maybe you've seen it all before but it's essential viewing, if only for his insanely brave swipes at Scottish habits in the face of a largely local boozy Saturday night crowd. Nick Awde

Murdered Writers Society Rocket at Theatre Arts Centre
Daska Theatre's salute to Soviet writer Daniil Kharms and, by extension, all writers killed by repressive regimes, opens with a seemingly inept compere confusing the footlights for microphones. Then some dolls dance, and the disembodied heads of a group called the Ginger Haired Trio (two of whom have dark hair) sing. More heads-in-boxes, this time wearing blank masks, tell anecdotes of Tolstoy and Pushkin. There's a man dressed as Sherlock Holmes, an extended and particularly inept shadow-puppet sequence, and a reading of the speech Kharms would have given to the Nobel Prize committee if he had ever won the prize. Oh, yes, and then some more dancing dolls. What it all means, only God and Richard DeMarco know, and the latter, sitting near me in the audience, slept though it all. Incomprehensible Eastern European theatre companies with opaque private symbolism have been a staple of the Fringe for decades. This is one more. Gerald Berkowitz

Navelgazing Pleasance
Hard to believe, I know, but not everyone is a sexy critic or glamorous performer, gaily air-kissing festival to festival. There are those who work in Texaco filling stations, comprehensives in Cheadle and Mr Tie Rack - or who simply stay at home on the dole. And this is their story... What at first chortle appears a standard sketch show soon turns to tightly edited episodes chronicling a magnificently dysfunctional family in which three boring brothers join their dad for their mum's funeral. Brewing grievances rapidly surface and long-buried family secrets are exhumed. With video scenes extending the action, this is the sort of situational stuff where much of the humour catches you off-guard - scenes such as the pub bore blundering into how the mother died and the stand-in caring/sharing vicar's sermon are unexpectedly, shockingly funny. Shades of Bread, shades of League of Gentlemen, Navelgazing manage to create a style their own and have the rubbery faces to back it up. Jack Brough, Jamie Deeks, Dan Johnston and Ewen MacIntosh are fortunate also to have a good director in Gordon Anderson, and it is no surprise to learn they're already busy at Channel 4. Nick Awde

No. 2 Assembly Rooms
What can I say? It's a world of many tastes but if you gave me just one show to see this year, Madeleine Sami in No. 2 is it. Penned by Toa Fraser, this is a majestically observed mini-epic that kicks off at 4am in a Fijian New Zealand suburb. A crotchety grandmother has just roused her unruly progeny to prepare a feast so she can nominate her successor before abandoning this mortal coil. Fortified by a single veranda chair and Catherine Boniface's Altmanesque direction, Sami conjures an entire family with the subtlest of nuances, juggling voices, attitudes and stances like a magic fruit-machine. There's bright ten-year-old Moses, shit-stirring Hibiscus, All Blacks hopeful Tyson and, of course, sly old Grandma Maria. But we're not talking impressions here. Spookily talented, Sami's control of character and script keeps the human dynamics buzzing non-stop, culminating in a mind-blowing scroll across the entire family tree in a ten-second whirl of reactions. Last year Sami and Fraser's Bare was a knock-out. Perfectly poignant, funny and political, No. 2 shows they went and saved the best (so far) for last. Nick Awde

The Office C
A living silent movie, Nottingham New Theatre's one-hour piece shows a trio of office workers -- ordinary drudge, sexy secretary and prim prude -- victimized by a practical joke playing coworker. The central action is an extended silent chase sequence following the theft of a sandwich -- a process that somehow involves slipping on a banana peel, tying a girl to the railroad track, and some kung-fu fighting. In short, a frequently witty collection of film cliches, not quite confident enough in its own jokes or tightly paced enough to overcome the weaker stretches. Gerald Berkowitz

One Night In The Life Of Denise Ivanovich Hill Street
Kevin E. Rice's intriguing and engrossing play opens in a Mongolian prison, where American anthropologist Denise has been held since killing her husband eight years ago. We see the life she has created for herself in imprisonment, built on conversations with a fellow prisoner and an involved game of phonetically teaching her Mongolian guard to say incongruous things in English. When a friend from New York comes to help her escape, we discover that very little that we have seen has been exactly as it seemed; and when a final scene flashes back to New York before it all began, a raft of additional ironies, echoes and redefinitions are exposed. Rice's insight is not just that people lie to, betray and manipulate each other, but they lie, betray and manipulate in exactly the same ways again and again. The play's plot twists and reverse chronology (along with a clever bit of role-doubling) mean that we are constantly reassessing and redefining things we took at face value the first time around. Strong performances by the cast of four, particularly Cattlin Gibbon as Denise, hold our emotional involvement while the play messes with our heads. Gerald Berkowitz

Pablo Diablo Gilded Balloon
The Pablo Diablo moniker is a a red herring - what you get is a triple bill sampler of up-and-coming comics hot from the Hackney Empire New Act final. First off is the engaging Mark Felgate who mixes anecdotes of the mad family that spawned him with unexpected applications of ventriloquism. The relaxed raconteur style was punctuated by the odd foray into the front rows for appropriately unorthodox interaction much to everyone else's amusement. Shappi Khorsandi follows. Sassy yet disarmingly self-critical, I've rarely seen a comic who connects so instantly and so infectiously (non-medically speaking, of course). Gags revolve around her London-Iranian background and the (quite unbelievable) fact that she can't get a boyfriend. Khob-e, as they say in Teheran. A face to watch out for. Closing the evening is Russell Brand, launching into a whirlwind of contemporary observations that follow the crowd as much as the crowd follows him. The News of the World's campaign against paedophiles is dissected with improbable humour as are the infamous Samaritan signs on Edinburgh's North Bridge. Definitely the darker side of comedy. The three have quite different evolutionary courses to plough and would be better connected by a compere. But hey, either way, this was one of those memorable anarchy-filled nights as only the Fringe can produce. Nick Awde

El Pez En El Asfalto Gateway
Hot in from Cuba, DanzAbierta's El Pez en el Asfalto - or Fish in Asphalt - has about as much Latin pzazz as my soiled tartan Y-fronts. Intended is a physical/dance work in which a company of three females and three males explores the alternative society Cubans created on the seafront of the crisis-ridden nation of the early nineties. The human-created ebb and flow of tide at the start is impressive, as is the return to the waterfront at the end, and there is clearly a strong narrative theme, but the rest degenerates into set pieces of pointless posturing and mangled utterances, set against a workaday soundtrack. Irritatingly, the same basic movements are recycled throughout and are so sloppy they impede the talents of these young performers. Choreographer Marianela Boan clearly noodled her way through this latest example of, to use her own words, 'contaminated dance' and it stinks, which is a pity since there is a good story crying out to be performed. As the audience applauded wildly after the cast departed naked by way of conclusion, the words 'emperor' and 'clothes' came to mind. Nick Awde

Picasso's Women: Olga Assembly
The shortest of Brian McAvera's monologues is in an odd way the cheeriest, as Geraldine Fitzgerald plays an Olga Kokhlova speaking from beyond the grave. Death gives her an ironic distance from her lifetime experience and the ability to enjoy cursing and complaining about a Picasso already, she is certain, burning in hell. Picasso's first wife, Olga was a Russian aristocrat and former ballerina who gave the already famous painter what he lacked, an entree into the worlds of culture and money. But, like those who followed her, she was quickly replaced in his bed, and like the others, she realised early on that she could accurately gauge her rise and fall in his affections by the number of paintings and sketches he did of her. Unlike some of the others Olga had the energy and confidence to fight back, using his one legitimate child and a prenuptial agreement effectively. And it is those qualities of energy, intelligence and wit that Fitzgerald captures in a performance that doesn't evoke any sympathy or pity because we are never permitted to think of her as a loser. Gerald Berkowitz

Picasso's Women: Francoise Assembly
The fourth in Brian McAvera's quartet of solo plays about Picasso's Women, this portrait of Francoise Gilot is built on ironic echoes of the Ariadne myth, Francoise seeing herself as the artist's would-be salvation who was abandoned when no longer useful. As played by Amanda Harris, Francoise is a no-nonsense realist who set her cap for Picasso in the 1940s with an eye on his potential as art teacher and boost to her career as well as lover. Through the decade of their relationship art and sex blended, as watching Picasso paint became arousing and love-making a creative act. For all her clearheadedness Francoise still missed the sexism inherent in Picasso's sexiness and was startled to run against the limits he set to her role in his life. Harris's performance is, for the most part, external and mechanical, describing from afar rather than recreating, and too often falls into the dispassionate cadences of an author reading from her works. Only in brief flashes, as when she relives the excitement of watching Picasso create, does she evocatively convey a real human experience. Gerald Berkowitz

Picasso's Women: Jacqueline Assembly
As Jacqueline Roque, Picasso's last mistress, Susannah York portrays a woman who was born to be an idol worshipper, and whose choice of Picasso was an accident of history, as she happened to find herself in the same town as he after leaving her husband. In Brian McAvera's script, Jacqueline's excitement at meeting Gary Cooper later in life shows that her history might have been different if she had gone to Hollywood instead of France. We encounter Jacqueline on the day of her suicide in 1986, and in the opening moments an almost ethereal York communicates subtly that this is a woman loosening her ties with life. Where Amanda Harris's Francoise is resentful and Geraldine Fitzgerald's Olga ironic, York's Jacqueline savours a memory of proud and fulfilling devotion. She met Picasso just as he was becoming bored with Francoise, and coolly set out to displace her by making herself useful to the painter, in the studio, in business and in bed -- although, like some of the others, she was far more thrilled to be painted than to be bedded. York is very sparing in allowing momentary hints of the unhealthy, masochistic depth of Jacqueline's commitment , to give the monologue a darker tinge and prepare us for the realisation that she has nothing more to live for. Indeed, the subtle underplaying of the entire monologue gives it a uniquely haunting quality. Gerald Berkowitz

Poet In New York C
Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre offers this solo show attempting to capture in mime, dance and speech the essence of Federico Garcia Lorca's life-changing 1929 visit to New York City. Dito van Reigersberg plays Lorca and a number of other figures, ranging from Salvadore Dali, through a Harlem blues singer, to the ghost of Walt Whitman. I know it's Whitman solely because I read the press release afterwards, since nothing in the show identifies him. Indeed, the piece is filled with scenes and allusions that only make sense if you have read the press release or have an encyclopedic knowledge of Lorca's life and works. Otherwise, the play's many biographical and poetic references will remain as opaque as much of its visual imagery, such as the substitution of a pail of water for Lorca's suitcases. Van Reigersberg's acting and mime are rudimentary, giving no real sense of characters or relationships. The occasional mime effect is evocative, as when a walk through Manhattan is played as the fearful inching along a high building ledge. But little in the hour offers any insight into the poet ot the performer's private symbolism.Gerald Berkowitz

Puss In Boots Netherbow
Poor old Numpty. His dad has had to close the family bakery because there's not enough demand for cream cakes and now Numpty has to seek his fortune in the big wide world. But lucky him, here's sly Puss in Boots to help out. And Puss soon finds himself, courtesy of his Magic Smelly Boots, not only filling the pockets of the hapless baker's son but playing matchmaker too, since the King's daughter has suddenly expressed a love interest. The only question that now remains is how Numpty will win the kingdom, marry the Princess and live happily ever after. Of course we've seen it all before, but there is so much gentle irony in this wonderfully stripped-down tale from Ian Turbitt's Puppet Theatre that you are captivated throughout via the visual gags and dry Glaswegian verbal humour. Highly entertaining, this one-man show operates on several levels, playing as much to the adults as to the younger and older children, while elaborating on a plot that the whole family can follow to its happy ending. Nick Awde

Ram Vodou Band Pleasance
There's more to Haiti than Graham Greene, voodoo dolls and boat people, and here's proof in the shape of the Ram Vodou Band. The secret recipe is a fusion of Haitian rhythms with a western format topped off by Caribbean harmonies - stand-out track is Ibo Lele, a compelling Latin chant over driving rhythms. But can you really dance to it? Is God an Englishman? You bet. Every tune gets feet tapping and on the first chord of Carnival the entire audience was ordered into the dance space to shake their thing. This extraordinary multi-sectioned piece raised the Mas spirit, broken only for a mass singing lesson in Creole. Singers Lunies Morse and Roseline Desir front the 12-piece band and provide slick moves and vibrant vocals, while the sumtuous costumes give your eyes something to do while the rest of you follows your hips. This is one of those impossibly rare concerts where drum solos are not only welcomed but encouraged. For the finale, more musicians bounded on stage to create a mini RaRa - Haiti's gleefully anarchic horn and percussion street parade - that danced through the audience by way of exit. Nick Awde

Rum & Vodka/The Good Thief Assembly Rooms
These two monologues by Conor McPherson share his signature capacity for creating fully dimensional characters and for capturing the telling detail or psychological quirk that gives reality to a moment. Unfortunately, they also share a desperate need for an editor's scissors, since each is twice as long as it should be, losing its momentum and straining the abilities of the actors. In the first, a personable young man played by Alan Mooney tells how the burdens of marriage and respectibility drove him into self-destructive alcoholism, culminating in a monumental binge of drink and sex. The particular strength of the piece lies in the fact that the character is always aware that he really has no excuse for his abominable behaviour, so his most self-justifying or self-pitying moments are undercut by an ironic distance. The weakness of the piece lies in its formless, shaggy dog story quality, rambling on with no real structure for an hour when it could have been a brilliant tightly-constructed half-hour gem. Mooney's repeated flubs and general tentativeness suggest a difficulty sustaining concentration over the rhythmless and momentumless length. Much the same could be said of the second piece, in which a hard man (Brendan Fleming) recounts a scare-the-guy episode that escalated unexpectedly into a shoot-out, an inadvertant kidnapping, and a series of violent reprisals. Once again the piece's strengths -- notably the throwaway bits of instantly recognizible psychology -- are dissipated in its rhythmless episodic structure. Once again the actor has to struggle to sustain a reality that was very effectively established in the first few minutes.
Gerald Berkowitz

Safe Delivery Dynamic Earth
At first glance there is not a lot going in the oomph stakes for Safe Delivery - it all looks just a wee bit, well, safe. Yet another 'science' play, yet another scenario of bright young thing jolting her jaded peers into redeeming themselves - plus Hawkwind on the soundtrack. Yet by the end of Tom McGrath's play it is clear a remarkable transformation of these basic elements has transpired. A doctorate student joins a lab team researching genetic delivery techniques to destroy cancer cells. Quicker than she can get her petri dishes out, everyone has their agenda on the test-bench where commercial interests jostle thwarted ambitions and humanity takes a backburner. Directed sensitively by Nicholas Bone, Irene Allan and Jay Manley shine as feisty postgraduate and golden-hearted lab nerd, no less ably supported by Mary McCusker, Greg Powrie and Robin Thomson. The theory is surprisingly easy to follow, while an effective video narrative from a hospital patient provides a moody backdrop. Dramatically and personally moving, particularly if you've watched someone of similar age who's very close to you die - Allan's stunning, heart-rending bedside scene says it all. West End stuff this, with a bit of work. Film On Four, better. Nick Awde

Sensible Haircuts Pleasance
The university revue -- witty, erudite sketches and parodies by people destined for BBC careers -- had its heyday in the 1970s and, like most things in life, hasn't been as good as it used to be. But the current Cambridge Footlights show may signal a new upswing in undergraduate comedy. Not strictly a revue -- it has a plot of sorts -- it strings together a gaggle of very funny bits, performed by a first-rate cast. It opens with a bizarre situation involving garden gnomes, bras, midget dentists, haircuts and unconscious bodies, and then flashes back to fill in the highly unlikely back story. Along the way we get a delightfully wicked parody of the TV game show Countdown, and glancing blows at Harry Potter, assertiveness training, and stories from that day's newspaper. We also get a particularly impressive modular set, which is as versitile and clever as the cast. Really laugh-out-loud funny stuff, with real invention behind it. If you hear an old fogy like me going on about what Footlights used to be like, go see this. Gerald Berkowitz

Shakespeare For Breakfast C
This popular Fringe perennial is a new-each-year revue on Shakespearean themes, usually involving a premise like characters from various plays rebelling because they want to be in each other's shoes, or offering to inspire a blocked Shakespeare with their creative input. This year's premise is a troupe of pretentious tragedians offering straight excerpts from the plays, but getting confused as their characters blend into their offstage personalites until the company is torn apart by Othello jealousy, Helena-Hermia feuding and the like, so that by the time they get to Hamlet they all have murder in their hearts. A potentially clever idea, but the balance is off, with too much of the relatively straight playing of the scenes and too little humour, making this one of the weakest installments in years. As always, free coffee and croissants are served at this morning show. Gerald Berkowitz

Sincerity C
In Peter Morris's frequently clever satire of showbiz, a bashful male stripper and a talking mime, both talentless but convinced they are great artists, put on a dreadful show that is mistaken for cutting-edge performance art, and become superstars.Along the way they cajole, befuddle and eventually co-opt their aged manager, an archetypal New York Jew whose other clients include a singing dog and the Polynesian Beatles. Morris writes some very funny dialogue in the Woody Allen - Jackie Mason mould for himself as the manager, though his delivery is not quite up to the writing.. The pretentiously bad acts of his clients come perilously close to transcending satire and just being bad, and could benefit from some cutting. The satire is uneven and scattershot, but hits its targets more often than not.Gerald Berkowitz

Sodom Hill Street
It is said that notorious Restoration rake Lord Rochester wrote all or part of Sodom (Or the Quintessance of Debauchery), a title that leaves little to the imagination. This thrusting production from Sophistical Theatre, however, more than rises to the occasion. The tale is told in 1670s doggerel of King Bolloxinian of Sodom who tires of his wife Queen Cuntigratia's favours. On General Buggeranthus' counsel, he ordains that for sex his male subjects may take the pleasures only of buggery with other men. It's bottoms up for the realm from then on, and a million merkins away from Carry On! territory. Beyond that I have no idea what transpires so instead I revelled in the direct beauty of language and metaphors lurking beneath the scatological couplets. Nudity is graphic but momentary, while dildos abound. The ten-strong cast work hard, enjoying the task in hand and, in homage to the multi-facetted 17th century, each brings a talent to their character in the shape of a fine singing voice, a bent for the bawdy or a singularly gifted leer. More than a historical oddity or schoolboy snigger, this blast from the past romp shows nothing changes, least of all humour. Not for the aurally prudish. Nick Awde

Ian Stone: A Little Piece Of Kike Assembly Rooms
As his title suggests, Stone is a self-depreciating Jewish comedian in the general mold of the early Woody Allen, though without Allen's quiet confidence. His material ranges over familiar topics: a Jewish wedding, football hooligans, road rage, his family and a sick cat. Though not much new ground is explored, a lot of the jokes along the way show an invented and satisfyingly twisted comic imagination. A sequence on songs forbidden on hospital radios is clever, as is a comparison of religions that ends with sympathy for Icelandic Muslims at Ramadan. As a performer, Stone gives the unfortunate impression of nervousness. He jumps from topic to topic rapidly and with little transition, as if afraid that he is losing us. On this particular night he did not cope well with a relatively small audience and a not particularly hostile heckler. With more faith in his material, he could develop a smaller number of topics more fully, and in the process keep confident control over the hour. Gerald Berkowitz

Soul Survivor Southside
This song-and-speech piece was devised by Lee Beagley as a showcase for singer-actress Paula Simms of Kaboodle Productions. Nominally the memoirs of a fictional singer, it takes her from her north-of-England roots to a journey through America and American music. Simms alternates spoken sections with songs in a very wide variety of styles, from country rock through New York City cocktail music and Rodgers and Hart. The musical backbone of the piece, though, is the blues in its various forms. The basic story is a familiar one of a girl falling in love with the music, finding her way to America and encountering the hardness of the business, but repeatedly rediscovering and being reinspired by the music. The performance, however, has a perfunctory, phoned-in quality, as Simms rattles through the spoken parts at top speed and sings most of the songs with little feeling or engagement with the audience. Musical backing by Andy Frizell and George Ricci is first rate, and provides some of the fire the central performance lacks. Gerald Berkowitz

Susan And Janice: I Hate My Sister Pleasance
Scratch around in this year's blitzkrieg of C-word stand-ups and loutish lad's revues and you'll find other comic jewels that are just as uncompromising but gleefully free of line-crossing fads. Take Susan Earl and Janice Phayre. In I Hate My Sister they're the classic duo: happy and pretty (Susan), and bitter and ugly (Janice). What transpires for the next hour could be mistaken for pure comedy were it not for the niggling thought every other gag that it could so easily be your own family on parade. Snapshots from the family album at every age and rite of passage come fast and furious. Via their Anglo-Irish background, sex-obsessed nuns figure largely as aunts and teachers. Mother provides a bizarre sex chat with warnings to never use 'The Finger'. A lecherous uncle judges a toddler's beauty contest. Sisterly rivalry bleeds sweetly from every exchange - Susan's vomit-making interpretation puts Janice off taking First Communion while Janice ruthlessly lampoons Susan's physical dance tendences. Underneath the throwaway lines and quick-change scenes set to dodgy eighties classics, there's a razor-sharp humour, and the seemingly episodic sketches are neatly tied up by the time the sizzling sisters dance out to take their bow. Joan and Bette couldn't have done better. Nick Awde

Theater Clipa: Wanted Pleasance
Unsure how to intrepret this one for you. So I'll pontificate a little until something strikes me. Successful physical theatre rests on two pillars: story and concept. In Wanted, an episodic offering from Israel's Theater Clipa, there is no story I could discern, just a beginning and end with a few mangled chapters in between. The piece fares slightly better in the concept stakes but even this barely hangs together. The first scenes concern a man in an office where the symbolism reeks of post-cataclysm and bureacratic hell (what else?). Naturally the papers on his desk will give him later cause for concern. A love scene follows reminiscent of sci-fi Ken Russell. Greybeards straight off a Jaffa street bicker in shadow-play. Then suddenly things pick up and a feast of searing images fills the final 15 minutes: a gravity-defying inverted dance of two lovers parted, a human form transforming itself from floating cinders into a bewitching constellation. Something's really cooking and you rather hope this is the real start of the show. I suspect this may be an 'edited highlights' version of a larger production specially adapted for the Fringe. But then why not tell us? Nick Awde

Thunderstruck Traverse
Subtitled the Song of the Say-Sayer, Canadian One Yellow Rabbit's demented gothic tale of backwoods orphans weaves its way through the metal frame of their house from which pulley sheaves are suspended like a gibbet. Here three brothers await the return of their sister from her travels as a bar singer. But when she is instead dumped on their doorstep a catatonic wreck, the siblings decide to care for her at home and construct a strange Œmachine' to help move her around. Unsurprisingly, the attention is soon attracted of the authorities, who disapprove of this unusual care plan, and of the public, who see mystical potential in the invalid's ability to glow. Daniel Danis' script and Denise Clarke's staging are extraordinary in the way they combine to reflect thematic patterns. Particularly striking is the way words and movement unite then cascade echo-like in out of synch waves. If you saw The House of Pooksie Plunkett, also from Canada, you'll know what I mean when I say the kids have grown up but life hasn't turned out to be any better. Utterly compulsive viewing from a company that's second to none. Which means I'm going to have to actually buy a ticket to see it again. Nick Awde

Tortoisehead In The Alans Have Landed Gilded Balloon
Think The 11 O'Clock Show, think Smack the Pony. Now imagine they're actually funny. Shuffle them together and what have you got? Hey presto, Tortoisehead. In fact it comes as no surprise to find two writers for these TV shows lurking in this young and talented sketch team. Served up in dollops is an all-reaching humour unencumbered by today's trend for yawnsome in-jokes about of-the-moment TV shows, pop stars or Geri Halliwell. There's the stalker service for stars too busy to find their own, the hamster celeb agency, Adolf Hitler running a laundrette and, my favourite, TV spoof Satan on Sunday. Running themes include the eponymous Alans - real ale-swilling countryfolk of the Titchmarsh variety plotting world domination - and the hypochondriac compulsive liar who loses the use of vital organs to avoid chores. For sheer presence Tamsin Hollo towers first amongst her equals, Pippa Hinchley, Paul Jones, Nick Milton and Gemma Rigg, all of whom excel in the dark arts of wicked parody. A satisfyingly slick laughter machine. Nick Awde

The Unbearable Truth About Hats Gilded Balloon
This four-person show offers the kind of bizarre, off-several-walls comedy that the Fringe has been missing since the early days of undergraduate revues. Fast-paced, absolutely unpredictable from minute to minute, and likely to turn a corner into some alternative reality without notice, it sets a standard few others can approach. The basic premise has a time-travelling assassin, after bumping off Hitler, encountering a cowardly would-be suicide who hires her to do the job for him by killing one of his ancestors. The journey takes us past a whip-wielding bridge-builder, Roman conspirators wearing clown noses, a bad guy in a tutu and a stuffed cat who is God's enforcer of the Ten Commandments. Without warning a psychiatrist is likely to grumble about all the nutters he meets, a dim-witted henchman will discover the delights of lying, or someone will break into dance or a fit of mooing. Shameless puns vie with surreal invention for laughter that is almost continuous, making this a major delight.Gerald Berkowitz

Viv & Jill: If We Knew You Were Coming Gilded Balloon
Jill Peacock bounces on and informs the audience that Viv can't make it. Something muttered about a sudden case of fame and fortune south of the border. We'll have to put up with just Jill instead. Then Susanne Fraser pops in with a pint of milk and, quick as a sporran snapping shut at the approach of a Big Issue seller, Jill has coerced her hapless mate into becoming a stand-in stand-up. From this point things degenerate into unadulterated larger than life chaos where the rulebook for audience participation is ripped up and rewritten. Freeflowing themes range from singularly Scottish (how to save on a wedding gift list) to more international vistas (novel uses for a Corr). A short rumination on how festival arse can ruin your chances of a festival shag particularly sticks in the mind, as does a long tirade against Michael Flatley which would be litigious if it weren't so funny. Showstopper is Jill's lapdancing spot - provoked by a lack of contributions to the collection bowl for her not to. The girls get their wits out for the laughs and though the humour may be cheaper than a Poundsaver, they hit gold in the comedy department. Nick Awde

The War Of The War Of The Worlds Augustine's
Two city girls in the country run out of gas near the home of two hick brothers. They are welcomed in and, as they get to know each other, the radio interrupts with news of invaders from Mars. Yep - it's Hallowe'een 1938 and Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds spoof is spreading panic. Convinced the broadcast is true, alternately poignant and hilarious scenarios develop as the four prepare for their last night on earth. The scene where they write down their three greatest wishes is unnervingly funny, prompting such immortal lines as 'Oh come on - it's the end of the world, let's have sex!' Adam Pepper's enthralling play creates the fascinating premise of the audience watching the performers listening to the radio talking to the rest of the world - while the irony is not lost that in reality it is scripted drama on the wireless. Such layering is also effectively mirrored by running scenes concurrently using offstage dialogue interleaved with that of the characters left in view. Impossible to separate this tight ensemble for individual praise, Pepper (who also directs), Darryl Clark, Julie Mayhew and Sally Robinson not only excel technically but understand that teamwork equals entertainment. Nick Awde

The White Crane Garage Chapiteau
Admittedly it's a whopping generalisation, but European-style puppet shows for kids fall along three broad themes: East European (old crones, cabbages, forests, king who gets his come-uppance), African (noble savages, drums, ancestral spirits, baobab tree, shape-changing animals), and Japanese (dissonant kotos, shape-changing animals, pure woman, demon, kimonos). The White Crane falls into the last category (minus demon). A crane, grateful to the man who has rescued her, returns unbeknownst to him in human form to become his wife. Pressurised by her greedy mother-in-law, the crane-wife weaves a cloth for her husband to sell to the local rulers. Complications ensue. Theatre du Risorius' stage is beautifully crafted, the puppets even more so. The puppeteers find natural folds in the traditional costumes to create wonderfully natural movement for each character. But like so many other shows of its ilk, this was clearly written for the adult performers themselves and not for the recommended audience. Kids will watch anything their parents take them to, provided they have the appropriate supply of edibles plus bench space to stretch out on. But even if it's edutainment, don't give them zen, give them dragons. Nick Awde

White Men With Weapons Pleasance
Armed with just a script, a lone performer takes on the entire army of pre-Mandela South Africa as writer and actor Greig Coetzee attacks both flanks of a hellish boot camp for training teenagers to kill rebels in the desert. There's the staff: a captain instructing how to fill forms in triplicate, a mad Anglican chaplain, an NCO who swears fluently in Afrikaans and English yet can barely pronounce the words 'training manual'. And there are the recruits themselves: murderous, mad, gay, voortrekker, conscientious. It doesn't seem to matter which - just whatever helps you survive the machine. Coetzee's gifted characterisations, deftly directed by Garth Anderson, create a living record of the defenders of Camp Apartheid, peppered with wit as dry as the Kalahari, while the conscript's description of being sent into the veldt once trained is sheer poetry. If you're looking for an epitaph for the white state of South Africa, look no further than this biting, multi-layered masterpiece. A word of advice for Fringegoers: sightlines are terrible in an understandably awkward space for anyone not in the front three rows or balcony. Nick Awde

A Woman In Waiting Assembly
Oh no, not another one-person bio-show from a remarkable woman with a story to tell, I hear you cry. Well yes, since you ask, and it's rather good. In a career that has taken her from the original production of Ipi Tombi to a role in Spielberg's Deep Impact, Thembi Mtshali has a performing pedigree that's longer than the Queen Mum's gin tab. But she also comes from humble beginnings loaded murderously against her attaining anything more than her mother's status of betrodden household menial. Through words and song, using the minimum of props and costumes to Tardis-like effect, Mtshali retraces her life as a gradual awakening from a childhood of apartheid-inspired slumber to the release of a life unfettered on the international stage. With Yael Farber as co-writer, Mtshali takes the format to new heights. Her achievements are second to none but because she's no over-exposed celeb, her personality is enabled to propel her story, instead of vice-versa - and that's the secret behind any autobiography that has aspirations to truly reach out. To judge from this middle of the week crowd's reaction, it'll be standing ovations only. Nick Awde

The Zero Yard Garage
Imagine an episode of Oz (Prisoner on Cell Block H on acid) penned by Hannibal Lecter. Throw in overtones of political and sexual repression. Now shut yourself in a black box with it. Sit back and enjoy. This may give you a small idea of the territory covered in The Zero Yard - the latest foray from The Riot Group which is as headbangingly compelling as ever. A new arrival to the high security wing of a prison arouses the other inmates. Banged up for murder and worse, their paranoia unleashes a torrent of confrontations to dominate her as suspicions rage that she is really a stool pigeon. When they can't physically get at her - or each other - their voices from the locked cells wreak added damage as a baleful screw broods over them like Lucifer. The lines of a baseball square delineate the exercise yard, the work area, the cells, all under harsh lighting that blinds performers and observers alike as if dangerously close to the perimeter wall. Through these constrictions seep tendrils of violence that seek out weaknesses as if sentient. Not to everyone's taste - nor can it ever be - I settled back and nostalgically thought of prep school. Nick Awde


(Some of these reviews appeared previously in The Stage)

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Reviews - Edinburgh Festival - 2000