EDINBURGH 2001
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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

EDINBURGH 2001

We reviewed more than 150 shows at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. Although originally on several pages, we've combined them for this archive. They're in alphabetical order, so look for individual shows or just browse.

Acoustic Strawbs Assembly Rooms
Crafting in-yer-face melodies with an alarmingly high political content since the late sixties, folk-rock group The Strawbs are now out on the road in acoustic form - which means founder members Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and Brian Willoughby fronting a trio of guitars and the odd burst of dulcimer. Their huge roster of songs cuts across all barriers whether it's Cousins' soaring vocals or Lambert and Willoughby's duelling cutaways. This is how their songs were originally written, and in many ways it's how they sound best - sweet and raw. If you're a fan, don't go expecting an array of golden oldies like Union Man, just a confident band still pushing the envelope of music. If they're undiscovered territory to you, hurry on down to experience some of the most instantly accessible tunesters in the business. An unmissable, magical evening. Nick Awde

Adult Child/Dead Child Gilded Balloon
Claire Dowie's fringe staple is given a strong and emotionally powerful reading in this performance by Lara Marland, who captures all of the piece's poignancy and horror through versatile and instantly characterising transformations. The monologue of a woman whose loveless childhood led to the creation of an invisible friend that eventually dominated her in a schizophrenic embodiment of her repressed anger, Dowie's piece requires the actress to show us a pain the child can't verbalise while also gradually exposing the adult narrator's continuing mental and emotional scars. Under Chris Garner's direction, Marland uses her expressive face and frightened eyes to movingly convey the confusion of a child whose normal behaviour is labelled unacceptable by adults, and whose coping mechanisms only carry her further away from any sense of control over her fate. A battered steamer trunk serves as her only prop, alternately a symbol of burden, entrapment and escape. As expressive as Marland's performance is in the childhood sections, it is when she shows us the adult struggling for a mental and emotional stability which will always be only a compromise with her demons that the most subtly moving moments of her performance come. Gerald Berkowitz

Antigone Assembly Rooms
Jean Anouilh's 1944 rendering of Sophocles' tragedy is not only a searing indictment of how history tramples the individual, it also happens to be a damn fine play. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this heart-rendingly human version from the republic of Georgia. In stripping the story down, Marjanishvili Theatre's production is all the more powerful for its understatement. Nato Murvanidze's Antigone is a headstrong young woman whose insistence on burying her slain brother pushes the tolerance of her uncle Creon (Otar Megvinetukhutsesi). Usually the villain of the piece, Creon is here transformed into a fiercely private and domestic man who wants it all to go away, while Gia Burjanadze's Chorus is now a supportive figure rather than a herald of doom, retainer to a tightly bonded family despite the terrible rifts. Handy headphones provide simultaneous translation from Georgian, but really you don't need them if you already know the plot. Just sit back and appreciate the rich sounds of the language and seamless performances. Although I must question the wisdom of programming so dark a tragedy in a foreign tongue - the same cast doing Romeo and Juliet would certainly carry far more international currency - all kudos to the Assembly Rooms for again providing an exciting opportunity to catch the cream of Georgian theatre. Nick Awde

Brian Appleton - Let's Look at Sound Pleasance
He wrote the first ever prog rock song three months before the Moody Blues ripped him off, and he's been half-inched by every star in modern popular music since, leaving him eking out a miserable existence as a suspended part-time lecturer in media studies. Ah, but Brian Appleton still has his first love, music. And the means to produce it (tape-to-tape and digital). And so, in between recounting the sorry tale of how wife Wendy is leaving him for another man, he riffs through the intricacies of the recording process, involving ditties of his own composition and found noises generated from the audience. The unsettling thing is that the facts that he reels off to make us laugh are in fact just that, facts. Sound waves of seven cycles per second really do kill people. There really was a French factory that was uniwttingly emitting them. Twenty-seven really was an optimum age for sixties rock stars to depart for the great gig in the sky. It's even cleverer than it looks and is ridiculously addictive. Approach with great caution unless in possession of the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. Nick Awde

Penny Arcade Gilded Balloon II
The New York performance artist known as Penny Arcade offers a program that is part stand-up, part reminiscence and part Speakers Corner rant. The mixture is disconcerting and disorienting, and only the fact that her soundman always knows when to come in with the music cues prevents the suspicion that she has occasionally lost the plot and begun to ramble incoherently. The backbone of her piece is regret and outrage at the ways Manhattan's sub-bohemian Lower East Side has become gentrified, but this takes her from simple satire of airheaded Midwesterners let loose in New York to real anger at the mores, and particularly the political correctness, of a neo-conservative younger generation. She jumps between topics and levels of discourse without warning or transition, an insightful deflation of Jack Kerouac's myth followed instantly by petty complaints about dog owners, an extended monologue in the voice of a transvestite heroin addict sandwiched between slim jokes about alien abductions or the menopause. By the time she closes with a 30-years-too-late screed of outrage at the song Aquarius, any pretence of actually entertaining an audience has long since been abandoned, as we have merely been held hostage for an hour to her pet peeves and obsessions. Gerald Berkowitz

As It Is In Heaven Assembly Rooms
Arlene Hutton's lovely little play is set in the women's quarters of a Shaker community, one of the religious sects based on a simple life that flourished in 19th century America. Between spontaneous bursts of hymn singing, the women go about their domestic tasks with the joy that comes from the conviction they are doing God's work. Most of the play is low-key and gentle in its effect, as we get to know the women as individuals and learn, for example, that many joined the community the way medieval women joined convents, because they were widows or orphans with no place else to go, and that faith developed afterwards. We joy for an imbittered woman whose children had all died, as she slowly comes out of her shell, and we take pleasure along with a couple who indulge themselves by singing in forbidden (because too ornate) harmony. A plot is generated when some of the younger sisters start having visions, threatening the complacency of the elders, but the crisis is resolved (as it evidently actually was, historically) by absorbing the new mysticism into the religion. A gentle, quietly moving piece, very much an ensemble production, it is far more satisfying than many more melodramatic works. Gerald Berkowitz

Ay, Carmela! Traverse
Excellent cast, set, production, play... what could go wrong? Well, unfortunately the translation is leaden, one of the actors has made the fatal choice to direct and the rest simply topples into a well co-ordinated mess. Set in the Spanish Civil War, this is a phenomenally powerful and yet exuberant story of a music hall troupe summoned by the Fascists to give a final performance for the Republican POWs they'll execute the next day. It provides a grisly backdrop for unexpected humour and great zarzuela routines. Yet there's little concept of thirties Spain as depicted in Jose Sanchis Sinisterra's original, robbing us of a denouement, while contrast dissolves between offstage scenes and the show for the condemned men. The manipulative Paulino is played like a bit-part from a bad Carry On and the fiery Carmela becomes a drab kitchen sink monotone. Such holes in characterisation mean that most opportunities for humour are lost. About as informative as Franco's shrivelled bollocks and about as Spanish as Ikea (funnily enough, if you close your eyes it is a perfect radio piece). But this review is as futile as Carmela's mad stand for liberty. The plaudits will rain in and bums will eagerly fill seats to overflowing - because this is precisely how Middle England/Scotland/wherever likes to see its funny foreign plays done. Nick Awde

The Bald Prima Donna Komedia Roman Eagle Lodge
Asylum Theatre Company reinvents Ionesco's classic of absurdism into a two-handed tour-de-force of acting and direction that is a total delight. The play itself offers the ultimately inventive exploitation of language's ability to be divorced entirely from meaning. Characters tell each other things they already know, a whole family is named Bobby Watson, a couple struggle very hard to prove logically that they know each other, and stories are told that are grammatically impeccable but make no sense. To this linguistic razzle-dazzle, director Ali Robertson has added the wild card of having only one actor and one actress in the play. The very British Smiths, the mousy Martins, the cockney maid and the blokish fire chief are all played by Geraldine O'Grady and Donal Gallagher, sometimes all at once, with instant transformations and totally distinct characterizations that are a marvel of versatility and of mutual trust and support. Those who know the play will rediscover it in this new production, while those who don't can still be thrilled by the performers' high energy and total control. Of course all the fun ultimately doesn't mean anything, but in the case of Ionesco one can confidently assert that it isn't supposed to. Gerald Berkowitz

BecauseHeCan Drummond Theatre
This is a really bad play, further evidence, if such were needed, that Arthur Kopit was a one trick pony when he wrote Oh Dad Poor Dad forty years ago (Well, maybe two tricks ­ Indians was OK). In this one a successful New York couple find their lives taken over and rewritten by a vindictive computer hacker, and that's the whole thing. We're not made to particularly care about the couple, or to understand the hacker; and there isn't much of a point beyond warning us of the danger that this might happen to us. Aside from being a weak story, it's bad theatre: we are told everything and shown nothing, with the majority of the play devoted to simple exposition of a plot we never see acted out. Meanwhile, there are obvious borrowings from a variety of other plays, most obviously Zooman and the Sign, in having the villain wander about the edges of the story addressing the audience. Anyway, it's a bad play, and the usually polished University of Southern California company can do nothing with it, in a production that has no pacing, no believability, no reality. A real one-to-miss. Gerald Berkowitz

Bed Among the Lentils Pleasance
This revival of Nichola McAuliffe's performance in an Alan Bennett Talking Heads piece, first seen in Watford last year, is a rich and deeply satisfying late addition to the fringe programme. McAuliffe has explored the role of the mousy vicar's wife who gradually confesses both alcoholism and infidelity so that she can now present every nuance of the deceptively simple monologue's complex emotions. Starting from a cheery irony toward her husband's stuffiness and various colourful parish characters, she hints ever so slightly at an underlying unhappiness, so that you could easily miss the first mentions of visits to the off-license. A hilarious episode of tipsy flower-arranging seems the exposure of the play's big secret, making the second revelation of trysts with an Indian grocer all the more surprising to first-time audiences. The intimate setting of a fringe venue gives McAuliffe the opportunity to employ much quieter and more subtle acting than in a large theatre, as when she realises that she has inadvertently insulted her lover, and her face is a rapidly changing mask that flashes from shock to pain to shame to deepest grief. In an entirely different league from most fringe theatre, the play displays the outstanding sensitivity and skill of both author and actress.
Gerald Berkowitz

Bedbound Traverse
Enda Walsh's two-character play is extremely bizarre, so much so that it could very easily alienate audiences or, when its pieces finally come together, stun them to the point of not being able to appreciate its considerable virtues. It is a remarkable piece of work, emotionally draining and mind-bending, and also a vehicle for two powerful performances. It is really difficult to describe without spoiling its effect. In a tiny room, barely big enough to hold a bed, we see a girl who seems either retarded or mad, and an older man who is clearly obsessed. In alternating monologues she describes a nightmare existence, while he proudly tells of rising from stockboy to owner of his company. And here's where I've got to get vague: he tells us things that make us suddenly realise that she is not mad, but has been sanely describing an insane situation that he insanely created. The revelations, which may come in too much of a rush to be absorbed, are really mind-blowing. Meanwhile, under the author's direction, Liam Carney and Norma Sheahan give two intense and overpowering performances. Gerald Berkowitz

David Benson - To Be Frank Pleasance Dome
Like his earlier show on Kenneth Williams, David Benson's exploration of Frankie Howerd is part imitation, part attempt to understand himself through parallels to the late comedian. As in the Williams show, Benson is at his strongest when talking of himself, somehow channelling his model without direct imitation. In this loosely-scripted performance, Benson invites audience reminiscences of Howerd and uses them in his search for a point of contact by which he can identify with the figure he can so easily imitate externally. He finds it in the up-and-down nature of both their careers, his own having languished after the brief glory of his Williams show. And so, when he imagines his own comeback at a gay benefit, we sense Howerd's unhappiness, egotism, obsessive preparation and ambiguity about his own sexuality creeping into Benson's self-portrait. Many performers can do imitation-based tributes to others. Benson's special gift is the ability to absorb his subject into himself, so that Benson-being-Benson ultimately captures more of Frankie Howerd's essence than Benson-doing-Howerd. Gerald Berkowitz

Berkoff's Hell and Dostoevsky's Dream of a Ridiculous Man Hill Street
George Dillon has made career choices, in his repertoire and his performance style, that doom him to forever live in the shadow of Steven Berkoff. It is almost as if a fine singer chose a career as an Elvis impersonator, as one can hardly appreciate Dillon's considerable talent when all one can see is B-grade Berkoff. Without the open joy of performing that Berkoff brings to his acting, Dillon is rather glum at best, and a programme of two dark works about would-be suicides is pretty heavy going. Hell, the monologue of a man sinking into the unbearable pain of loneliness, is performed in near-darkness. Dillon sits in almost motionless profile as his amplified voice seems disassociated from his body, creating a portrait more of emotional deadness than of unbearable anguish. The Dostoevsky gives him the opportunity to be more active and varied in his presentation, as this despairing madman has a vision that carries him through renewed hope, sudden guilt and then renewed dedication to life in a complex emotional journey. In both pieces, the intensity of Dillon's performance is impressive, and were it not that one always sees the ghost of his model doing it so much better (I hate to keep harping on this point, but he does bring it on himself), it would be overpowering. Gerald Berkowitz

Berkoff's Women Assembly Rooms (Reviewed at a previous Fringe)
Linda Marlowe, who has created most of Steven Berkoff's female roles, brings two decades of experience and understanding to this delightfully larger-than-life programme of excerpts. From the uncensored sexuality of Helen in Decadence, its obscenity purified by her innocent self-delight, to Clytemnestra pausing in her murderous anger to weep for the victims of war, Marlowe's instant characterisations are fully formed and overwhelming in their intensity. All one's favourite set pieces are here - Doris on family love in the cinema, the Sphinx spitting out her contempt of men, Helen reliving a fox hunt. On a more subdued note, the short story From My Point of View offers a sensitive portrait of a woman who settles for a small life because that's all that's on offer. Josie Lawrence's direction anchors the characterisations in a realism that contrasts with Berkoff's usual highly stylized mode, and thus helps give Marlowe's performance a warmth and depth that are a revelation. Gerald Berkowitz

Best of Scottish Comedy The Stand
With mediocre comics charging twice as much for shorter shows elsewhere, the Stand's offer of three comics for £6 is definite value-for-money. The mix changes from time to time, with MC Jane Mackay the constant. A brassy, confident comic, Mackay quickly gets the audience warmed up with a series of pro-Scottish and anti-English jokes, establishing her north-of-the-border credentials so she can later poke fun at Scottish targets as well. Her subjects - fat, sex, drink and the boredom of highland village life - may be predictable, but she attacks them with energy. Frankie Boyle is a young comedian with a boyish charm and cheeriness that immediately get the audience on his side. Like many others, he picks on individuals in the audience, with fast-thinking responses to hometowns and jobs, and insults that never go too far. Prepared material includes a witty take on the sex advice in women's magazines and the image of Geordie polar explorers. The artist known as Vladimir McTavish has to work somewhat harder to win the audience over, with fulminations against immigrant beggars taking work away from Scots not quite registering. It isn't until he gets onto safer, more conventional territory like alcohol that he scores, though he is to be commended for attempting riskier material with inventive paedophile and IRA jokes. Gerald Berkowitz

Susan Black - The World's Gone Mad! CO2
Susan Black's solo show gives the singer-comedienne the opportunity to display both her impressive vocal range and her seriously warped sense of humour to audience-delighting effect. Presenting a string of characterisations, from addled 1920s movie star, through alcoholic 50s pop singer, to Pavarotti-sized opera diva, Black displays a finely-toned ear for parody along with a voice that is likely to leap an octave without warning and the best falsetto tremolo since Tiny Tim. She is also likely to take each character into an unanticipatable direction, either comically or musically, as when the film star sings of a sailor lover with an inconvenient interest in wearing her clothes, or the diva must convert a pruning fork into the tuning variety. Add in enough elaborate wig and costume changes ("I'm heavily into velcro") to turn a drag queen purple with envy, along with opening and closing numbers that suggest Annie Lennox on some deeply mind-altering substance, and this barely-describable show is an hour you are not likely to forget. To tell the truth, I'm not absolutely certain it's actually good - the free sample drinks they were handing out at CO2 may have contributed -- but I know the fringe experience would be a lot poorer without it.
Gerald Berkowitz

Adam Bloom Pleasance
He darts around a lot and he's a master of the mundane observation. He plays the flute to a tape of his own routines and got mugged earlier this year. Yes, Adam Bloom is truly a man on the outside looking in, and Edinburgh's a funnier place for it. Like a nervous tic he prods you into bemused laughter over why gay men wear tight tops, how to edit out Eminem's homophobic bits, plus a remarkable yet wholly plausible theory about the singularity of willies. Mobile phone rings get rapped, and the fact he was mugged of his own Nokia provides a handy vehicle for a learning session on the inner workings of the comic craft. One of the most infuriating comics around, because it's nigh on impossible to spot which bits are scripted and which are off the cuff, Bloom's leaps of logic can be mildly awesome - from foot operation to God to masturbation. And he's always worrying the edge of humour like an insane Jack Russell - if the joke doesn't work, he'll come back to it from a zillion different angles until it does. Much to his audience's bemused appreciation. Nick Awde

Blue Remembered Hills C Too
Dennis Potter's jaundiced view of the innocence of childhood, originally a television film, is given an effective staging by the Repton School's Rep Theatre Company. Potter's conceit, to have adults play ten-year-olds, has some of the same effect of drag performances ­ since these are clearly not real children, they become essence-of-child and thus more universalised. We first see the 1940s boys innocently playing war games while the girls play house, but gradually Potter's deconstruction of the myth of innocence begins, with the casual cruelties of which children are so capable, and a strict alpha-male pecking order that could rival any animal species. By the end, when the children take an irreversible leap into adult-style hypocrisy, childhood can never look quite the same. This all comes across totally successfully in the Rep Theatre production, which is superior to some of the professional offerings on the Fringe. Gerald Berkowitz

b9: clinch mountain lookout C Underground
Imagine a family that owes its gene pool to Barbie, Ken and Twin Peaks. Throw in a dollop of Third Rock from the Sun and you'll get an inkling of what happens behind their lace curtains in Wakka Wakka's disturbingly humorous snapshot of suburban Americana. This nuclear unit of Mom and Pop and apple-pie kids is right out of the catalogue. In their fitted kitchen they gaily hold quizzes on world capitals, sing songs about John Wayne, while the kids hide in disgust at the heavy petting of their still affectionate parents. Everything's hunky-dory, okey-dokey, a touch Rock and Doris - even when the kids beat the crap out of each other. It's all jolly japes, or is it? Cut to a decade or so later and they're now divorced burn-outs, with S&M clones surreally on the doorbell and in the closet. A timeshift deeper into Eraserhead territory finds them still together in the decrepitude of their twilight years, albeit in cantankerous conflict. Throw into the mix a blubbery bingo caller, a louche cabaret crooner, whose inane songs function as a chorus, plus an unhealthy obsession with cafetieres, and you've got a remarkable yet demented piece of visual theatre - or maybe they've simply watched too many reruns of Blue Velvet. Nick Awde

Born African Augustine's
Zimbabwe's Over the Edge Theatre brings its group-created look at the lives of contemporary Africans to an Edinburgh that has been impressed by the company's work in past years, but may be disappointed by this outing. Three actors - Kevin Hanssen, Wiina Msamati and Craig Peter - play, respectively, a privileged white man, a black servant woman and an unemployed coloured (i.e., mixed-race) man. The white, brought up in a particularly liberal family, discovers how his culture and colour inexorably push him toward unconscious racism. The black woman is burdened with a son who drifts into violent crime, and can find comfort and dignity only in remaining true to her own values. The coloured man is forced to piece together a sense of identity and of manhood with little help from his past or his culture. The three actors also several subsidiary roles in each other's adventures, but the whole thing is paced so very, very slowly (direction by Msamati and Zane E. Lucas) that there is neither any sense of urgency to the plots nor any joy in the acting transformations. The pace also gives us too much time to be aware of the clichés and soap opera elements in the plots - for example, the criminal son attacks a man who turns out to be his half-brother by the father who deserted his mother years ago and now encounters her again - well, you get the idea. In short, the play is well-meaning but barely adequate as drama, relying too much on its audience's good will and political-cultural sympathy to carry it over its theatrical weakness. Gerald Berkowitz

Broken Blossoms C Venue
From the Victorian story that served as the basis for one of D. W. Griffith's greatest silent films, Negativequity have formulated a physical theatre piece that is never as evocative and effective as they would wish. In London's East End, a Chinese labourer watches sadly as a Cockney prizefighter abuses his daughter, while in flashback her unwed mother bemoans her outcast fate. The four figures rarely share the stage and even more rarely interact, significantly reducing the play's ability to create character or evoke empathy. Instead, in isolated monologues or mime sequences the Chinese character philosophises in self-consciously poetic broken English, the father struts his machismo in sub-Berkoffian terms, the daughter bustles about in silent despair, and the mother compulsively re-enacts her banishment in shame. Expressionistic whiteface and repetitive stylised movements reinforce the reminders of Berkoff, though without his obscene poetry or rhythmic energy. Even the few scenes that would seem guaranteed to resonate emotionally, as when the Chinese man gives the girl her first real doll, have no evocative power (One can imagine what Lillian Gish must have done with that moment in the film). There is undoubtedly much skill and dedication in this company, but it has not been channelled into an effective theatre piece. Gerald Berkowitz

Scott Capurro Pleasance
He's mean and he's lean (well, that's what a month in Edinburgh does for you), and Scott Capurro's now unwinding in a couple of late-night specials for the benefit of an adoring public. Taxiing straight over after the curtain falls at his show at the Assembly Rooms, the comic strolls onstage to launch into his trademark tirade against lesbians, past lovers, Scotland, the USA, the audience, himself, his gran (she died at last) and, well, everything. It's funny, fast and furious. Never one to sit on his laurels, Capurro's always inserting new material and what's making his eyes water this year is the one-star review he got from The Guardian for his main show F**king Our Fathers. The fact that everyone else has wowed over his full-length play and that co-star John Cardone has got a Stage acting award nomination has totally passed him by. Hell has no fury like a comic spurned and fuck he's funny when he's letting it all hang out. One suspects the rejection will feature high in his stand-up stuff for years to come. Jackie Clune should have been on bill-sharing duties but her throat was feeling a little raw (cue gentle, er, ribbing from Capurro) and she couldn't make it, which was a pity, since their styles go down well together. Anyway, that just meant we got double Capurro, which he was happy to accommodate. So nice to catch him so relaxed. Nick Awde

Catastrophe Komedia St Stephen's
Three of Samuel Beckett's late short plays are brought together in this dark and evocative programme directed by David Lavender that is perhaps only slightly more sentimental in its interpretations than the author might have preferred. In Rockaby, Denise Evans plays the nearly mute woman rocking while her recorded voice recites a spiralling account of a soul gradually loosening its ties to the world and giving itself over to death. The recorded words are beautifully and delicately read, though the live actress's occasional outbursts of "More!" as she instinctively resists the end have just a bit too much desperation in them. Ohio Impromptu presents two identical-looking men, one (George Dillon) reading to the other (Mark Hewitt) about a man reading to another, in an image of the sterility of self-reflective self-absorption. Again, Dillon gives in to the actor's temptation to make the reading a little more actory and passionate than the situation might warrant, but not to the point of warping its effect. Catastrophe is Beckett's least characteristic play in its overtly political content, as a prisoner is prepared and posed for some sort of show trial or display. Dillon's director is clearly a commissar rather than theatre figure, and Evans's assistant a cool lab technician, both to strong effect.
Gerald Berkowitz

The Chanclettes: Gone With The Wig George Square Theatre
Improbably masculine Mediterranean gentlemen from Barcelona transform themselves before your very eyes into dazzling divas in a lavish, hi-octane celebration of "TV trash, glamour and cinema cult-culture". I can see why the idea might not grab you by the gusset, so all I can say is, "Go see it!" - you won't regret a second. Dancing and miming to a montage of sound bites and songs (itself worthy of an Emmy for its inventiveness) the ladies not once drop a beat in this alternative camp hitlist from the past five decades. The usual suspects - All about Eve, Judy Garland, Ab Fab, Cher - are joined by boob babe trio Sam Fox, Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin, and a very bizarre Bee Gees number. Wisely avoiding all the done to death cliches, there's room for new additions to the gay pantheon, such as, er, Prince Edward. Like Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the Chanclettes reach out to one and all with a million routines and even more changes of frocks. There's something for everyone, even for those whose lives are untouched by sequins and boas - they get to spot where the quotes and songs come from. Gorgeous, glitzy, funny, and easily the best night out on the Fringe. Nick Awde

Andrew Clover - Puppy Love Pleasance
Much as we reviewers try, we can't click with everything we see. It might be a question of taste, ideology perhaps, or simply last night's dodgy curry. My problem with Andrew Clover is that I hear his audience laughing from the belly upwards and I don't understand why. The theme is first love, which gives Clover ample opportunity to spin out his tale of stumbling across his childhood sweetheart in adulthood and making a go of it again while plumbing the audience's own experiences. Although the comic lost the thread about ten chaotic minutes in, he happily stumbled across an American in the front row who proved a goldmine of bizarre experiences, and was later upstaged by his own puppy toppling slowly backwards down the back drapes. This is potentially glorious, anarchic mayhem that mystifyingly converts into Habitat humour - a sort of Mr Buffo the Clown for adults, but I was obviously deprived since we never had clowns at our kids' parties (we trapped pythons and scorpions instead). Oddly endearing, if only for his psychic emotion-fest at the end which guaranteed that everyone left loving each other and, more importantly, Andrew Clover. Nick Awde

Closer Than Ever Garage Theatre
David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of Off- and Off-off-Broadway, having written dozens of small-scale musicals over the decades, along with their other film, TV and theatre work. This plotless revue of songs possibly is ­ and certainly seems to be ­ a collection of out-takes and leftovers from their other shows and random songs with no context. The general tone is bittersweet, with a touch of New York hip cynicism. She Loves Me Not, for example, is a trio of two boys and a girl, each in unrequited love for one of the others, while One of the Good Guys is the lament of a loving husband who never strayed, and You Want to Be My Friend? is a woman's bitter reaction to a departing lover. The music is clearly the work of a pro, sometimes (I Wouldn't Go Back) quite complex, and only occasionally betraying the inevitable influence of Sondheim (What Am I Doin? could be an out-take from Company). The young performers from the University of Nevada are all charming and talented, the clear stars being the two graduate professionals among them, the macho-but-sensitive Todd Horman and the sensual showgirl Chrissy Wright. Gerald Berkowitz

The Club Gilded Balloon (Reviewed in London)
David Williamson's 1980 portrait of an Australian football team at war with itself is a comedy sadly lacking in laughs, at least in this revival by John Thomas Productions. The club president and coach detest each other, the players threaten a strike, the star is a spaced-out pothead, the former coach resents everyone, the club administrator is sneakily ambitious, and virtually none of this registers as funny. There are hints in the script that the author intended each character to be grotesquely eccentric in different ways, so that their exaggerated bouncing off each other would have escalating comic effect. But Jonathan Guy Lewis has directed all but the laid-back druggie on exactly the same single unwavering note of angry shouting throughout. As a result, only the most extreme culture clashes, like the player's dreamy admission that he finds football cosmically insignificant, or the old man's reactions while smoking what he doesn't realize is a joint generate any titters, and not even the central running gag that has everyone swearing undying loyalty to everyone else to their faces but plotting against them the instant they leave the room has any comic snap. Gerald Berkowitz

The Cocktail Party Greyfriars Kirk House
T. S. Eliot's verse drama was commissioned for the Edinburgh Festival of 1949, so it is nice to see a Fringe company finally reviving it. It's not an easy play, and the young West Ten Productions, made up of recent Oxford graduates, don't really triumph over it. But it's a thought-provoking and intermittently moving work, and I'm glad to have seen it. Eliot introduces us to a group of upper-class Londoners whose lives seem at first to be bound by the frivolous world of cocktail parties. Gradually we discover that some of them are deeply troubled and that others (and this is where the play gets a bit otherworldly) are part of a circle of wise "guardians" who advise and manipulate people into accepting their destinies. In particular, a woman destined for sainthood and martyrdom is guided toward embracing this path, while others are taught to accept their limits. Unfortunately this production's limits are encapsulated in their faith that a little talcum in the hair will make a 20-year-old look 60. All the acting is external and signifying, all the blocking is clumsy - and, in short, the play's virtues and limitations come through despite the production, not because of it. Gerald Berkowitz

The Comedy Zone Pleasance
This year's fab foursome for the wee hours is a cracking package tour around comedy with something for everyone. On compere duties and displaying a nice line in crowd control is Rob Deering, who creates an impact - literally - the moment he walks in. He peppers the proceedings with truncated songs by Madonna and Dido - clearly the man has a bad case of guitarus interruptus. Barely has Karl Theobald taken the mic and he's already halfway through an epic shaggy dog ramble about the absurdities of growing up, from the cradle to the grave, taking in an infestation of celebrities in his kitchen along the way. Under the gentle humour lies a surprisingly hard edge Next on comes Francesca Martinez, greatly improved from last year. The sweetest face in the business, she ruthlessly plunders her disability (cerebral palsy) through driving tests, sex and hashish in the carpet (don't ask). Her stature may be wobbly but never the jokes. Closing is John Oliver, whose laconic if not incisive trawl through British habits paradoxically makes him all the more endearing. Inventor of the self-regulating heckle, he addresses the implausibility of reality TV, a bad day on the foot and mouth cull shift, and the precise sexiness of the Birmingham accent. As I said, a cracking package. Nick Awde

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) Assembly Rooms (Reviewed at a previous Fringe)
More than a decade ago, the three American guys who called themselves the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC, geddit?) put together this pastiche covering - or at least mentioning - all of Shakespeare's plays in 90 minutes. Those familiar with the British tradition of university revues will recognize the format (Americans, think Saturday Night Live with erudition and literary jokes in place of the pop culture references) - a string of sketches and stand-up bits mixing very clever verbal wit with bawdy jokes and sight gags. So, for example, Titus Andronicus, which climaxes in a cannibalism scene, is done as a parody of a TV cooking show (gore-met cooking, geddit?). The history plays become an American football game with running commentary (Henry IV passes to Henry V...). At their best they can be very clever, as when they blend all those interchangeable comedies about mistaken identities and girls disguised as boys into one all-purpose plot, Three Men and a Little Transvestite. Even the groaner puns are worth it; Othello (who, of course, gets a rap number), comes on with toy boats tied to him (he's a Moor, geddit?). For my money, though, there's a little too much reliance on easy physical humour, and a few too many pratfalls. The two longest sketches are Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, and both are built on the sight gag of a six-foot guy galumphing about in a dress and wig as Juliet or Ophelia. It gets a laugh, but it's too obvious a laugh, and not up to the level of some of the shorter bits. The original trio have cloned themselves a few times and head various touring companies, so you're likely to see one or none of them. By its very nature the show is uneven (The sketches can't all be gems), but it does deliver what it promises - 90 minutes of fast-moving light entertainment. Gerald Berkowitz

Nina Conti - Let Me Out Komedia Southside
Nina Conti (daughter of Tom) is a young classical actress who recently began studying ventriloquism under the influence of charismatic writer-director-performer and currently ventriloquism enthusiast Ken Campbell. Now Campbell has written her a play to show off her newly-acquired skills, and neither it nor her performance is particularly impressive. What passes for a plot has Conti experimenting with various dummies to find one to adopt for her act. She doesn't move her lips, and she can create different voices and personalities for a Scottish bear, a method-acting snake, a gay monkey and the like. But she hasn't mastered the B sound (or found a way to disguise its near-impossibility), and she can't work with more than one voice at a time or manage the transitions from doll to doll with any finesse. And either through the fault of the writing or her performance, the play just drifts rhythmlessly until it just stops abruptly. Conti may have mastered some of the technical basics of ventriloquism, but she is a long way from being ready for performance. Gerald Berkowitz

Crash Pleasance
"I'm hurtful - that's my job!" sneers the local radio shock jock in reply to a sympathetic caller he's just crushed verbally on the turntable. But the following week the same nurse turns up at his home. Trying to turf her out, the defensive DJ claims he's pushing our collective envelope, but she wonders who is it that's really getting hurt Marshall (Joshua Levine) and Carol (Sarah Edwardson) soon find themselves warming to each other. But after their first date they are disturbed by the appearance of Vivian (Sioned Jones), whose overbearing familiarity with Carol's new beau adds a palpable layer of tension. A triangle evolves whose dynamics are determined by the emotional wreckage of a crash from the past. Levine's near flawless dialogue finds a good match in Simon Clark's direction and although a detour into truth or dare territory means the play meanders for a while, it soon gets back into the fast lane to complete this compelling portrait of three burn-outs on the hard shoulder of life. And so intense is the intimacy created by the cast, the audience is almost made to feel intruders on these very private lives. A perfect chance to catch great talent on the way up. Nick Awde

Crouching Ferret, Hidden Beaver Komedia Southside
The genius of the talented writers/performers we know as Richard Dyball and Alastair Kerr lies in deflating highbrow to middlebrow without insulting the audience's intelligence. Even when the material's slight, they rarely miss their mark and since they're gifted comic actors, there's none of that off-putting cliqueness that surrounds stand-up comedy. To set the mood, they bound on with a corporate presentation of breakdowns of the comedy they provide per penny spent, before launching into a brilliantly themed take on Edinburgh and the Fringe. Even the book festival gets a rare burst of exposure when an ousted sports pundit gives a reading of his disturbingly effete memoirs. And topping the audience faves are the fastidious art critic delivering a fatuous Guardian lecture and a near wordless salsa number between two socially challenged males. The characters are so real they're almost scary. There's the half-talented but enthusiastic West country comic duo doing a pub comedy benefit for a mate down on his luck - Dyball and Kerr play the gig for real and so get double the laughs. Add to this a Kirov Ballet pas de deux for football hooligans and you've got as perfect a night out as your pennies will buy. Nick Awde


Dahling You Were Marvellous C Belle Angele
Steven Berkoff's show biz satire, being given its world premiere by Wisepart Productions, contains recognizable flashes of the author's wit and energy, and his well-known contempt for the more commercial branch of the theatre. But it is ultimately little more than an extended revue sketch, and not very much more clever than a particularly bright undergraduate might have written. In a trendy restaurant after a West End opening night, luvies kiss air and stab backs. Everyone slates the show before the stars come in and then praises them effusively. A Peter Hall-type director pontificates, an American movie star trying to jump-start his stalled career exposes his ignorance and vulgarity, a fringe director brags of his low-budget commercial failures while putting away the champagne, and so on. It's all delightfully bitchy, all clever, and ultimately all predictable. Under Derek Bond's direction, the young cast are all more than adequate but lack the snap that would make this sparkle. Gerald Berkowitz

Dance Like A Man Komedia St Stephen's
Concern over the transfer of culture in the India of today laces this over-ambitious play about two generations of creative folk. Two successful bharatnatyam dancers, husband and wife, are now in their sixties and wondering when they should take a bow into retirement. Meanwhile, their daughter is showing great flair in continuing the family trade as her boyfriend, an outsider, looks on in bemusement. An intriguing premise soon becomes a tale of polemics and, despite excellent characterisation from the actors and some nice flashes of humour, the story meanders into indifference weighed down by too many ideas and not enough plot. Admittedly the production is hamstrung by booming acoustics -one of the best spaces in town for physical theatre, St Stephen's is unsuited for plays. No idea what this was about - maybe an examination of cultural differences, maybe one of generational conflict. There are good ideas in Mahesh Dattani's script but it needs paring by at least 40 minutes. The few seconds of dance were tantalisingly brief and it would boost things excellently to see more - and help it make more sense. Harsh words perhaps, but since Prime Time Theatre has had this on its books since 1995, you'd think someone would have told them. Nick Awde

Dark Is The Night Gilded Balloon II
An enjoyably journalistic theme links this adaptation of two of the tales that filled the pages of long-gone mags like Amazing Stories. Kicking off as a prelude is the short but effective The Night Wire, a slice of creepy hokum about a man-eating fog creating deadline problems for an international news agency. Manning the night shift are a pair of hardnosed editors (Jonathan Coope and John Brenner) who idly debate the latest Test scores from Australia until wire operator Philip Dinsdale becomes the receptacle of a rolling news item that proves as deadly as it is unexpected. Next dollop of horror is The Waxwork, a longer piece which allows the atmosphere to get really cranked up. A struggling reporter (Dinsdale) wants to write a feature on how he spent the night in a waxworks museum. He convinces the unwilling manager (Coope) and nightwatchman (Dougie Arbuckle) that it would make great PR too. Of course you know something's going to happen, particularly since the hapless journalist picks the murderers' section - duh! The shocks when they come make the entire hall jump. A great, great cast makes excellent work of Paul Sellar's composite script, with spot-on direction from Kenneth Bentley. Nick Awde

A Dark River Theatre Workshop
Uzma Hameed's self-directed play for the Big Picture Company is an attempt to raise rather banal material to romantic tragedy through the evocation of myth and the utilization of dance, film and music effects. Two yuppie lawyers in London prepare for their wedding when the visit of the groom's cousin leads to a predictable triangle as he and the bride are magnetically drawn to each other. Dance, film and dream sequences suggest that something more than soap opera is at stake, and eventually a supernatural element is introduced to explain and justify the intense emotions. Unfortunately the explanation, even if accepted, comes too late, and the clash between the mundane plot and the frequent symbolic interruptions merely serves to underline the dramatic cliches of the former. Anouska Laskowska has the most difficult role as the dream-haunted bride who cannot understand what is happening to her, while Ben Jones is stolid and single-dimensional as the groom and Mido Hamada stuck with little more to do than skulk about enigmatically as the lover. Gerald Berkowitz

A Desire to Kill on the Tip of the Tongue C Underground
Xavier Durringer's play, skillfully translated and Anglicized by Mark Ravenhill, catches a group of young people in dead-end lives at exactly the moment when they realize that's where they are. We meet a cross-section of the twenty-something urban unemployable class - a hotheaded ladies' man, an ineffectual hanger-on, a calm slightly older guy, a gal-pal - spending one more futile Saturday night outside a dance club. The stud has seduced a married woman, and expects her to run off with him. But her decision to leave both husband and lover for an uncertain independence has reverberating effects. Friends turn against friends, dangerous truths are told, some realize it is time to move on while others face the degree to which they are trapped. Very little actually happens, and indeed - as the title suggests -- stasis and paralysis are central to the play's vision. Under Richard Twyman's direction, performances subtly capture the play's insights. Will Irvine, playing what at first seems a simple hothead, lets us discover a stifled man whose energies can only explode in violence or sex, while Taylor Lilley gradually reveals that his character's calm disguises a deep weariness in search of escape. Gerald Berkowitz

Diatribe of Love Assembly Rooms
Gabriel Garcia Marquez' only play is a monodrama for an actress that covers familiar terrain with a satisfying number of subtle variants, and Linda Marlowe uses the opportunity to display her performing range. The monologue of a rich woman approaching her 25th wedding anniversary and facing the emptiness and deadening compromises of her marriage is predictable in its broad outlines: nostalgic for the breath-taking romance of her youth, resentful of her husband's infidelities and even more for his allowing their relationship to wither, and aware of her own lost youth and lost opportunities. By nature a broad and passionate actress, Linda Marlowe takes full advantage of the script's seething and then exploding anger. But it is clear that her real enjoyment comes in communicating the author's quieter insights, such as the fact that she misses pillow talk more than sex, and that her husband's ultimate betrayal was in choosing a mistress uglier than she. The memory of one opportunity to stray that she rejected is faced without regret until she suddenly realizes for the first time that she could have taken that brief pleasure at no emotional or moral cost. In these and similar moments of quiet epiphany, Linda Marlowe raises her character well beyond the conventional and familiar. Gerald Berkowitz

Dr. Bunhead v. The World's Biggest Bogey George Square Theatre
Courtesy of Tom Pringle and Dr Bunhead's Science Education comes this multi-themed barrage of hilarious contraptions and experiments where the equation of successful kids shows, poo/wee/bums, is totted up with bogeys and bottom burps. Each proves a remarkable trove of scientific fact and an opportunity to demonstrate all the fun things you can do with them since they involve releases of energy, which means unlimited bangs, crashes, booms and explosions. The scientific framework means that Dr Bunhead can roll off irresistibly big words like magic spells in a way that small ears find evocative, and so there's nothing strange when he suggests that we look at the fun things you can do with polymers. An experiment to create Mr Wippy's giant whirling poo is my favourite, followed by using botty burps as an environmental alternative for a cooker (don't try this at home), which bizarrely but logically moves on to warts, the expansive influences of liquid nitrogen on a hot water bottle, cryogenics (don't ask) and Dr Molecule the Stunt Jelly Baby. Explosive fun for all ages, and the only show I can think of where a banana gets wild applause just for being a banana. Nick Awde

Doctor Prospero Assembly Rooms
Gareth Armstrong follows up his award-winning Shylock with this solo show, written by Stephen Davies, about the man who may have inspired Shakespeare's Tempest. John Dee was an eminent Elizabethan philosopher-scientist-astrologer who was in and out of royal favour during his life, and famous enough for Shakespeare to have heard of him. This solo play imagines a direct connection, with Armstrong alternating monologues by Dee with possibly related passages from The Tempest. His account of his love of learning has parallels to some of Prospero's speeches, for example, and his description of a treacherous assistant jigsaws into speeches by Caliban. As clever as all this is, the parallels frequently seem forced, and are rarely illuminating, either of Shakespeare or of Dee. Indeed, the program notes tell you more about Dee than the play does. Still, Armstrong's performance is engrossing, and he reads the Tempest selections well. Gerald Berkowitz

FareWel Traverse
In Ian Ross's play for Canada's Prairie Theatre Exchange, the residents of a small Indian village lead dead-end lives punctuated only by the occasional wake and the irregular appearance of government welfare (or fare-wel) cheques. Their days and community identities are divided between Pentecostal Christianity, traditional beliefs and the paralysis of dependency. One young man, fired with dreams of self-governance and casino riches, tries to seize control of the tribal government, but the endemic stasis is too ingrained. By the end, very tiny steps have been taken toward community and cultural identity, but nothing has really changed. By its very nature more a character study and slice-of-life than drama, the play benefits from an unquestionable authenticity but suffers from a weakness in structure and lack of forward movement. Most of the cast, including the author as an alcohol-befuddled former tribal elder and Michael C. Lawrenchuk as a man out of step with his neighbours just because he has ambition and a work ethic, have been with the play since its 1996 premiere. Some of the other performances are just this side of amateurish, and are not helped by a sluggish and rhythmless direction. Gerald Berkowitz

Fern Hill Assembly Rooms
Guy Masterson, whose solo recitation of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood has been a popular fringe staple in past years, now turns his attention to some of Thomas's other works, in a programme which is just as impressive and is likely to be just as successful a touring piece. Masterson is a very dynamic performer, with a style ideally suited for Thomas's kaleidoscopic prose pieces, like Holiday Memory in which we see an entire beach scene and population through a boy's eyes. With something new leaping into consciousness every few words (Thomas loves cataloguing lists of sights, sounds, smells), Masterson instantly and briefly transforms himself into the person or thing being described and just as instantly becomes the next. While this occasionally comes closer to charades than acting - "He walked [mimes walking] up [points up] the hill [gestures diagonal]..." - it is both fascinating and very evocative of Thomas's Breugal-like scenes. The similar Visit to Grandpa's and Christmas Memory are equally alive and evocative in Masterson's performance, while a selection of poems is recited more starkly and simply. Thomas fans will be delighted, while newcomers will want to run out and read the originals, with Masterson's image forever associated with the words. Gerald Berkowitz

Fish Supper The Stand
It's a rare thing nowadays to be served up a straight-ahead, no-frills, gimmick-free sketch review. Concocted by Julie Coombe, Miles Jupp, John Littlejohn and Colin Ramone - writers/performers who are bewildering fluent in every dialect north of Watford - this is an hour that bubbles with a potent range of ingredients. The funeral of an amnesiac family's granddad on the day the son forgets he's getting married, takes the scenario to its insanely logical conclusion where everyone forgets that they forgot to forget what they'd already forgotten. Shorter visual quips include the X-rated holiday snaps viewing session and a request for directions to the clitoris ("It's on the tip of my tongue"). The laughs can be unexpectedly left-field, such as schoolboys debating Catholic morals with a tarty nun and pervy bishop, in perfect verse. A mere starter that went down a storm. Speciality of the house is their no-holds barred take on politics. The disco-dancing Islamic fundamentalists just about passes the taste barrier, while the Ulster terrorists declaring their gaydom at a tarring and feathering is riotous, particularly when they come back to sing UDA! in Village People guise. And, a rare thing in live comedy, the sketches just get better and better as the show progresses. A prodigious talent. TV should snap this lot up. Nick Awde

Foley Traverse
Michael West's monodrama is a very subtle character study, too subtle perhaps to be a fully effective theatre piece. A man (Andrew Bennett) simply stands there and gives a somewhat rambling account of his life and his family. Irish Protestant gentry, they come across as dour, lifeless and loveless, even as he describes some satirically comic scenes drawn from his somewhat unreliable memory. That unreliability ­ the frequency with which he must interrupt a narrative to acknowledge that he's confused two events or got his chronology wrong ­ is the first clue to West's subject, though it is easy to miss it. What dominates the monologue is the speaker's contempt toward his family for their lifelessness and his anger at his Catholic ex-wife for her triviality and vulgarity. Only very late in the 90 minute play do we realise that these judgements are undercut by the unreliability of his account, and that what we are actually hearing are projections of a self-hatred based on his own empty and vulgar existence (which means that some of the things he's told us about himself have also been misremembered). This is in fact very sensitive and insightful characterisation, but in theatrical terms it means that we do not know why this man is talking to us or what the subject of the play is for far too much of its length. Andrew Bennett gives a controlled and moving reading, but doesn't help, as he should, by giving any foreshadowing in his performance of the complexities to come. Gerald Berkowitz

Four Dogs and a Bone Greyfriars Kirkhouse
John Patrick Shanley's satire on Hollywood skewers all the usual suspects with considerable wit, so that, while there are no major new insights on offer, there's a lot of fun to be had along the way. The producer of a low-budget film (Jay Malarcher), a starlet clever enough to use her stupidity as a tool (Aryn Kopp), a veteran actress who knows every trick of the game (Kate Udall) and a screenwriter (Jerry McGonigle) who seems at first a babe in the woods but who learns fast, take turns manipulating, coddling, back-stabbing and generally screwing each other. And Shanley, who's been there, catches it all with a perfect ear for each character's particular style of doubletalk and with wickedly delighted satire. The young American company play it with verve and energy and, violating my general rule that actors should not direct themselves, Udall and McGonigle combine co-direction with the two most shaded and adept performances. Gerald Berkowitz

F**king Our Fathers Assembly Rooms
Eminently offensive stand-up Scott Capurro has always had his elegaic side - he just hides it well - and in this self-penned play the provocation turns to provoking (as in thought) while leaving the traditional walk-out factor commendably high (14 the night I was in). Two ageing (that's late thirties) gay mates sit in nappies at a bar and watch the prime of San Francisco manhood pass them by along the yellow brick road. Eyeing up the talent, Capurro lets slip far more than he intends about what he really wants in a man - a "hot sweaty retiree" - a concept John Cardone at first ignores but soon finds irresistible. The pair embark on a close-to-the-knuckle quest for a father figure, via altar boy antics, Colonel Von Trapp's greasy glove and a butt-nacked shagfest on a lilo where the hickness of Cardone's younger hooker reminds punter Capurro eerily of his dad. Things turn a touch surreal when Father Time places an order for a cappuccino. The perfect older man, naturally, and when was the last time you saw a naked scythe onstage? Brilliant performances match brilliant writing - a bit like Waiting for Godot played as Waiting for Mr Right. From the recognition glimmering across the audience, it's clear that this fable about growing up has something for everyone. Soft maybe, never flaccid, this is essential, rampant viewing. (The asterisks are in the title, by the way.) Nick Awde

Gagarin Way Traverse
Gregory Burke's comic drama begins with an uneducated petty thief wittily analysing the philosophical limitations of Jean-Paul Sartre, and it never stops surprising with its unexpected juxtapositions of genre, character and mode. The title itself alerts us to an anomaly, a street in a small Scottish town named after a Soviet cosmonaut, because of the Scottish district's long communist sympathies. The philosopher-thief, played with passion and intellectual intensity by Michael Nardone, and a more straight-forward and politically committed friend (Billy McElhaney) have decided to kidnap and kill the head of a multinational corporation, as a revolutionary gesture. But they get the wrong man, a weary, locally-raised middle-management type (Maurice Roeves) who vaguely sympathises with them but is older and wiser enough to see the futility of their gesture. Add in a naive youngster (Michael Moreland), and you have Shavian political debate, gangster melodrama and low comedy in almost equal proportions. The debate is good - engrossing and mind-stretching - while the characters develop in complex and unexpected ways that engage our sympathies. In all, one of the most thoroughly satisfying plays in Edinburgh. Gerald Berkowitz

The Game of Love and Death Rocket South Bridge
Neil Bartlett's updating of Marivaux' comedy of manners is a witty and stylish 1930s social romance that virtually cries out to be turned into a musical comedy, perhaps with a Cole Porter score. While the basic premise is squeezed a bit awkwardly into the updated setting, it is no sillier than most musical plots: an upper-class couple facing a marriage arranged by their fathers approach their first meeting with, unbeknownst to each other, the same plan: each will trade places with his/her servant, the better to observe the prospective spouse. The result is absolutely predictable - both the supposed servants and the supposed masters fall in love, all four thinking they are crossing class lines to do so - but the inevitable working-out of the dance is fun to watch, and there are witty lines and strong comic moments along the way. Unfortunately, this production by the young Short Back and Sides Company has all the worst characteristics of amateur theatre: shallow characterisations, gross overacting, funny voices and accents, and a general clumsiness in moving about the stage. Gerald Berkowitz

The Good and Faithful Servant Rocket South Bridge
Joe Orton's short play is given a nicely-staged production by a young student company. Always half social critic and half propriety-shocker, Orton attacks most of the middle-class protestant values in this look at old age. A man retiring after 50 years is fobbed off with worthless gifts and the warning that he had better return his company uniform before he goes. A chance meeting with an old woman recalls a brief tryst decades ago and leads to the discovery of a grandson he never knew he had. Meanwhile the grandson has got his own girl in trouble, and the old man is farmed out to a hellish retirement home, and... Well, you get the idea. Along with the farcical satire comes Orton's patented moral comedy, as characters are repeatedly shocked by one sin while taking another in stride. The deliberately two-dimensional quality of all this is cleverly captured in a production that uses actual pop art cartoons for sets, and if things flag a bit toward the end, there has been fun along the way. Gerald Berkowitz

Good Morning? Pleasance
Saturday morning. Three young office workers, destined one day for dazzling careers in middle management hell, wake up on a sofa in strange flat. Piecing together the events of the night before, their hazy Q&A session to remedy alcohol-fuelled amnesia becomes a fractious puzzle of missing wallets, stolen phone number and absent workmate. Soon the accusations start to fly in this wickedly funny farce for the Scooby Doo generation. Writer Eddie Rosen died in 1999 only weeks after completing the script at the age of 18, but what he left is an absolute gift to actors Kali Peacock, Steve Chaplin, Edward Price and Jonathan Tafler. Directed by Sonia Ritter, their characters are unnervingly real, whose every gesticulation adds to the humour levels. The show has its rough edges and begins to overstretch its logic even before the weird workmate makes his appearance. But it's a wonderfully simple concept - dare I use the word Ortonesque? - and is even funnier for continually threatening to slip into deliciously darker territory such as Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. Put this on at the West End -supporting it sensibly long-term - and you'll easily attract a whole new generation of theatregoers. Nick Awde

Gusset Komedia Roman Eagle Lodge
Walk around the crumbling garment districts of any of our cities and you'll soon spot tiled into the facades of disused workshops the word 'hosiery'. For long before Marks & Spencer, this nation was a powerhouse churning out knickers to the world. Now no longer and this has spurred writer/performer Elaine Pantling's semi-autobiographical search for answers to life through a gusset cutter's now redundant skills. Direct from school to the factory, Leicester lass Paula Potter learns her craft via initial humiliation under a German overseer to the discovery that she has talent with the scissors. As Paula is promoted from lowly overlocker to prestigious cutter, along the way she describes the world of her workmates, her marriage and the holiday fund. And like some miracle tree-bark from a tropical rain forest, she has discovered that the gusset holds many uses for the good of humankind. Not only does it serve as a handy metaphor for life but it also has properties which are therapeutic and practical - the red/green gusset, for instance, serves as a handy marital'sex switch'. Gently poignant yet always witty, unlike Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, the pathos never once threatens to strip away the humour, and one wishes there were more of the delicious humour of reported dialogues with other characters. Knicker elastic for the soul with a feelgood factor that rides high. Nick Awde

Rich Hall and Dave Fulton Present The Terry Dullum Appeal Assembly Rooms
"This isn't improv night - we've already chosen the disease!" Or so say Hall and Fulton as they bound on stage to host their benefit night for an 11-year-old boy and his sad plight. The comics first met at a gun fair in southern Winsoncin, where they also stumbled across poor Terry, whose affliction is not the lobster claw hands visible in the towering publicity pic but Tourette's Syndrome. Sadly, due to stringent UK food laws on the movement of crustaceans, Terry can't be with the show, so his bottler dad Earl (Canadian comic genius Mike Wilmot) has popped over instead. Earl's sozzled, foulmouthed speech indicates that his son's syndrome might be in part inherited. The line-up includes WWF stars Rainmaker and Interrupter intoning the poetry of Alaskan chanteuse Jewel through ill-fitting hoods as Hall and Fulton take turns to rail against euros, global warming, Tom Cruise and Bill Gates. Fulton's lay-in into Scottish mores is a masterpiece of the now ritual harangue. Accompanied by a grungy guitar and bass combo, Hall ends with an appropriately loopy singalong about the moral duty to kill President Dubya. Gloriously outrageous, something different is promised for every night. As laughs per minute, easily the Fringe's best value for money - whoever's pocket it ends up in. Nick Awde

Hamlet! The Musical C Venue
One of the sleeper hits of this year's Fringe, this pastiche entertainment by Ed Jaspers and Alex Silverman is a spirited romp that benefits from never taking itself, or its source material, too seriously. This is Hamlet-lite, set to music ranging from cod Mozart to cod Lloyd Webber, with stops along the way for direct take-offs of a couple of 1950s rock classics. Opening with a tongue-in-cheek plot-establishing "Danish Blues," the score's other highlights are the tango "To Thine Own Self Be True," the play-within-the-play (The Mousetrap- The Musical, of course) built on instantly-recognizable tunes from every musical of the past 20 years, and the Les Miz-flavoured "To Be or Not To Be." Very little attempt is made to set Shakespeare's words to music, the clash of classic plot and contemporary slang being part of the joke. Hamlet himself (Dave Dorrian) is chubby and not very bright, Claudius' prayer scene is just an opportunity for a sting of slapstick failed attempts at murder, and the climactic duel involves hitting each other with inflated rubber fish. An undoubted crowd-pleaser, this is still more a jeu de spirit than fully developed show, though it has real potential in the Return to the Forbidden Planet tradition. Gerald Berkowitz

Kevin Hayes The Stand
I attempted to review this stand-up comic twice in the course of the Festival. Both times he refused to go on because the audience was too small for his liking, and had the venue give them their money back. Gerald Berkowitz

Hess - Prince of Spandau Komedia Roman Eagle Lodge
It is extraordinary to remember that held in captivity right in the heart of Germany until his death in 1987 was one of the major architects of the Third Reich - Hitler's right-hand man Rudolph Hess. In a bravura performance, Ricardo Pinto homes in on the Nazi's unbelievably arrogant self-delusion as he recalls in his cell the key events and players of his life. But while director Catherine Jefford gives Pinto free rein where his strengths lie, she should desist his dodgy German accent (more Transylvania than Unter den Linden). Meanwhile, Helder Costa's script pushes effect over substance - there is a whole generation out there ignorant of who Hess was let alone General Salazar or Hess Junior. And how many would get the oblique reference to former UN chief's Kurt Waldheim's SS past or the Nazi pagan ritual that begat it? Perhaps the point of it all is the powerful closing speech about racism being the key to total control of the masses, yet the play inadvertently shoots itself in the foot when you realise that no one involved has offered any idea of the true face of racism. Sorry about that, but it has to be said. Nick Awde

Craig Hill's Wiz to Oz Gilded Balloon
There is hardly a joke to be found in Craig Hill's hour of stand-up, just the pleasant chat of a very pleasant fellow, and if you fall under the spell of his considerable charm, that's almost enough. This is less a comedy act than mildly engaging table talk of the "Let me tell you what happened on my holiday" sort, framed by a bit of production at the start and finish. Opening with a gay-lyrics version of Over the Rainbow, Hill then goes into a deliberately rambling account of his recent trip to Australia (Oz, geddit?) to be part of the gay-themed Mardi Gras parade. Digressions on his first-ever plane trip to Greece and on a disastrous audition for Cats just add to the informal raconteur effect, broken only by one more song and a closing audience-involving mini-production number. If you find Hill's mildly camp good spirits infectious, the hour can pass quickly and pleasantly. If not, the thinness of his material is all too evident. Gerald Berkowitz

Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger Poppin' Daddies Gilded Balloon
Lord Buckley was an American jazz monologist, a kind of ur-rap artist who specialised in jive-talk riffs on classic tales, bible stories and the like from the 1930s through the 1950s. Musician Weston Gavin knew Buckley and obviously admires him, but his attempt to recreate some of his classic monologues falls flat on every count. Gavin has the air of a history professor reporting on his research, reciting memorised material he really doesn't understand. Though there is occasional backing music, he completely fails to conjure up the sense of jazz improvisation or of give-and-take between music and voice. The image of the square-looking guy in the suit jive-talking is briefly amusing, but Gavin is unable to capture any of the rhythm or energy of the original. As a result, his tales of "The Naz" and his miracles or "The all-hip mahatma" and his role in Indian emancipation are lifeless, while his reading of one of Buckley's set pieces, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address translated into jive, is embarrassing. Imagine a middle-aged white man attempting a recitation of a Puff Daddy rap, and you'll have some sense of this sadly misguided performance that is no service to Lord Buckley's memory. Gerald Berkowitz

House of Deer Pleasance
Eva Magyar's dance and mime piece for the Hungarian company The Shamans is skilfully performed but totally opaque in meaning without external assistance. Appearing first in the guise of a hesitant and uncomfortable Victorian actress, she makes it clear through pointing at antlers and deer pictures onstage that they are somehow the subject. What follows are alternating sequences of dance, usually of high, celebratory energy, and of mime, usually showing the actress's discomfort with the material. Some but not all of them relate to deer, and one begins to suspect that the piece is really about the pains and difficulty of the creative process, until dances that don't fit this interpretation appear: a mourning woman, a mother and child, a bloody death. After the show, the press office gave me a press release that explained that this was a dance interpretation of a Romanian folk tale about a hunter magically transformed into a deer, and that it has "an urgent message for Eastern and Western audiences alike." Oh. Gerald Berkowitz

The Hush C Venue
The group now calling themselves Hush Productions have been to the Fringe before, with comic mime shows striving for the effect of living silent movies in the Mack Sennett vein. If they're not always fully successful, there's still some fun to be had along the way. The convoluted premise of the current show has a comedy-starved future cloning Charlie Chaplin to bring laughter back to the world, only to have him kidnapped, so that a private detective has to save him. So we get a series of slow-motion, fast-motion and slapstick sequences of the bumbling detective finding and losing the scent, coping with a femme fatale, and the like. What keeps the show from success is a recurring style of finding a comic idea - for example, a slow-motion fistfight - and just extending it for a minute or two, with no real development or transition into the next bit. If you dozed off after the first 15 seconds (and you might be tempted to), you wouldn't miss anything until a blackout or change in music signalled the next self-contained bit. I can't help feeling that there's a really great fast-moving half-hour buried in the very uneven hour that The Hush runs. Gerald Berkowitz

I Am Star Trek C Venue
Rick Vordran's short play is a biography, salute and expose of the man behind Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, but I fear that all but the most fanatic trekkies (and is there any other kind?) will find it delivering a lot less than it promises. The play traces Roddenberry's career, from the first pitch of the Star Trek idea to Lucille Ball's company, through the three years of the original series and the subsequent dark years during which Roddenberry (and many of the actors) lived by whoring themselves to trekkie conventions, to the first way-over-budget film and Roddenberry's subsequent banishment (though they kept his name on everything), to his being summoned back to run the Next Generation series. Along the way, we get some quick behind-the-scenes glimpses of his loyalty to colleagues and later betrayal of them, of coping with the prima donna antics of Nimoy and Shatner, of hints of sexual hanky-panky and of the cold-bloodedness of Hollywood and TV executives. But there's really little news to any of this, and the natural audience for this show surely knows all this gossip and more. It's not much of a play, either, with no real characterisations or character growth, and nothing but chronology to drive it forward. A hard-working cast double and quadruple roles as they race through history, but capture neither good impersonations nor dramatically interesting essences of any of the characters. Gerald Berkowitz

Infinite Number of Monkeys Gilded Balloon
Stuart Barker and Tim FitzHigham offer a fast-moving revue that stands out from the run of the mill by actually crediting its audience with a bit of intelligence and the ability to catch jokes that go by casually or understand ones that require a smidgen of knowledge, like King Solomon's boredom with prenuptial stag parties or Bletchley Park boffins breaking the Enigma code but unable to read German. Language is a running theme of the show, from a defence of the football pitch and double-decker bus as units of measurement through a sketch of rival dictionary writers playing Scrabble. How Adam came up with a name for his first-born, things that can't be said in sign language, and what's really on new-age self-help tapes are among the topics explored with wit and admirable brevity, as another compliment to the audience's intelligence is shown by letting no sketch linger on any longer than absolutely necessary. Gerald Berkowitz

Clive James & Pete Atkin Pleasance
The collaboration of lyricist James and tunester Atkin has been revived by the timely relaunch of their albums over the Internet this year. Back on the road, their new double act is a laid-back recap of their adventures in the music business since the late sixties when, as members of the Cambridge Footlights, they forged a relationship that spawned six albums in the seventies. Atkin sings songs on guitar and keyboards. In their acoustic form, the songs fall between Pete Seeger and Alan Price, with a smoky. Some are serious and some are funny, touching on Apollo XIII, jazz pianists, westerns and one about gangsters, The Joker, which wouldn't look out of place on a Scott Walker CD. James intones poems on pieces of paper, with offerings that didn't make it to lyric form, and even takes a stab at a vocal number. The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered shows the Australian wit in fine acerbic form, and there's a heartfelt ode to Lucretius, but his Blade Runner elegy is excruciating ("Ned Kelly was the ghost of Hamlet's father" anyone?). Intriguingly, he reveals the same hankering for Americana that took Bernie Taupin to the pop top. The real rapport still between the duo means that the 2002 tour of this perfect remedy to chatshow doldrums should be the sell-out it deserves. Nick Awde

J-Boys in Gay Samurai Revue Garage
I sat in the back row between the usher and a Buddhist monk, noting the burly, freshly scrubbed men of a certain age cramming the front rows before the lights go down and the stage fills with panda eyeliner and lithe bodies that strip to cloth thongs in a kung fu routine. Gohatto may be in the cinemas but this is in your face. And that sort of sets the theme for the rest of the show... A bizarre bushido number with fans, audience participation - helping the poor lads out of their thongs - an improbable sword fight, again with fans, models simulate sex on a table to the strains of Vangelis, a couple of choreographed threesomes later on. Ricky Martin and Stravinsky complement the soundtrack. Like the music, the dance routines are a strange mishmash that is part Japanese, part Indian, part European. And as spiritual lap dancing goes, it can't make up its mind whether it's art or porn, but the boys wonderfully keep the ability to laugh at themselves. After all, there are only so many ways you can remove a thong. A production also of note for having a scarier audience than the cast. Nick Awde

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train Gilded Balloon II
Two killers in the holding cells, overlooked by a good screw (Salvatore Inzerillo) and a chillingly philosophical bad screw (David Zayas). Angel (Joe Quintero) shot Moonie high-priest Kim in the ass but now faces charges of first-degree after the cult leader dies of complications. Fellow inmate Lucius (Ron Cephas Jones) murdered eight men but only got caught when his victims started turning white. Oz this is not - it's more Death of a Salesman with a thoroughly contemporary twist where the Hispanic and African-American need to first work through the overwhelming racial baggage of what landed them in gaol before they can examine the tortured souls underneath. Well-meaning middle-class public defender (Mary Jane Hanrahan) can only get her fingers burned. Director Phillip Seymour Hoffman's sole contribution to Stephen Adly Guirgis' snappy post-Mamet script appears to be whacking up the volume until it becomes one long shouting match. Still, the performers attack their roles with boundless energy and no one hogs the roles - it's a great ensemble - but in terms of the life experience writer, director and actors bring to the play, one walks away suspecting they know more about inner tubes than inner city. Nick Awde

Joan C Too
An opening scene of writhing bodies drenched in bombastic classical chords and violent red lights. God, did I want to hate this. But a heartbeat later and I was hooked, so what can I say? This is an amazing, brilliant show where every element has come together in perfect alignment. Written and directed by Donna Kaz, the story avoids epic overkill and goes straight to the heart of the human behind the myth of France's answer to Braveheart - "I'm 16, leave me alone!" the young goatsherd prudently informs the saintly voices that instruct her to don men's clothes and wage war on the English invaders. In a vibrant blend of narrative and physical, where the grammar of movement is as complex as the spoken, a flowing series of snapshots chart the warrior maiden's journey to her doom, punctuated by startlingly informative digressions, chorus-like, on dynasties, weapons of war, the Inquisition and the siege of Orleans. Romi Dias' feisty Joan leads a six-strong cast who deliver their multi-roles with hi-energy sensitivity - pushing perfect script and direction even higher. Oh, and best techno medieval soundtrack of the Festival so far. Nick Awde

Journeys and Memories Komedia St. Stephens
T
heatre Cryptic's offering is billed as "Music to be looked at, not just listened to." In practice this means that for Steve Reich's railroad-themed Journeys and Memories an onstage string quartet accompanies a music track while a film shot from the front of a moving locomotive is projected on a screen behind them and, as muffled words are heard on the soundtrack, they appear, karaoke-style, on the screen ­ in short, about the level of multimedia sophistication you might expect at a particularly modest school fete. At this particular performance the film breaks down after 10 minutes, as it would at the fete, leaving us with nothing to look at but the musicians while the dimly-heard recorded voices move from modern train trips to the darker journeys of the Holocaust. (The video comes on and then breaks down again a couple of times, just to reassure us that nothing new is happening in the projected pictures and words.) The video works for Istvan Marta's Doom A Sigh, offering unimaginatively literal images to accompany a wailing song about losing one's parents: the words Mummy and Daddy, two photographs, and the text of a poem on being an orphan. For the Allegri Miserere, the musicians walk about slowly while Claire Pencak offers a minimalist dance before the blank screen. In short, the most uncreative and least evocative visualisations of music imaginable, though the quartet plays well, and would more profitibly be encountered in a straight recital. Gerald Berkowitz

The Kaos Volpone Theatre Workshop
Ben Jonson's scrutiny of greed is the latest classic to get the Kaos treatment and no technique is spared to inject this farce with the savage, dark comedy it deserves. Director and adapter Xavier Leret has pulled off a stripped-down scissors job that loses nothing of the original's wicked bile. Staged with all the melodrama and accentuated realism of a silent movie, there's all the trademark physicality here that characterises the Kaos ethic - grand guignol, gothic poses and four-dimensional blocking. Heading an appropriately manic cast of characters is Jack Corcoran's Mosca, a demented Nijinsky faun who conducts a merry dance of duplicitous double-dealing as the good burghers stampede to be included in the will of his master, Oliver Parham's hissing Volpone, who slithers over his great Nosferatu tomb of a bed restlessly seeking more riches to feed off. But don't let this eclipse the fact that the English here is some of the best you'll hear declaimed on stage today, creating an overall theatricality hard to better -in the process, language magically becomes another segment of the physical vocabulary. Humour is essential too, attested by scenes such as the a cappella Pandora's box of the physician's roadshow or acrobatics involving a ladder and full cast as the will is discovered. A gravity-defying masterpiece of wit. Nick Awde

Dillie Keane Pleasance Dome
After 20 years of being madly in love with her, like any other intelligent man of my generation, I've finally figured out Dillie Keane. The spearhead of Fascinating Aida, here appearing solo, is actually a medium channeling the ghost of Noel Coward. Both as singer and (with Adele Anderson, another third of Fascinating Aida) songwriter, she has captured, more than any direct imitation could, the essence of the Master's wit and charm. Songs about being disconcerted by the range of diet and sexual advice offered by women's magazines, or about waking up and wondering just who that is on the next pillow, have exactly the arch bemusement of Coward. And Dillie's singing style, racing nonchalantly through the verse and then luxuriating in the chorus, is the purest Coward. Even the more serious songs, about dating again in one's forties, or reveling in late love, consciously and unashamedly flirt with oversentimentality as his did. Actually, Dillie does acknowledge her admiration for Coward during the show, along with a somewhat more surprising passion for Kurt Weill. Anyway, enough of this thesis: she's a delightful comedienne-chanteuse who sings about internet romance, condoms, the temptations of lesbianism (It would be so much simpler), and the siren call of motorway cafes, and she's funny, and the songs are great, and an hour is far too short a show for her to offer. Gerald Berkowitz


The Kevin Gildeas Gilded Balloon II
You'll be lucky to stumble across a slicker, rougher, scarier act than Kevin Gildea and his band in the comedy clubs and bars either side of the Atlantic. The man emits pure comic gold dust via a seamless stream of songs and stand-up that takes a painfully funny trip to the dark side of the blues -laced with his laconic Irish commentary. Best example is No No No, a gut-chuckling tale of giving in to illicit carnal desires with someone not your girlfriend, narrated in a delivery worthy of the best beat poets. Other songs stray into further territory such as pop or the Doors, although the odd concept falls flat on its face - the futuristic Star Wars number is a stinkeroony. But, refreshingly, each song gets a memorable tune as well as a stonking groove, and the vamps that run under the connecting monologues sizzle too. Don't let the humour fool you, since the act rises far beyond mere pastiche. Providing a truly excellent soundtrack for Gildea's smoky vocals and asides are drummer The Goose and guitarist Dr Millar, who throws in rolling extra bass lines as if there's a trio playing. Sound of the, erm, future. Nick Awde

Lady Macbeth Rewrites the Rulebook C Venue
In Renny Krupinski's self-directed vehicle for his young company Broads With Swords, a Lara Croft-like computer game is somehow jumbled into the complete works of Shakespeare, which is itself jumbled so that characters and lines from various plays mingle together. Encountering Ophelia, Juliet, Cleopatra and other doomed heroines, Tara Loft (Amanda Hennessy) is enraged by all the rampant suicidal impulses and iambic pentameter, and browbeats the ladies into incipient feminism. But Lady Macbeth (Sarah Desmond) joins forces with the computer game baddie (Rachel Steggall) to seize control of all their plays, until the three witches come to the rescue. The openly silly plot is the excuse for two delightful romps of spirit. All the Shakespearean action is accompanied by authentic dialogue, but assembled randomly from the entire corpus, so that a single speech may have lines from a half-dozen plays and still make sense. Meanwhile, the author-director's experience as a leading fight arranger makes it unsurprising that the all-female cast break into sword fights, kung fu bouts, all-in wrestling and just the passing punch-out at the slightest provocation. Shakespeareans can play spot-the-quotation, while everyone can enjoy the inventiveness of the absurd plot. And, without question, this fast-moving hour provides what has always been missing in Shakespeare, lots of chicks fighting. Gerald Berkowitz

The Lear Lesson Theatre Workshop
Steve Friedman's short play for New York's Modern Times Theatre is a clever little black comedy that always has some surprises up its sleeve. In some near future when theatre is a completely dead art, an aged actor-director tries to resurrect it by giving private lessons. Into his home comes a budding Shakespearean actress who would seem to have some fairly significant handicaps ­ an extreme stammer, a tendency to become nauseous when speaking Shakespeare's words, and a total absence of talent. As an attempt to study and rehearse scenes from King Lear hits snag after snag, what follows acknowledges a debt to Ionesco's The Lesson and to the tradition of Grand Guignol, and may also nod occasionally toward Rod Serling and Stephen King, but its darkly ironic vision is ultimately its own. Under the direction of Danny Partridge, the author plays the teacher with a sly ambiguity that hints alternately at genius, charlatan or madman, while Rose Friedman makes the student the essence of young American blankness, and Zuzanna Szadkowski skilfully blends warmth and sinisterness in the oddly intrusive housekeeper who ultimately provides the totally unexpected key to the whole puzzle. Gerald Berkowitz

A Life In The Daze Of Stanley Bishop C Venue
The mid sixties. As the nation's headlines are emblazoned with the Beatles, Profumo, and a certain final with Germany, Stanley Bishop awaits instead the hangman's noose. Condemned to swing for a crime he didn't commit (naturally), he embarks on a musical review of the events that landed him in the frame. All he did is sort out a bit of bother in the Soho nightclub owned by gangland boss Frankie Biggs, so as a big thank-you Frankie hires him as his minder. Gangland boss Kenny, Frankie's brother, doesn't like Stanley but likes Frankie less, so he hatches a dastardly plot to stitch up our innocent hero. Despite the efforts of his golden-hearted moll, Stanley is doomed. The flyer hails this is a "musical parody" but it's far more than that - the original songs are vibrant, hummable and owe as much to Lionel Bart and Hair as to the Small Faces or the Who. Most impressive are the ensemble numbers such as Partners in Crime and Better Than Working that mix soap opera humour with ripping style. Great writing, phenomenal direction and choreography, but the real stars are the brilliant 13-strong cast who act, sing and dance their hearts out like there's no tomorrow (well, there isn't for Stan, is there?). Nick Awde

Like Thunder Gilded Balloon II
Niels Fredrik Dahl's play is yet another domestic drama about a family dysfunctional through inability to face and accept truths, and while the writing never triumphs over its soap opera elements, dedicated performances sustain your interest and involvement until the excesses of cliched plot and overwritten dialogue become too great a burden. A family gathers to deal with the fact that the husband and father has been missing for four years. One son is committed to the belief he is still alive, another is sure he is dead, and mother just wants some sort of arbitrary closure. Meanwhile, the brothers hate each other, one has a bad marriage of his own, and the other is a former criminal who has gone blind. Throw in a séance, a long buried (but telegraphed far in advance) secret about father, and a startling but ambiguous new revelation, and it really is more than even the most skilled playwright could juggle successfully. Under Franzisca Aarflot's direction, the cast of five treats the material with total dedication, though the fact that the family members all have different accents further threatens credibility. Maureen Allen is most successful through quiet underplaying of the mother, while Katherine Morley supplements the role of the medium with an evocative violin accompaniment to the action. Gerald Berkowitz

Lilia Gilded Balloon
Lilia Skala, Austrian-born actress with a long career in American stage and television, is best remembered as the forceful nun in the film Lilies of the Field. Her granddaughter Libby Skala has written and performs this salute to Lilia, using her special perspective to show us both the actress and the woman. Speaking in Lilia's voice and occasionally her own, Libby tells us of her becoming the first female architect in Austria, but chucking it all for a career on the stage. Always modest about her accomplishments, Lilia credits every breakthrough and opportunity to God, though she is proud of her own courage in resisting Hollywood's instinct to typecast her as a nun for the rest of her life. At the same time she is a dedicated artisan and strict teacher when her granddaughter expresses the desire to become an actress, and she is not immune to the grandmotherly syndrome of alternating smothering love with small cruelties. Libby Skala captures Lilia's voice convincingly, though the piece loses its momentum in the last quarter and begins to meander shapelessly. A labour of love if ever there was one, the performance is ultimately a celebration more of the beloved grandmother than of the revered actress, and thus as much about its writer-performer as about her subject. Gerald Berkowitz

Lip Service Gilded Balloon
This short play about telephone sex line girls promises titillation but actually delivers considerably more, as authors Gary Humphreys and Philip Sington not only give us a peek into the personal lives of the anonymous voices but also structure plot and characters to offer a string of intriguing surprises. Stephanie (Kiki Kendrick), who operates the small phone service with her offstage lover, rather enjoys developing romantic fantasies for her callers, and at the same time dreams of moving up to operating a night club. New hire Lisa (Ellen Collier) is considerably crasser in both her phone persona and her private behaviour; she does not hesitate in bragging that she's stealing Stephanie's man or in dismissing the adventure as a casual fling. But neither woman, nor the situation, is exactly as they appear; and just who is exploiting whom, and who is the romantic, are questions the play takes us through several twists before answering. Under Scott Williams' direction, the two actresses are allowed to appear too one-dimensional in their opening personalities for the complexities that develop to be fully believable, and just a few hints of foreshadowing might have enriched both performances. Gerald Berkowitz

Locking Horns Hill Street
Christopher Walker's new play is an exploration of the difficulties of being male, as its two characters must fight their way through a series of false and regressive self-definitions to discover their true manhood. While one could debate his ultimate solution, which involves the camaraderie of battlefield soldiers, and while the play runs out of steam a little before its ending, there is much impressive physical theatre along the way. Under the author's direction, Rory Eliot and Dennis Antonakas play two variants of typical macho stud, respectively the self-adoring sexual animal and the superior, street-smart cynic. First encountered in a stylised street fight accompanied by rhymed couplets, they move from this sub-Berkoffian mode to more original imagery, as the author has their strutting and preening repeatedly converted into Neanderthal or animal parallels. The characters themselves are vaguely aware of these brief transformations, and the disorientation they cause is part of the learning and maturing process. The play hits a disappointingly soft centre when both men are given lengthy self-revelatory monologues to expose their deeper sensitivity. Reducing or eliminating that banal anticlimax would strengthen a work whose considerable virtues lie in its high energy and inventive staging. Gerald Berkowitz

Love and Other Fairy Tales Pleasance
Scarlet Theatre offer a delightful Chaucerian romp in Nick Revell's retelling of the Wife of Bath's Tale, capturing all the spirit and comic energy of the original while infusing it with a modern sensibility and staging it with spirited invention. Cutting the Canterbury pilgrims down to six, Revell retains the outlines of their original personalities and interplay. The Prioress is still more of a grand lady than a nun, the Pardoner is a slimy conman, and so on. But there are also new nuances - most notably, Chaucer himself is a pompous sexist who needs to be brought down a peg or two. So, when the Wife tells her tale of a callow knight forced to learn and then internalize a true respect for women, counterpointing it with her own celebration of the sexual life, more than one of her listeners learn life-affecting lessons. As directed by Grainne Byrne and Katarzyna Deszcz, the cast of six double as pilgrims and characters in the tale, subtly letting us see each of their roles affecting the other. A generally bouncy spirit is maintained - literally - by miming horseback riding throughout, and only the most churlish of academics would even notice the anachronistically egalitarian 21st century attitudes they have infused into the text, so thoroughly enjoyable is the journey. Gerald Berkowitz

The Loves of Shakespeare's Women Assembly Rooms
Susannah York offers a programme of linked readings from Shakespeare as part of a promotional tour for her book of the same name. Every actor should have a solo show like this, that they can trot out to fill fallow periods, and there is no reason why York can't continue doing this one, on and off, for years - no reason except that it's not particularly good. Her readings, ranging through the usual suspects, from Juliet through Cleopatra, are rather perfunctory and unevocative, playing either like lifeless recitations or over-explicit audition pieces, while the links are obviously sentences taken out of context from the book, with abrupt and jarring transitions. Above all, the programme fails my two acid tests for this sort of reading: does she offer any excitingly new line readings or interpretations, or does she make me wish I could see her in one of these roles? The audience I was in was dominated by a coach party of Americans, between their city tour and their afternoon of shopping, and they applauded politely. I'm sure there are plenty of people like this who will enjoy York's painless foray into high culture, but I am not one of them. Gerald Berkowitz

Lyrebird - Tales of Helpmann Assembly Rooms (Reviewed at a previous Fringe)
Tyler Coppin's solo salute to dancer/actor Robert Helpmann is no overly-respectful hagiography, but it succeeds in making its subject seem significant, fascinating and fun. Coppin's Helpmann is a cartoon comic figure made up of vanity camp and inch-thick makeup. He is also a thoroughly entertaining raconteur, shamelessly waxing eloquent on his favourite subject - himself. From his early days in Australia, which he professes to have been bored with by the age of six, through a career in ballet, theatre and film, Helpmann seems to have devoted himself to self-promotion and self-enjoyment in equal proportions. He can be bitchy ("She had a face like a bruised knee"), tellingly critical, as on Nureyev, or lovingly appreciative, as when recalling dear friends Vivian Leigh and Katherine Hepburn. Always flamboyant and fun, Coppin gets an especially warm response when he has Helpmann call himself "a skinny old poofter having a hell of a lot of fun," and his closing is a declaration of love for matinee audiences. Those attending this mid-afternoon show cannot help but return the love. Gerald Berkowitz

Man In The Flying Lawn Chair Assembly Rooms
New York's 78th Street Theatre Lab takes the true story of Larry Walters, a California truck driver who in 1982 attached an aluminium lawn chair to some helium balloons and wound up at an altitude of 16,000 feet, as the basis for an exploration into the nature of American eccentricity and fleeting celebrity. In the group-created piece, Toby Wherry plays Walters as an innocent autodidact, who can honestly see nothing particularly odd in his plan to fly, and who easily engages others in his enthusiasm. Inevitably, he is unprepared for the 15 minutes of fame that follow his exploit, able to think no further than the glory of a brief TV appearance, and quickly reduced to a third-string lecture circuit. By populating the play with other eccentrics, from his girlfriend's cheerily oblivious mother to the blissfully dreamy members of a California cult, the play tries to suggest that only a nation that nurtures Jerry Springer-level weirdos can also create the occasional genius or adventurer. Unfortunately the play's superior, sneering attitude toward the subsidiary eccentrics works against this theme and leaves murky its view of its hero. Only in the very final moments does a particularly inventive bit of staging capture the glorious madness of Walters' obsession and of the spirit of open adventure it represents. Gerald Berkowitz

Marilyn: I Want to be Loved by You Komedia Southside
Helen Kane's salute to Marilyn Monroe is inventive, frequently witty, and occasionally delightfully surreal. That it is not a total success is the unhappy result of Kane being not as skilled a performer as she is a writer. Kane's Marilyn is a cartoon built on airheaded breathlessness. While the real Marilyn may have been crazy, she was not stupid, but Kane presents her as semiliterate, totally uneducated and lacking in any sort of self-awareness. There would be attractive hints of the holy fool in this characterization were it not mixed with sudden flashes of sophistication. But those out-of-character flashes are among the piece's high points, as when Kane comments tellingly on the exploitation of Monroe's image by having Marilyn turn the tables and do a Madonna impression, or sing that Elton John song with the lyrics turned against him. Turning Laurence Olivier into a ventriloquist's dummy or imagining Monroe performing Berkoff are attractively surreal touches that have little to do with the basic characterization. As a performer, Kane sometimes seems to be doing an impression of a drag queen doing an impression of Monroe, so totally dependent on the cliched externals of the image is she. Gerald Berkowitz

Ursula Martinez - Show Off Assembly Rooms
Leaves nothing to the imagination but she's still elusive, is Ursula Martinez. Is she a stand-up, queer comic, straight-up monologuist or just a great show-off? Probably everything, to judge from the wonderfully mixed audiences she attracts. This latest is a step back to look at the performer. The magic striptease opener lends an entire new meaning to The Vagina Monologues, swiftly followed by a showlong Q&A session about inspiration, performing solo, being half-Spanish. She interrupts the audience chat to update a video diary, then cue cheesy clip of a passionate Spanish love lament a la Martirio or Lola Flores, smoky vocals courtesy of assistant and erstwhile Freudian lover Carmen Cuenca, who reprises it live at the show's end. The delivery's a little stilted, the script (written with Mark Whitelaw) needs tightening, and perhaps the nudity is too obvious for some, but this performer is also happy to eat a whole raw onion. She connects with a trust the audience is dared to reject, and as she sat naked, sobbing her heart out at this predictable rejection, I so wanted to reach out and hand her a Kleenex (for the chair of course). And I'm still kicking myself for passing up the invitation to snog her onstage. Nick Awde

The Marquez Brothers Pleasance (Reviewed in London)
Yes they are real-life brothers - and lucky enough to share each other's comic talent, so need for any sibling rivalry there. In fact, one can only envy their rapport as they weave three sets of characters through a series of interconnecting sketches peopled by an achingly-observed array of no-hopers. Here life revolves around the local football club and the momentous nemesis of its annual disco and its aftermath. The show opens with a bickering Spanish flamenco dancer whose naff macho attempts ("You have to have BEEG bollocks!") at rousing his timid guitarist fall flat. Later, when complaining about this to his English, Arsenal-supporting cousin, a lesson in football hooliganism turns into an impromptu class in the language of the terraces. Add to these an oversensitive footballer, his overprotective manager, a jack-the-lad and his dumb mate, and you have an intriguing evening's worth of combinations thereof. The proceedings take place against a blistering track of naff dance tunes and torch songs a la Now That's What I Call Music circa 1980s and early 90s.Although the structure is a well-worn comic clotheshorse, it is one rarely employed nowadays with success. Here it does have success, and the cream on top of the icing is the fact that each section is a stand-alone piece, even though los Marquez make it refreshingly clear that they do not have to force a punchline each and every time - it is the getting there that is the pleasure. Chracterisation is the key to the success of these sketches, and although I do them a disservice as comedians, these are first and foremost fine comic actors. They require little or no props and the mere change of a coat to transform convincingly from character to character. Any hamming up simply adds to the humour since each character is based on quite frightening basis of observation. The audience found itself laughing in the most unexpected of places. A large part of the audience's pleasure stems directly from the evident pleasure the brothers themselves in their performance. Brilliant. Nick Awde

The Matchmaker Assembly Rooms
This quasi-play created by Phyllis Ryan from the epistolary novel by John B. Keane is the opportunity for some thickly-spread Irish folksiness and two warmly engaging performances. Keane's book is made up of the correspondence of a self-styled village marriage broker, with various clients and with his American sister, and the play sticks to that format, with only a few brief narrative bridges. Des Keogh plays ever-cheery Dicky Mick Dicky O'Connor, promising joy to all with a nod and a wink to each individual's special needs, and also a few of his male clients, notably a deeply lonely farmer and an elegant but randy country squire looking for a nubile bride or, failing that, a willing lad. Anna Manahan is Dicky's cheery American sister and a few lady clients, notably one repeatedly frustrated by the string of near-dead matches he keeps sending her. There's a lot of fairly predictable blarney-flavoured humour and the occasional touch of sentimentality, and both performers are so clearly having fun that the spirit is infectious. The hour is as fragile and transitory as tissue paper, but thoroughly entertaining while you're there. Gerald Berkowitz

Medea Assembly Rooms
Liz Lochhead's Scottish-tinged adaptation of Euripides, first seen in Glasgow in 2000, has returned to Edinburgh with some key cast changes, but remains a powerful theatre piece and vehicle for Maureen Beattie in the title role. Lochhead skilfully finds a balance between classical characterisations and rhetorical style on the one hand, and a thoroughly modern vernacular on the other, so that contemporary obscenities and phrases like "bust a gut" do not clash with the tragic material. As the wronged wife driven to a horrible revenge, Beattie plays both tragic heroine and soap opera character: she is first encountered as a larger-than-life offstage voice screaming curses, but she can also stoop to using her sexuality to manipulate men. Finlay Welsh plays Kreon as a complacent burgher hardly willing to deal with the trivial annoyance Medea represents. Duncan Duff joins the cast as a blokish Jason who actually believes himself when he smilingly assures his wife that he's doing her a favour by leaving her, while Carol Ann Crawford and John Kazek, who originated the roles of Nurse and Servant, return to bring their authority to the portrayals. Kazek is particularly impressive in a role that makes him swing from the fantasy that Medea is seducing him to the reporting of murderous horrors. Gerald Berkowitz

Sylvia Miles - It's Me, Sylvia Pleasance Dome
American film actress Sylvia Miles offers a very informal show of film clips and random reminiscences that will delight her fans and provide some interesting sidelights on Hollywood and Off-Broadway theatre for those who don't quite recall the name, though they'll undoubtedly recognise the face on the screen. Highlights include the entire six minutes of her performance in Midnight Cowboy that resulted in an Oscar nomination, and a comic poem that captures all the determination, foolhardiness and frustration of a young actress in her first fringe theatre role. Generally typecast by Hollywood as a loud, blowsy blonde, Miles reminds us through her clips that she was also capable of layered character roles, as in the 1975 Farewell My Lovely, source of her second Oscar nomination and also the occasion of uniquely being sung to by Robert Mitchum. She doesn't pretend not to have been in her share of undistinguished B movies, and even opens her show with a montage of clips less secure actresses would have hidden, but she also reminds us that she acted in plays by O'Neill and Genet Off-Broadway. A clip from Andy Warhol's Heat tantalisingly suggests that there might actually have been something of value in Warhol's cinema; and anecdotes about Warhol, Tennessee Williams and others round out the pleasant and unpretentious hour. Gerald Berkowitz

Tony Morewood - The Comedian's Book of the Dead Komedia Southside
T
ony Morewood eschews jokes almost entirely in his stand-up show, choosing rather to tell his life story in the faith that it will have interest and meaning for others. The result is sometimes evocative of time and place and sometimes interesting as autobiography, but never the both at once. The first half of his talk is devoted more to depicting the era of his youth than offering personal insight, as he talks of a 1950s childhood and 1960s adolescence by evoking conventional cultural markers. Even his account of an LSD trip and his glam rock and punk phases are more generic than personal, and, with an audience for whom most of this is ancient history, the general effect is of a livelier-than-most classroom lecture, complete with arcane references ("Morressey ­ the thinking man's Barry Manilow") It is only when he turns to the up-and-down arc of his comic career that his personal story moves to the front, but oddly it is at this point that he loses the larger picture, capturing none of the atmosphere of life on the British and American comedy circuits during their heyday. We are left with a rather pleasant man nattering on about things that evidently mean a lot to him, but that he can offer us no real reason to find interesting. Gerald Berkowitz

Julia Morris Assembly Rooms
A while ago, Oz exile and ubiquitous entertainer Julia Morris seemed, well, a little droopy in the material department while her raucous delivery had expanded in the wrong directions. But a nip here and a tuck there, and suddenly she's back, slinkier and slicker than ever. Punctuated by an endless supply of catchphrases and quirky asides, her Australian ingenue, fresh off the boat, romps tongue-in-cheek through the greatness that was Britain. Predictably the weather and shipping out the convicts take a knock, but these are mere tasters for mega-episodes such as mapping out London disastrous venue by venue, or gatecrashing a therapy, ending with a dissection of the dubious logic behind Dolly Parton's Jolene and getting back her man. Somehow spun into all this is an account of her membership of the C**t Club and dancing along to Dannii. The surface may be pure stand-up, but underneath you can see developing a nice line in the brand of social satire that Antipodeans seem to have made their own (that's a la Clive, not Rolf). Charmingly, infectiously offensive, Morris is the sweetest motormouth in the business and bubbles all the way along to her musical show-closer- surely the most inspired moment of mimed madness since Wayne's World's Bohemian Rhapsody. Nick Awde

Moscow Komedia Southside
A Fringe hit three years ago, this musical from Playwrights' Arena returns to find new audiences. Nick Salamone (book) and Maury R. McIntyre (music) imagine three very different gay men in some sort of Sartrean limbo, in which the only way they can keep themselves sane is by rehearsing a musical version of Chekhov's Three Sisters one of them has written. A bit too high-concept, you might think, but once you accept the premise, it actually works quite nicely. The men's emotional adventures ­ feeling displaced, longing for a more familiar reality, yearning for love, trying to find some sense in their pain ­ are legitimately paralleled with the Chekhovian roles they play, enriching our involvement with both the inner and outer plays. Under Jessica Kubzansky's direction, the three players make very inventive use of the venue, moving the play out into the audience and through the whole space. Nic Arnzen, Joshua Wolf Coleman and Clay Storseth are equally excellent, and if there is a weak link in the whole, it is in the songs, which are generally rather dead prose set to minimal music, even when they incorporate very strained rhymes. Imperfect, to be sure, and that convoluted premise is a big hurdle to get past, but there is clearly a lot of invention and real talent on display here. Gerald Berkowitz

Moving Objects Brunton Theatre
David Mark Thomson's three-hander is a well-constructed, old-fashioned play with a beginning, middle and end, empathetic characters and something of value to say. That makes it almost out-of-fashion by Fringe standards, but it is a credit to this suburban theatre that it continues to support and present such solidly professional work. An alcoholic woman played forcefully by Molly Innes comes to an old Jewish pawnbroker (Gareth Thomas, playing a type while resisting caricature) with her few items of value, and something in her desperation moves him out of his own emotional deadness. He discovers that she needs the money to hire a hitman (Paul Samson, finding layers of complexity in his character) to attack her ex-husband so she can get her daughter back. The pawnbroker's kindly interference disrupts her plans while also exposing the thug's unexpectedly deep emotional investment in the project. Things work their way through several crises to a moving and satisfying ending. Directing his own play, the author walks a tightrope above a landscape of realism, poetry and soap opera, always keeping his and the play's balance. Ultimately a small play, on the level, say, of a particularly good TV drama, this sticks in the mind longer than most fringe theatre. Gerald Berkowitz

Munchausen Pleasance
Bootworks offer a salute to the legendary taleteller that utilizes a remarkably inventive range of performance and theatre styles, but all to no avail, as the company's oddly desultory attitude to performance brings it all crashing down. The plot has something to do with Munchausen in Germany discovering that an English author is profiting from his fame by writing fictions in his name, but it is just the excuse for the portrayal of various of his tall-tale adventures, through puppetry, mime, shadow theatre, models, masks, lantern projections and the like. Each one of these episodes and modes has the potential for theatrical wonder, but each is sabotaged by sloppy presentation. Mime is not synchronised to sound effects, actors get in the way of the shadow puppets, cues are missed, props are dropped. Meanwhile, in the spoken scenes, the actors are clearly under-rehearsed or under-directed, stumbling through lines, breaking up the rhythm of scenes, utilizing funny voices straight out of Monty Python, displaying no energy or commitment - and, in general, giving the impression that they, like most of the small audience, would really rather be someplace else. Gerald Berkowitz

Phil Nichol Pleasance
There may not be any actual jokes in Phil Nichol's show, and indeed it appears that prepared material makes up only a small part of it. But he manages to generate a party atmosphere that sends an audience out happy and fully satisfied. Like many, Nichol begins by addressing and toying with individual audience members, but he keeps this up longer than most, and seems almost hesitant to get into the scripted part of the show. Even later, he will frequently interrupt or abandon a bit to follow the inspiration of the moment. There are real dangers to this approach - on this particular night he lit a fire under a female heckler and had a hard time controlling her for the rest of the show, and there were lapses as inspiration waned. But for the most part his high energy is infectious, so that he can make an actual instructional recording on how to scare off grizzly bears seem like great comic material. And by the time he creates a makeshift band by bringing out various instruments and finding someone in the audience who can play each, he has managed to get both players and listeners into the same spirit so that the joint actually rocks. Gerald Berkowitz

1933 and All That Rocket at Surgeon's Hall
This recital by Anna Zapparoli of songs by Brecht, Weill and others is all the more pleasant for being predictable - there are few songs or poems that the fan will not have heard before on similar programmes. But you can't hear Surabaya Johnny, the Solomon Song, Pirate Jenny and the like too often, especially not when sung with as much grace and intelligence as Zapparoli brings to them. Less familiar songs, like the Brecht-Eisler Song of the Nazi Soldier's Wife and a couple by Wedekind, are particularly welcome additions, and backing by a small band led by Mario Borciani is strong and unobtrusive. No credit is given for the translations, which I haven't encountered before, but they are good, combining accuracy with singability. Gerald Berkowitz

Ross Noble Pleasance
One of the fastest-thinking, most inventive and totally in control performers on the comedy circuit, Ross Noble returns with a new show built, characteristically, on equal measures of scripted material, improvisation and stream-of-consciousness. Like many others, Noble begins by chatting with the audience until he finds one or two people to tease gently. Then he segues seamlessly into prepared material, remarkably finding ways to slip in references to his victims of the night at regular intervals. Meanwhile, he slides from subject to subject so naturally and seemingly spontaneously that one can never be sure whether a particular riff is part of the script or an off-the-cuff meandering. His absolute control over the material is proven, however, by the way themes or elements introduced in passing at one point will reappear later in an entirely different context. A bizarre routine on plastic surgery that somehow involves drawing fluid from the eyes of owls runs its course and is replaced by two or three other topics, only to have a squinting owl suddenly show up in the middle of a take on Pop Star auditions. A sequence on Star Wars may be more than a bit outdated, but it is more than balanced out by surreal sequences involving sombrero etiquette and imaginary monkeys playing air banjo. Gerald Berkowitz

The Notebook Royal Lyceum Theatre
Wartime. A mother sends her twin nine-year-olds to the village of their cantankerous grandmother, who wilfully neglects them. Abandoned to their own devices and tapping into the adult storm that wheels horrifically around them, Lucas and Claus turn in to themselves to embark on a regime of self-education and desensitisation in preparation for whoever and whatever the future holds. Whipping each other, withstanding insults, performing in bars, bartering books, discovering sex, arranging deaths - all becomes fuel for the evacuee brothers' hunger to learn. Although details are deliberately scanty in this adaptation of Hungarian Agota Kristof's trilogy, this is clearly middle Europe in the Second World War. But subtexts about divided society and loss of innocence are wisely underplayed, focusing instead on the paradox of how the boys are doomed because they survive. Robby Cleiren and Gunther Lesage's deadpan boys are chillingly comic, straight out of a juvenile Crumb. Carly Wijs veers from the lunacy of the harelip girl to sexy maid to sadistic cop, while Ryszard Turbiasz deploys demonic nature in equal parts to grandmother, perve priest and demented soldier. De Onderneming has stripped theatre to its purest elements and then responsibly slotted in a good story, begetting a powerful, self-devised, directorless production whose lack of sentimentality made the lump in my throat at show's end all the more embarrassing. I have no glib hyperboles to roll off in conclusion, so I'll simply say this is the best work I have ever seen. Not perfect, just the best. Nick Awde

The Notebook of Trigorin Drummond Theatre
Tennessee Williams was one of America's greatest playwrights, but he had the ultimate artist's misfortune of outliving his talent, and his late works are uniformly disappointing. This adaptation of Chekhov's Sea Gull is, alas, no exception. As fascinating as it must be to fans of Williams and Chekhov, it distorts and coarsens one of the most beautifully subtle plays ever written, in predictable and unpredictable ways. In his last plays, Williams had increasing difficulty separating his characters from himself, so it isn't too surprising (though it is a dramatic mistake) that he makes the successful author Trigorin a homosexual driven not by the compulsion to write but by the compulsion to meet his audience's demands for new work. The other big change is a bit of a surprise, as Williams repeatedly makes explicit everything Chekhov delicately alluded to, and in the process coarsens the play. The fragile virgin Nina now comes on seductively to Trigorin, the manipulative Arkadina openly blackmails Trigorin by threatening to expose his homosexuality, the quietly despairing Masha goes on at length about her frustration, and so on, to the despair of any lover of Chekhov or of Williams. This production by the University of Southern California company is a mixed bag. In the central role of the idealistic young writer Konstantin, Ariel Joseph Towne is very fine, and may be a name to file away in your memory. Jennifer M. Zallar captures Arkadina's gratuitous cruelty, while Alan T. Lennick is a bit artificial as Trigorin but still holds our sympathy. The rest of the cast range from barely adequate to embarrassingly dreadful, and I will protect them by not going into specifics, except to note that well-bred young ladies of 19th-century Russia should not sound like Valley Girls. Gerald Berkowitz

Dara O'Briain Pleasance
Dara O'Briain's stand-up routine is based even more than most on audience input as, after a few warm-up Irish jokes (contrasting Irish and English attitudes to foot-and-mouth or Wimbledon), he announces that he is about to turn 30, and wants suggestions of things he should have tried or accomplished by that age. The bulk of his show is then made up of responses to things audience members call out. Obviously O'Briain has jokes ready for most predictable suggestions, such as bungee jumping, seeing the world or making a million. If the audience is not particularly responsive, he is reduced to providing his own cues with "The other night someone suggested..." and it may be that need to play both sides of the verbal tennis match that gives the act an occasional air of desperation. When the steam finally runs out of that extended premise, he turns to a grab bag of other material that seems dredged up from past shows, straining to squeeze one last laugh out of the film Titanic or the dotcom bubble. Gerald Berkowitz

Off the Kerb Roadshow Pleasance
This is a great late-night chance to catch a sneak preview of some of the newer comics in one go. On compere duties is Jason John Whitehead, a Canadian with a good line in audience patter who throws in sharply observational gags, although his forays into politics occasionally miss the mark. Opening is Angie McEvoy, who swings from the hard edge to the soft in a series of snapshots of life, the universe and everything, tinted with a unique female perspective. While her suggestion for a National Cunnilingus Day may not be to everyone's taste, her analysis of weight loss a la Julia Roberts will probably go down nicely. Next up is Mark Felgate, an unusual act in that he mixes ventriloquism (no dummy required) with stand-up, resulting in a string of shaggy dog stories punctuated by voices from nowhere where you least expect them. Last on is Shappi Khorsandi, who slips in and out of her routine as the mood - or the audience - dictates. Whether the subject arises of male appendages, posing nude, or the trials and tribulations of having an Iranian family, all strangely acquire a common thread courtesy of this comic's utterly deliciously dizzy delivery. Nick Awde

Deirdre O'Kane and Tara Flynn Gilded Balloon Peppermint Lounge
Operating a refreshingly testosterone-free comedy zone that still has balls are Deirdre O'Kane and Tara Flynn - they dance, they sing, and funnily enough, they make you laugh. The duo's main pool of inspiration is the world regurgitated through our TV screens. A Late Show setting sends up Mariella Frostrup in finger-licking form with a stable of cringe-making guests including a dumb Dana and an even dumber Tom Paulin. Their too-cool presenters for a Saturday kids' show send a shudder down the spine with each fluttered "bless!" as they patronise their youthful callers. Also attracting comment is the theatre world, where fishwife actresses blame terminal resting periods on the celebrities they desperately keep name-dropping. But, like the Murphys... Not only are the girls spooky mimics, they are also gifted with golden tonsils, and even when they sing a song straight it still seems funny -their Carpenters finale sets a mellow tone of irreverence while, contrarily, their girlie band routine could easily go to No 1. Crap title for a show, but that can't stop them being one of the best comic acts of the Fringe. Now will someone please give O'Kane and Flynn their own TV series? Nick Awde

Olaf Isbister - A Seaman's Tale Netherbow
This short play by George Mackay Brown, originally commissioned for the Glasgow Year of Culture but never produced, is given a loving premiere by Tweed Theatre that can only hint at its potential charm. In the tradition of Sinbad and Marco Polo, Olaf is a tale-telling seaman who recounts his adventures in a Glasgow barroom. Growing up poor in the Orkneys, he naturally took to the sea, but only after trying marriage and farming at home. That period in his life is wittily encapsulated in one late-sleeping morning, as his loving bride has three children and turns into a harridan before he can drag himself out of bed. Escaping to sea, his adventures tend to be of the amorous sort, as he repeatedly meets desirable women and the opportunity for riches - with a lovely heiress in Barbados and a bar maid in the Australian gold fields -- only to be foiled at the last minute when reminders that he already has a wife and family are inopportunely delivered. Scott Noble brings roguish charm to the role of Olaf, but the somewhat prosaic production is unable to conjure up the air of romantic fable the play demands. Gerald Berkowitz

O'Neill Triple Bill Scotsman Hotel
Before he wrote America's greatest realistic tragedies, Eugene O'Neill wrote a lot of experimental plays. And before that, he learned his craft through a few dozen short naturalistic pieces, three of which are offered by Sofa Productions in this disappointing programme. In The Web a tubercular prostitute and an escaped prisoner dream of romantic escape, only to have it thwarted. The Long Voyage Home shows a sailor looking forward to leaving the sea for a farm life, only to be shanghaied onto another ship. In The Movie Man a Hollywood crew is virtually financing a Mexican revolution in return for the film rights. None of the plays are masterpieces, though the second is a small gem. But, with three different directors, all three are mangled by the most amateurish acting and staging I've ever seen from professionals. Neil Sheffield inserts incongruous silent movie music and slow motion sequences into the first play, exposing his total lack of sympathy with the material. David Shaw has some sensitivity for the sea play, but is sabotaged by embarrassingly bad acting, while Nick Cawdron can find no drama or rhythm to the Mexican play. The actors, all of whom have professional credits, should all be ashamed of themselves. Gerald Berkowitz

Oram & Meeten Pleasance
"We went on holiday as boys and came back men!" Admittedly the vacation to which Steve Oram and Tom Meeten found themselves called was a week in a Swanage B&B. While this rite of passage may not be transferable for the rest of us, the humour certainly is. There's ping-pong one-upmanship to cater for that mid-twenties mid-life crisis, countryside animal friends, a provincial lad seeking his fortune as a drugs mule. Steve and Tom then mix the Dorset adventure with a running commentary on their own Fringe show. A stuck-up producer comes onstage to plug his Kafka show at Hill Street, but attempts first a worthy rant about arts funding. As stage fright takes ahold of his bodily emissions, the result is retchingly funny. Less successful are the musical interludes - Porto Stokes, the pyschotic Portuguese check-out man from Somerfield, is a bit of a one-note event despite the falsetto, as is the Wingnut pub band demo. The Enya male tribute band Menya is a notable if resoundingly daft exception. The duo blur straight man/funny man roles, effortlessly matching the older comics' enviable telepathy. At first encounter it looks as if they're stretching their material to its limit, it then swiftly dawns that they're perched atop that proverbial iceberg of ideas. Nick Awde

The Part of Bob Kingdom Will Be Played by an Actor Assembly Rooms
Bob Kingdom has generated an enviable roster of one-man shows from his many appearances at the Festival. In each show, he says, "I look for the 'me' in them", and today he clearly has enough of them to draw around as a mirror into his own soul. Through a series of front and backstage conversations both with himself and the audience, he constructs a bridge between the gap that divides performer and writer. Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas and Elsa Edgar (Hoover) leap from his imagination and are assembled or disassembled with each costume change. An invitation to look at the child behind the man leads to a guided tour around the colourful characters that make up his Welsh family. In between lies a highly perceptive analysis of the art of the one-man show. Kingdom's a natural and knows his audience inside out - a rapport is struck immediately and the resulting intimacy is tangible. I must confess, however, to not warming to Kingdom quite as much as wished. As with, for example, the Gielguds and Williams of this world, I feel there are still too many layers that give the lie to his well-crafted veneer of candour. Nick Awde

The Philanthropist Crowne Plaza Hotel
Christopher Hampton's 1970 social comedy is given a more-than-adequate revival by Context, a company from St. Andrews University. Part expose of what academics sound like when they're away from their students - he's got the mix of erudition, vulgarity and one-upsmanship exactly right - and part an answer to Moliere by studying a man totally at peace with himself and the world, the play uncovers a bit of darkness without ever losing its comic tone. Its central character is a mild, ineffectual sort who, as he somewhat embarrassedly admits late in the play, is generally quite happy with life, his only stress arising from a desire to like and be liked by everyone. The ways this openness affects others - confusing, attracting, frustrating or enraging - are what generate the plot, which involves a certain amount of bed-hopping among the academic set. Performances at first smack of student theatre with too much dependence on externals, like funny accents or voices, but eventually settle down and let the play's virtues shine through. Gerald Berkowitz

Pickups and Hiccups Pleasance (Reviewed in London)
Working in the Chicago tradition of improvisational comedy, Seth Meyers and Jill Benjamin of Boom Chicago offer a fast-moving if inevitably uneven hour. The opening sketch builds on the usual improv format, as they ask questions of various members of the audience and then create composite characters out of the answers for a scene of barroom chat-up. Some later sketches are more adventurous, giving them less time to prepare or fit audience material into an established frame. In one, the audience becomes the third party in a conversation, with Meyers and Benjamin reacting on the spot to shouted responses. Another brings two people out of the audience to play a scene onstage with the performers. The problem with this sort of improv is that, like Dr. Johnson's dog on its hind legs, we are impressed that it is done at all, and don't really demand that it be done well. Some of Meyers and Benjamin's pieces, like the one in which she leaves the room and then has to guess sketch elements provided by the audience in her absence, operate strictly on the "See? We pulled it off" level. Scripted bits, including a sketch about a man who talks to his penis, are weak, perhaps because we expect more of them. Both performers frequently strain to fit the audience-proposed material into their sketches, as she in particular repeatedly forgot elements and had to be reminded of them. Both have limited ranges, with the characters in their various sketches all tending to sound the same. Gerald Berkowitz

Pigs C Belle Angele
This 40-minute dance piece, produced under the umbrella of the Hull Truck Theatre, is an inventive and evocative exploration of the ethos of English football hooligans, made all the more impressive by the fact that it is danced by women. (A brief note for non-Brits: football - i.e., soccer - games in Britain and abroad are routinely disrupted by organised gangs of toughs who attend for the sole purpose of starting fistfights or worse with the opposition's fans.) Working from evidence that most football hooligans are in fact middle class white-collar workers during the week, dancer-choreographer Lucy Cullingford sees the key to their experience as frustrated machismo. She and her other dancers - Tara Hodgson, Lucy Suggate and Amy Tomson - dance men bound in by their jobs and offered no other release than excessive drinking. We follow them on an increasingly drunken ferry ride to the continent, where local women both entice and reject them, leaving them buzzing with adrenaline and testosterone that explode in random violence that is only after-the-fact justified by team loyalty. To an eclectic score compiled by Andy Wood, the dance draws on vocabulary as varied as ballet and Broadway, to always evocative and visually stimulating effect, while the image of women portraying men adds both sexuality and ironic commentary. Gerald Berkowitz

Plano B Continental Shifts at St Bride's Centre
This is a 'free' adaptation of a poem by Fernando Pessoa called O Marinheiro, or The Sailor, which, the programme notes, "brings three women, living together in a restricted environment, face to face with the corpse of a maiden". So far so good. There follows the usual bit about questioning the human condition. But of course. The stage is a square marked by lines of petals and duck feathers, so the action is pushed both inwards and upwards into trapezes, ropes and frames. Like sirens bedecked in white wedding dresses, the performers are more gymnasts than acrobats, their bodies fusing and unfusing not only with each other but with the set. The costumes are all lace and bloomers, that alternately wrap or billow, envelope over heads or removed for props. Integral to the action is Sergio Kafejian's evocative soundscape, that constantly shifts like wind and waves with music, voice and effects. Naturally nothing has the remotest connection to the poem unless you already know it, and the dreamy alternation between Brasileno and English is ultimately confusing in whatever language. Devised by Linhas Aereas and directed by Beth Lopes, this is a visually arresting, even sumptuous piece, yet is let down by structurally flawed narration. Nick Awde

Terry Ponzi Presents Gilded Balloon
Sex and drugs and badly fitting wigs. This spoof exposé documenting the rise and fall of Bristol's most famous seventies record producer, mogul and have-a-go svengali is one of the more oddly compelling highlights of the Fringe. Sometimes celebratory, sometimes regretful, Tony Ponzi recounts his tale of hungrily leapfrogging his way up the music business corporate ladder. His big break comes when he ousts loutish label boss Barry Duncan and takes over his stable of stars, including lurve god crooner Raymond Knight and his girl, equally naked in ambition behind her Laura Ashley smile. But Ponzi's nemesis appears in the shape of Raymond's cokefiend muso brother Titus, and the rest is the sad history which Tony has now broken a 22-year silence to impart. The dialogue unashamedly samples Naked Gun via The Likely Lads and The Godfather - a gift used well by the cast who also make up the slick house band. However, while Kevin Weeks' wimpy Ponzi goes down well he lacks the oomph that a more focused performer could bring the part. And all those years in the business should have taught him the folly of putting a Fender Stratocaster through a Peavey amp. Gold disc for effort, double-platinum for fun. Nick Awde

Pooh & Prah Komedia St. Stephens
Alternately known as Pookh I Prakh, depending on which poster you see, and variously translated as "Dawn & Dust" or "Fluff & Feathers," this performance piece by Russia's Akhe Group declares itself as offering images arising "from organising emptiness and creating zero actions" with "no messages, no narratives ­ just signs making obvious what is only assumed." In practice, this means two men (Maxim Isaev, Vadim Gololobov) and a woman (Yana Tumina) in ragged-clown whiteface performing a string of random actions. Two of them stare fascinatedly at the spotlights for a while. One drinks a beer. A gun goes off. A bag of sand is spilled on the stage and then swept up. The broom becomes a horn. Virtually none of the images is beautiful in itself or evocative in any way. Although wearing the mask of poor theatre, the production is actually very elaborate, with smoke machines, flying props and an extensive music score. From time to time what seem like themes float to the surface, as in a sequence that suggests a developing relationship between the woman and one of the men, but they are deliberately subverted lest the programme accidentally wander into coherent meaning. One can't escape the strong suspicion that the emperor is naked or, at the very least, wearing clothes whose pattern is visible only to him. Gerald Berkowitz

Popcorn C Venue
Top movie director Bruce Delamitri is having a hell of a morning from the moment he puts his key in his front door. Back from celebrating his first Oscar win, he's pulled a stunning starlet, but there's a surprise waiting him in the form of uninvited houseguests, Wayne and Scout, aka the Mall Murderers - trailer-park white trash who are on the run and armed to the teeth. Oh, and Bruce's producer as well as his wife and kid are also on their way to see him with even more bad news. The resulting black comedy gets a little wordy but does throw up some finely comic situastionsand slips in a fine argument about the blurred boundary of galmorising violence and the price of fame. Nice to see director/producer Benet Catty back in town with another cracking production, although it is hampered by the space's restricted views. And there is a palpable Mametisation that may not be to everyone's taste - understandable, given the company's penchant for the great man, and funnily enough the play reads better, making Elton's insipid vision of America snappier with added edge. It is to the credit of all involved that they make it hot box office. Nick Awde

Postcards from Maupassant Komedia Roman Eagle Lodge
Two Friends Productions offers this light-hearted collection of short pieces adapted by Caroline Harding from the works of Guy de Maupassant. Small truths are told about love and life in the course of the hour, but it is the grace of the writing and the performances - by Harding, Candida Gubbins and Dominic Taylor - that makes the production work. There are five pieces in all, each fragile and slight, and each played with a delicate appreciation for its merits, as director Timothy Sheader wisely does not attempt to make more of the material than it can support. A straying husband returns to his wife, only to find that she has learned some unexpected lessons in the economics of love from his mistresses. A man provides an intimate service for a woman he meets on a train, and then must face the embarrassment of sitting together for the rest of the journey. Three people are affected by the arrival of spring in different ways. Nurses tending a dying man find ways to make the vigil less onerous. Two strangers find that a graveyard meeting is the starting point for a possible relationship. Each of the sketches is essentially comic, while each has just enough of a hint of character or emotional depth to keep the whole programme from floating away Gerald Berkowitz

Private Angelo Valvona & Crolla
The adapters of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Mike Maran and Philip Contini, have now turned their narrative skills to Eric Linklater's novel about Second World War Italy. Regular bloke Angelo is in love with Lucrezia who won't marry him until after the war, and so he ends up drunk in a German pioneer corps trying to desert to the Allied side. His break comes when he frees a British officer trapped under a jeep and accompanies him through the liberation of Italy. Through Angelo's eyes we get a snapshot of ordinary Italians as their country is ravaged by war. The picaresque format opens up a multitude of subplots: in the contessa's castle there's a Rennaisance Madonna painting hidden from the Germans, the comforting Lucrezia mysteriously becomes pregnant whenever Angelo isn't around, while Angelo himself seeks for the courage he so hilariously lacks. The resulting culture clash pulls up an amazing array of comic clashes not just of culture but also the sexes. Music comes in the form of bouncy folk tunes from Dick Lee's clarinet and Freeland Barbour's accordion which, aided by the odd burst of opera and excellent visual gags from the hand props, round off a piece of classic storytelling whose double delivery makes it double the fun. Nick Awde

The Proof Royal Lyceum Theatre
The barbed wire dividing two anonymous European states is gone, and flowing in the populations and politics across the increasingly porous frontier is a 50-year-old man who claims terminal illness. This is his final chance to see his hometown, where clues may lie to the whereabouts of the longlost twin no one believes existed. Thirty-five years after The Notebook left off, De Onderneming's second instalment of its adaptation of Hungarian Agota Kristof's novels revisits the twin brothers whose dehumanised bonding was forged then split by the Second World War. Things begin to crumble immediately. No sooner has one fact been uttered than another appears to change or contradict. In the long years of the aftermath of war and partition, everyone hides a shameful past while history has been rewritten so many times that truth shifts like time. Gunther Lesage maintains a quiet dignity as Claus, surrounded by a dazzling merry-go-round of characters created by Robby Cleiren, Carly Wijs and Ryszard Turbiasz. All the elements that made the first play a one-off wonder are present, but after such underplayed genius it is inevitable the focus finds itself less sharp, the characters less meaty, the exchanges less connecting. Action, lighting and set become a little too European, all disjointed stylishness. although there is a spark when flashbacks to the adults' childhood dominate the narrative. But my comparison is an insult to cast and production. This remains a brilliant work and, I suspect, on an international platform it will prove the more successful of the two plays. Nick Awde

Raw Pleasance
Chris O'Connell's play Car was a fringe hit two years ago but his follow-up, while well-intentioned, is not likely to be quite as successful. A dark and ultimately despairing look at dead-end youth, it covers essentially familiar ground with only a few new illuminations or insights. A small gang of teen vandals is led in their forays into graffiti and random violence by the deeply disturbed Lex (Jo Joiner) who is given to uncontrollable fits of vicious anger. An unmotivated and possibly deadly attack on a random victim shakes up her followers, leading to the beating up of one and an attempt to escape by another. Meanwhile, social worker Rueben (Gary Cargill) shows an unusual interest in the gang and its leader, gradually exposed as more than professional, and leading to even further violent outbursts. The image of young offenders stuck in a mode they can't escape, either because of inner demons or inability to imagine alternatives, is a strong one, but the play is unable to bring us sufficiently inside the characters to see them as more than sociopaths. So we leave as pessimistic about understanding or helping these social cast-offs as we were when we entered, neither enlightened nor enriched by the encounter. Gerald Berkowitz

Reader, I Murdered Him Pleasance
There's enough invention in Sophia Kingshill's comedy for three or four plays, and that is ultimately its downfall, as all three or four vie for supremacy in what ends up a bit of a jumble. In a remote moorside cottage live two modern women. Charlotte seems to think they are the Brontes, and Emily is willing to go along for the sake of peace, except that Charlotte keeps trying to kill off the blind Mr. Rochester -- literally. When an actual blind man goes missing, a police officer named Belle Acton (Cue knowing smiles from Bronteans) arrives to investigate. Factor in what may be a madwoman in the attic, up to three dead bodies, a lesbian seduction, talk of masturbation and literary criticism, recurring organ chords of doom and a convenient thunderstorm, and the literary, theatrical and comic levels start bumping into each other more frequently than the actresses bump into the furniture on the cramped stage. There's a delightful Bronte spoof in here somewhere, and a semi-serious study in sexual energy sublimated into art, and some Pirandello toying with the boundary between reality and illusion, and probably a few other things I've forgotten. It is all done very well, and the cast -- especially Rebecca James as the blank-faced and blank-brained Charlotte -- have a lot of fun with it. But if the author had separated out the several strands she might have had three or four fun plays instead of one. Gerald Berkowitz

Resident Alien Assembly Rooms (Reviewed in London)
Quentin Crisp, who died last year at the grand old age of 92, grew up as a flamboyantly effeminate homosexual in an age when that was literally illegal in England, and the experience gave him a philosophically detached view of life which he expressed with aphoristic wit. (He once called himself "one of the stately homos of England".) Since he earned his living as a nude model, his 1968 autobiography was titled The Naked Civil Servant, and it made him something of a gay icon, enabling him to live the remainder of his life contentedly as a B-level celebrity, famous primarily for being famous. Tim Fountain's play, based on Crisp's writings and diary, is structured as A Day in the Life Of. We meet Crisp in his cluttered New York slum apartment, as he slowly dresses and makes up to meet interviewers (who never show up). Along the way he pontificates wittily on figures from Oprah Winfrey to Margaret Thatcher, and topics from politics to housekeeping ('Never dust. After the first four years it doesn't get any worse. The key is not losing your nerve.') Crisp is played by another gay icon, drag performer Bette Bourne (not in drag). The impersonation is pretty good, though the actor in Bourne makes him unable to resist being far more animated and actory than the laid-back Crisp. The result is an entertaining introduction (for those who don't remember him) and a sentimental revisit (for those who do) to a delightful and now sadly missed character. Gerald Berkowitz

Resolution Assembly Rooms
As both writer and performer, Pip Utton's strength lies in his ability to take us deep into the psyche of his characters, and then make us discover unexpected and unsettling things about them and, by extension, about ourselves. In his latest piece he plays two roles in alternating pieces of monologue - the father of a young girl killed by a hit and run driver, and the imprisoned killer. The father is by far the more sympathetic, torn apart by an unbearable grief that is compounded by the added insult of the killer's obscenely short prison sentence. But gradually, while the man's sorrow imperceptibly evolves into a murderous anger, we are faced with the discovery that the figure we have so sympathised and identified with is on the edge of a dangerous madness. Meanwhile, against our wills, we have been forced to recognise that the killer is suffering in ways and depths we would not have guessed. Utton may telegraph the tragic but dramatically satisfying ending a bit earlier than he wishes, but that does not significantly impair the emotional power of his complacency-shaking work. Gerald Berkowitz

Reworking Cassandra Gateway Studio
An actress stands on a ladder and makes gnomic pronouncements in the persona of Cassandra, while being heckled by someone in the audience (actually, the only other person there besides me). He goes onstage and they mutate into a married couple who were once on opposite sides in a war and now hate each other, since they've worked out that he killed her family back then. They take turns trying to poison each other. There are sound effects of a party. He finds a mouse in his pants. They fondle a rubber chicken and mime vomiting. He puts on a tiara. She tells of how the dog bit her mother, and he gets aroused. They sing a country and western song while waving hot dogs about. From time to time she goes back up that ladder and says she's Cassandra again. Coherent storytelling may be out of fashion, but it is simple courtesy to toss your audience a clue now and then. Written and directed by Kate Browne, and featuring Sarah Moore and Kevin McDermott, with Anna Frazier as the puppeteer (although there aren't any puppets), this is without question the most pretentiously self-indulgent piece of totally opaque theatre I've seen at this year's festival. {Actually, I wrote this before seeing Pooh and Prah.) Gerald Berkowitz

Road Music C Venue
The Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club dates back to 1855, but even in more recent years it has had a strong record of professional-quality productions. If this new play-with-music by Alex Parsonage and Tom Perrin isn't the best thing they've ever done, it's still a fascinating concept interestingly presented. In 1967 the American beat poet Allen Ginsberg visited the aged and discredited imagist poet Ezra Pound in his Italian exile. The play imagines the meeting, as reported by a fictional woman journalist who the authors have invented to be present. It becomes a story of mutual blessing, the younger and in fact more highly regarded poet still feeling the need of approval by his idol, while the older man, withdrawn into the bitter suspicion that all his work was worthless, is comforted by the sincere admiration of his fan. In performance, Adam Tuck as Pound has little to do but sit in silent bitterness, and thus must convey the sense of Ginsberg's gift to him through subtle underplaying. Mark Wainwright's Allen occasionally has a bit too much Woody Allen in him, but he captures the sense of a truly holy fool that was the centre of Ginsberg's charm. Interludes of jazz played by the authors contribute to the dreamy, elegiac tone.Gerald Berkowitz

Rough Crossing C Venue
The Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club offers the delightful opportunity to watch Tom Stoppard adapting Molnar, with more than a passing salute to Noel Coward along the way. The silly plot of writers trying to complete a Broadway musical on a transatlantic liner, while keeping the composer from discovering that his beloved star is fooling around with her co-star, is just an excuse for Stoppard's patented wordplay. There's a character, for example, whose reaction time is so slow that he's always answering one question behind what's just been asked, to comic effect, while another man, trying in vain to order a drink, keeps phrasing his request in ways that encourage the steward to drink it for him. Stoppard is very much the star of this production, with the student direction and performances adequate without really having the style and snap that would significantly contribute to the fun. Gerald Berkowitz

The Saddam Brothers Komedia at Southside
Two Saddam Husseins bound onto the stage to compere a revue that's "taking the friendly face of Iraq to the Little Satan". Complete with Desert Storm fatigues, preposterous berets and de rigueur moustaches, the dictators keep up a steady barrage of audience-haranguing to a soundtrack of cheesy organ pop classics. With terrible puns plundered from 'Allo 'Allo, Mark Brailsford and Mark Katz reinvent the Iraqi musical and laze in bed with a copy of New Woman squabbling over their sensitive sides. Guesting with a patchy string of songs and monologues are songstress Kate Van Dike and monologuist Carol Kentish. Since they are, respectively, deadringers for Tom Cruise (far fanciable as a woman) and Nicole Kidman (well, she's tall and fair-haired), their Tom and Nicole divorce lament more than makes up for any shortfall. Eric Page takes the mic for a lengthy stand-up spot. He has an interesting trove of ideas but took some time to warm up - hardly surprising since his tales of masturbation, speed, gayness and more masturbation are totally at odds with the cheeky slapstick of his Iraqi hosts. No Exocet of a show, the writing needs to be tighter and the merest flicker of direction would be welcome. A lot of the humour is over-referential and there is the running problem of clashing styles, but despite the chaos I emerged chortling all the way down Southside. Nick Awde


St Nicholas Assembly Rooms
Conor McPherson is a disgracefully young playwright whose works have been quietly taking theatredom by storm like a latterday, gentler Mamet. St Nicholas is very much in his mould - a long rambling shaggy dog story which in the telling fires off round after round of cracking humour while offering often unexpected insights into what makes us all tick. This time we have the tale of a jaded, maverick theatre critic (yes, I know...) whose destructive mid-life crisis spurs him into a chance encounter that takes him into a very different world. Quite what that world is, you'll have to find out for yourselves. Making a perfectly louche and world-weary Dublin critic is craggy Irish actor Peter Dineen, a veteran of McPherson's mega-hit The Weir and a performer of some presence. Diving deep into the narrative, he surfaces with a pearl of a performance that may not always milk the suspense but gets ten out of ten for atmosphere. Storytelling as you'll rarely encounter. Nick Awde

Schizophrenia/Sensitivity Hill Street
Altitude North's offering for this year's Edinburgh takes the form of two pieces that are different yet complement each other. Experimental theatre is a handy tagword, or perhaps visual/tonal poetry is more appropriate. In Schizophrenia, Oliver Renton plays a man who imparts a message to the audience in jerky movements that reflect the fragmented nature of his mental state. Sensitivity, on the other hand, is a more lyrical piece - as the title suggests - where Jonathan Robson uses the flow of his body to examine his own masculinity. A particularly effective moment is when he bandages his fists like a boxer's yet is unable to keep up the façade. Adrian Smith's words for both sections have a strident ring, although perhaps lack a clear style to drive any underlying meaning. On piano and composition, George Rodosthenous deploys a wide palette of textures to create at times mellow, at times jarring soundscapes - mixing shades of the likes of George Winston and John Cage - aided by the able Jonathan Coates on tuned percussion and drums. These are bravado performances all round. However, I am extremely limited in any further response since I find the subject matter a major stumbling block. The first piece in particular is difficult to consider seriously, since society's romantic intellectualisation of mental illness, along with substance abuse and prostitution, really needs to stop. Unless of course you're a schizophrenic. Nick Awde

Sealboy: Freak Theatre Workshop
Thrill as Mat Fraser shaves himself, ooh as he puts his trousers on, wow to the sound of him sawing wood (and smoking a joint). He can also flap and clap his hands like a seal - the impersonation is a remarkable one since he's missing most of his arms. Cue one of the best one-man shows in the Fringe as the action seesaws between the memories of Sealo the Sealboy, a Deep South freakshow performer, and Tam Shrafer, disabled actor of today, moaning in his professional capacity about auditions, agents, adverts and will he ever get to play the romantic lead. Writer/performer Fraser draws you in to the world where he is the one who is normal, and it works because he avoids kneejerk politics or mocking able-bodied attitudes- although, as he can't help but point out, it may be some time before we see a short-handed Henry VIII since it's only recently black actors have been allowed to do soap adverts. The American accent slips and the drum 'n' bass closer is naff but aside from that, aided by director Ewan Marshall, Fraser has created a brilliant show that will continue to be thought-provoking entertainment long after opera singers stop blacking themselves up for Othello. Oops, a bit of politics there. Nick Awde

The Secret Love Life of Ophalia Assembly Rooms
Steven Berkoff's fantasia on themes from Hamlet is a jeu d'esprit that bubbles along quite delightfully for about half its length, before going seriously wrong and sinking like a lead balloon. Berkoff imagines events pre-Shakespeare, as Hamlet (Martin Hodgson) and Ophelia (Freya Bosworth) meet at a party in Elsinore and begin a secret correspondence that soon gets very hot and heavy. He begins with a gracious welcoming note, she replies a bit more effusively, he gets a bit intense in an adolescent Shelley way, and soon their hormones are taking over. A very funny pair of letters has them lapsing unconsciously into sexual imagery (He: ride me like a horse. She: plow my field), but that's just the warm-up for some openly sexual fantasising on both sides that has the letter-writers squirming in their chairs. (Incidentally, through all of this, Berkoff maintains a recognisably Shakespearean style that becomes part of the joke.) And then events catch up with the plot of Hamlet, and everything gets leaden as he tries to change them into Romeo and Juliet and only succeeds in making them soppy. The clash between the sexuality and high inventiveness of the first half and the dreary banality of the second is dispiriting, and not even a few clever touches in his shoehorning of his material into Shakespeare's plot can salvage it. A very few audience members walk out about halfway through some performances, offended by hearing their sweet Ophelia talk dirty; they don't realise that they've already seen the best part of the show. Gerald Berkowitz

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll Pleasance (Reviewed in London)
Eric Bogosian's string of monologues provides a dark, profane and morally ambiguous composite portrait of the American male. Written in inventive, evocative language, and delivered by Danny Richman with a full appreciation of both the verbal music and the psychological depth, the 90-minute programme is alternately comic and horrifying. From persuasive street beggar to too-smooth businessman, from raging madman to self-satisfied rock star, Bogosian's portraits are all exposed eventually as life's losers, sharing certain tragicomic qualities. Macho sexism is a constant, as are very limited horizons of imagination and a total lack of self-awareness. The rock star has no idea how ignorant and self-contradictory he is, just as a prisoner celebrating the gusto of life sees no irony in his condition. High points include an extended comic description of a stag party gone wrong, told by a participant who sees nothing odd in the event's descent into violent, drunken chaos; and the quiet menace of a self-styled artist driven to self-hating madness by the elusiveness of riches and fame. That last piece makes manifest another common thread, that in their various, almost always unsuccessful ways, each of the figures was questing after the slippery promises of the American Dream. Though lacking some of the intense anger and implicit threat of violence that Bogosian brought to his performance of these monologues, Danny Richman achieves his own special scariness just by making his monsters and madmen so very nearly normal. Gerald Berkowitz

Shagnasty and Duck Gilded Balloon
This new comedy by Rigel Edwards plays like a better-than-average TV sitcom episode without ever really transcending the genre. The title pair are a couple of life's losers, hapless petty criminals who envision big time opportunity when they get involved in a plot to import Thai prositiutes to London. But raising the seed money involves volunteering for various medical experiments and other extreme measures. Factor in a tarot-reading Welshman, a WPC who has seen the light and gone over to the dark side, and several double-crosses of various stripes, and you get a sufficiently complex comedy of criminal errors. Along the way as well are several laugh-inducing comic images, such as an attempt to smuggle cocaine in a funeral urn that looked a bit too much like the one that held daddy's ashes, and a climactic stand-off involving more guns in less adept hands than is exactly safe. Kevin Hand gives a happily comic and appropriately touching performance as the designated shnook of the group, the worm who spends the entire length of the play gathering up his energy to turn. But a general laxness of tempo and fumbling for lines, along with one-dimensional characterisations, suggest under-rehearsal or under-direction by Owen Lewis. Gerald Berkowitz

Shakespeare for Breakfast C Venue
This fringe perennial returns with one of their brightest shows in years. The idea of starting the day with a light, vaguely-Shakespeare-based revue was exactly in the spirit of the fringe, and the fact that they give you coffee and croissants with your ticket is a delightful bonus. In the past, the revue format was usually some variant on characters from various Shakespeare plays getting together or rebelling against the author. This year the young quintet present themselves as scientists researching the arts of love, and offering advice, some of it based on Shakespeare. So, for example, we get a modern yob placating his girlfriend by reciting a sonnet, and Kate and Petruchio's meeting as a sample pick-up method. But some of the best material has nothing to do with Shakespeare, as when a couple invite audience suggestions on how to help them meet. And in the middle of it all is a simple, fresh playing of the Romeo-Juliet balcony scene that is one of the best I've ever seen - proof once again that Shakespeare, if you don't do him in a heavily Shakespearean way, can always surprise and delight. Gerald Berkowitz

Shaving and Plucking Komedia Roman Eagle Lodge
To call Gisela Renolds' 40-minute play hair-raising would be too easy a pun, so instead I'll say that, by forcing a reconsideration of some fairly common sexual fantasies, it produces a deliberately cringe-making and consciousness-raising experience. The single character, played by Jayne Davies, is an amiable housewife whose husband found her body hair unpleasant and encouraged her to a course of extreme depilitation, so that regular (and painful) pubic waxing became a prerequisite for lovemaking and a happy marriage. At first willing to pay the price, the speaker only gradually discovers that this seemiongly mild fetish on her husband's part is actually part of a larger need to dominate and control, and ultimately to sadistically humiliate. Her growing awareness and her very appropriate revenge round out a tale that has much to teach both men and women. I see a long future for this piece at women's events, psychology conventions and university theatres, though I can't help feeling that the average fringegoer who wandered innocently into this powerful show might have had an experience considerably heavier and more mind-bending than was anticipated. Gerald Berkowitz

Shy Shining Walls Komedia St Stephen's
Two chairs, a woman and a man, a percussion track rocks from industrial to primeval. Side by side as if on a rollercoaster then riding in tandem, Sandra Trejos and Alejandro Tosatti make the air between them dance in these extraordinary five duets (aka Paredes de Brillo Timido) from Costa Rica's Diquis Tiquis. While their bodies create fluid slo-mo riffs like the tide's ebb and flow, it is their faces that narrate. As the music turns melodic, the feel is freer, dreamier, jettisoning the chair anchors. Personalities ripple in and out of each other to create a near perfect wave. It looks minimalist but no two moves are the same and the concentration of imagery is such that 'miniaturist' is more apt. Wonderfully tongue in cheek, the result is too magical to spoil by worrying the programme notes for their dry artistic exposé. For this work alone, which uses a cracking soundtrack from the likes of Wim Mertens and Arvo Part, Trejos is a choreography god. Sure this sort of stuff was awash in the long-gone days of Merce Cunningham, but the movement and narrative here look as if they were invented only yesterday. Spellbinding, poetic, strangely and unexpectedly moving - just as good music knows the value of silence, here beats the genius of stillness. Nick Awde

Spiritual Nuggets Greyfriars Kirkhouse
With the creeping if not rampant commercialisation of the Fringe, this is a breath of fresh air embodying as it does that original festival spirit. And spirits embody this gentle romantic, post-Friends comedy, where a ghoul and her grumbling apprentice observe the interaction of a group of three girls and three guys over a couple of days. While there is not much of a plot, there are witty snapshots of discussing the meaning of life and the mundane, getting stoned, and the girls' objections to Dreamcaster. Each seems on the verge of a great discovery: maybe love is the answer, maybe it isn't, and what was the question in the first place? Holding it all together is the developing love interest between the sensitive guy and the independent girl. The set consists of a simple yet effective system of blocks that create a flat or park at will, lugged about by the hapless ghouls. Alistair Logan's play is ingenious in its own way and there are nice touches such as the tormented but boring ghost. Not quite Wings of Desire nor indeed Angel, but the characterisations are engaging and there's a heartbeat in each story that draws laughs of recognition throughout. Nick Awde

Swallow C Venue
The young company called Wicked Theatre makes a strong debut with this play by 18-year-old Sara Doctors. A group of twenty-somethings all connected in some way with the art world take turns falling in love or lust with each other, in various permutations and various mixes of gender. With scenes overlapping, there is usually someone centre stage complaining about being heartbroken while one or more couples are snogging to the side. The culture of casual coupling and casual betrayal is insightfully and incisively captured, and if the play doesn't actually go anywhere, we clearly do have a writer-in-the-making here. She's a shrewd observer of character, and once she masters plotting and structure more fully (There is a story, but it seems imposed on the characters, rather than developing organically), she will be worth watching. Performances are fine all around. Gerald Berkowitz

This Way For The Gas, Ladies And Gentlemen Komedia
The Life and Death Orchestra offers a musical programme based on writings from and about the Holocaust that is, as it must be, a deeply moving experience. It is very much to the credit of the creators and performers that it is also ultimately far more uplifting than depressing. The six-piece orchestra is led by Bill Smith, who set the poetry, letters and memoirs that make up the text to music. He alternates vocal duties with Angi Mariani, and while neither has a conventionally trained voice - he leans toward Dylanesque nasality while she has a church singer's tremolo - the roughness of their delivery gives some songs a Weill quality and all a passionate sincerity. Texts range from survivor memoirs to the works of poets like Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz. The songs sometimes have the awkwardness of literal translations or of prose shoehorned into music. But the forced juxtapositions can prove very affecting, as when the mode of a torch song supports lyrics about the ultimate separation. Most movingly, the programme ends with a waltz and the affirmation of love and life. Perhaps more appropriate to a concert hall or church than a fringe cabaret, it is nonetheless a fully worthwhile hour. Gerald Berkowitz

3 Dark Tales Assembly Rooms (Reviewed in London)
Comic physical theatre at its most high-spirited and energetic, if not necessarily most original, is provided in this 100-minute romp by Theatre O. While most of the young company's performance techniques and styles have been seen before in other groups, the eclectic mix is continuously entertaining. The action begins with the adventures of a mousy little man, depicted in a mix of mime, verbally-produced sound effects and a mostly gibberish pidgin English. Terrorized by his monstrous wife, ridiculed by a smug neighbour, bullied by his boss and set upon by teen hoodlums, he takes comfort in fantasies of heroic and violent revenge. Attention then shifts to one of his co-workers, an attractive but repressed young woman who learns she has only a short time to live and grasps at a last opportunity for the pleasures and self-expression she has been denied. The style shifts as well, to a surprisingly effective mix of slightly heightened comic acting and evocative dance. Style and focus shift once again to watch the nasty boss of the first sequence go to pieces when his wife leaves him. This time straight acting is combined with inventive and symbolic mime, the cast managing to evoke, among other things, a smelly refrigerator and exploding microwave. While none of the three tales is particularly original, and stylistic devices can be footnoted to sources as varied as Complicite, Trestle and music hall, the cast of four - Joseph Alford, Carolina Valdes, Lucien MacDougall and Sarah Coxon - prove extraordinarily versatile, playing dozens of roles with instantaneous transformations and shifts in style. Writing is credited to the cast along with Jon Rand, with Alford directing. Gerald Berkowitz

Three Wishes Pleasance
Last April, as the records show, an astral cloud enveloped the earth and for four weeks we all had the chance to make three wishes come true. Since then, understandably, things have never been the same. This romantic comedy tells the personal experience of two ordinary people before, during and after the event. George and Flip are a splendidly scatty, perfectly matched couple who proudly announced their engagement the day before the cloud came. Now they've got their wishes, what could go wrong? Beautifully crafted vignettes relate their tale with a neat narration technique, taking the concept to its logical absurdities, and there are more a few laughs in the telling. Aided by Erica Whyman's sensitive direction, Ben Moor and Janice Phayre have a dreamy yet focused delivery that instantly connects. From the moment they walk on, they make an endearing, convincing couple you want to wrap up and take home with you. As a writer, Moor's imagination occasionally oversteps himself, but under the delightful dizziness lies a remarkably moral play that tackles trust, as the characters question their expectations of each other. In a funny sort of way it has shades of It's a Wonderful Life, but more poignant. Nick Awde

Tiny Dynamite Traverse
Abi Morgan's play is about friendship, responsibility, and the need to take emotional risks. If it ultimately goes soft and conventional in its conclusions, it reaches them by new and attractive routes. Two lifelong friends are on holiday, an annual event during which the more stable one (Scott Graham) attempts to clean up his disturbed drop-out pal (Steven Hoggett). Both are fascinated by news stories of bizarre accidents, using them as fuel for an ongoing debate over whether life makes sense. Both are haunted by the suicide of a woman they loved, and cannot face the emotional dangers posed by a new woman (Jasmine Hyde) until they lay their ghosts. Imagery of random accidents - literally, of lightning striking - and of the excitement of challenging fate guide us to the somewhat anticlimactic discoveries that the seemingly stable man may be the more dependant, and that one cannot achieve love until one is prepared to risk pain and self-exposure. This coproduction by Paines Plough and Frantic Assembly draws on both companies' commitment to new writing and visual theatre, the latter evident in Vicky Featherstone's direction, which seamlessly moves from the naturalistic to the stylised (There's a sequence of what can only be called synchronised sunbathing), and in Julian Crouch's spare but evocative design. Gerald Berkowitz


Tomorrow Never Knows Pleasance Dome
This play with music, by Dean Collinson, Gene Jacobs and Mick Walsh, is an attempt to raise what one must assume is consciously banal material to tragic or at least highly dramatic heights. It fails. In a plot that begins as sitcom and descends into soap opera we are introduced to an unhappily married couple living with his Steptoe-like father. She, we eventually learn, is pregnant by a lover who has moved on to another girlfriend, while the husband fights the temptation for flings with both that girlfriend and a neighbour, who then dies after taking some bad Ecstasy, and I'm sure I've left something out. The only original and interesting element in this is a singing narrator-chorus who comments on the action, much in the mode of Willy Russell's Blood Brothers. While some of the songs have dramatic or musical power, they do not serve the purpose of heightening or universalising the cliched and uninvolving story. Gerald Berkowitz

Too Late for Logic King's Theatre
Tom Murphy's 1989 play ends with a parable that too explicitly spells out the moral that love, friendship, community can only be maintained if the right balance of intimacy and independence is achieved. The body of the play shows various characters in the constant process of fumbling for that balance. At the centre is Christopher (Duncan Bell), a philosophy lecturer who has withdrawn from his family to focus on his career and the pleasures of Schopenhauer. The death of his sister-in-law, and the fear that his brother (Hugh Ross) might kill himself, drag him back into the world, and he spends the play watching others reach out to each other, realising the extent of his isolation, and beginning his own awkward attempts at reintegration. There is ultimately something soft at the core of a play that has its hero find redemption through the rediscovery of the value of love, and all the crispness of Patrick Mason's direction or starkness of Francis O'Connor's design (towering sets that dwarf the characters, furniture from the most sterile of offices) cannot disguise it. Still, there are a number of strong scenes along the way, as when Christopher's teenaged daughter (Jo Freer) instinctively finds the right words with which to comfort her uncle, or when a family friend (Juliet Cadzow) bubbles and mothers too much, but with such obvious good will that she is not intrusive. Duncan Bell makes Christopher's journey, with its hesitancies, false starts and brief retreats, thoroughly credible and engrossing, right up to and through its sentimental conclusion. Gerald Berkowitz

Trev and Simon's Circus of Evil Pleasance
Trev and Simon are back, exposing their darker side. Taking Denis Wheatley as their bible, and strewing the stage with a proliferation of pentagrams, hounds of hell and Darth Vader, they evoke pure, naked evil as this new show's theme. Peeved at being banned from sacrificing a live lamb, the duo descend into their usual mayhem, misunderstandings and visits to the loo, and lead the audience in chanting incantations from the Next clothing catalogue (you had to be there) in a satanic ritual to raise the dead. There follows a trawl through history's gallery of villains, including unforgiveably Gallic Bluebeard, priapic Rasputin, cuddly Mother Shipton plus witchfinder general, and, er, Eviel Knivel. Dripping with resurrected seventies slapstick, there are frequent sightings of the Crackerjack ghost. Frankly evil puns snake through the ether. This is scrappy stuff and hardly cutting edge, the humour hasn't grown while the expletives have, yet Trev and Simon embody the power of good since in Live and Kicking they had so much exposure they are now as much part of the national fabric as the National Curriculum. And how many other (legal) acts can you think of who can get an entire audience chanting "Satan, Satan, Satan" with all the glee of a pub singalong? Nick Awde

UberArmy C Venue
Ubersausage's latest round of mayhem is subtitled Natural Born Grillers, a concept that clearly got canned somewhere in the obligatory eleventh-hour rewrites. The only military references are the cute army-issue T-shirts the comics don and doff throughout the show as they do a cod rap about being ginger, the young pregnant couple deciding to abort and raise a teddy bear instead, and a mind-bendingly surreal giant fly. Out on the perimeters, a sketch on the Wagon Wheel as metaphor for eating babies' brains works, while the Anne Frank musical falls flat on its face, despite the Hitler cameo. Punchlines are rare and the material's nowhere near as offensive as they'd like to think (quite cuddly in fact). But that's not the point. The premises are original and there's a deeply satisfying hi-tech uber-slickness. And underneath the gags and slapstick lies a thoughtful team of writers and comic actors. Oh, and experts in mass marketing too - along with director Rohan Achyara they know which buttons to press. So Matt Holt, Andrew Jones, Ciaran Murtagh, Tom Price and Beth Sheldon take a well-earned bow. An infectious blend of laughs for belly and intellect, the ghostly clown video sequence alone makes it worth the ticket. Nick Awde

The Umbilical Brothers: Speedmouse Gilded Balloon II
It's a packed house that wildly greets David Collins and Shane Dundas like rock gods. And that's the cue for the athletic comic duo to launch into a loopy intro session before announcing they have a new concept of virtual reality comedy. That means they run through the rest of the show as if it's on tape where every scene, every routine, every movement or word can potentially hit rewind, fast forward, slo-mo, tracking, brightness - basically anything you can find on a remote control. Half the laughs come from never quite knowing whose finger's pushing the button. Their technique is a mindboggling whirlwind of clown, slapstick and stand-up with dollops of ventriloquism and mime, rifling through every trick in the book and making them seem brand new. Like Ren and Stimpy on speed, they explode an invisible dog, kill flies, swim under water with their sinister clown roadie. And like jugglers, by the end they've woven all the routines into one wild rollercoaster. To be honest, it all starts to wear a little thin despite the frenetic pacing - particularly the endless variations on giving each other the finger - but it's still a magnetic, access-all-areas stomper. Nick Awde

Viva La Diva Pleasance
Florence Foster Jenkins was the William McGonnigall of sopranos, a singer who combined complete absence of talent with complete absence of self-awareness and an innocence that raised her incompetence to high art. She was rich enough to subsidise a lifetime of recitals in New York from 1912 to 1944, culminating in one recording and a Carnegie Hall concert attended by legions of fans who viewed her as a camp icon long before the term was invented. Chris Balance's new play is a loving salute to Jenkins' grand folly, and a delightful vehicle for popular television actress Jean Boht. In their hands, and those of sensitive director Chrys Salt, Jenkins is shown to be a woman infectiously happy in her delusion, with just the occasional fleeting hint, as in a flash of panic in the eyes before a performance, that she might somewhere know the truth. Ian Angus Wilkie provides fine comic support as the impoverished pianist who takes on the job of accompanist and only then hears her sing, doubling as her supportive companion-manager. We get to hear Jenkins' actual recordings in the concert scenes, with Boht comically lip-syncing (it turns out that her voice wasn't so much bad - she managed to come close to most of the notes - as totally untrained, with a screechy thinness), and in a lovely climactic coup de theatre we hear what she herself must have heard. A sweetly comic delight. Gerald Berkowitz

Wax On/Wax Off C Venue
Hot Wax deliver a strip of extended sketches that smooth out the extraordinary side of ordinary people - in the process generating no small measure of unexpected laughs. The first slice of life is a Geordie gender bender soiree which keeps you pinching yourself at seeing two women brilliantly portray two men badly playing women. Next up are the streetwise Maltese carer who breezes round an old woman's flat, oblivious that her employer's stone dead, and the Essex girl mum who has her 38DD (slightly used) mammaries subjected to a bizarre series of tests, thinking they'll get her a career in modelling but the woman in the white coat has other ideas. Then there's the busybody Irish mum who's "just popped by" and whose supposedly innocent barrage of questions bulldozes through her daughter's non-life as the humour factor soars as the depression plummets, followed by the office bitch whose put-downs and penchant for the Welcome Pack marks her as a serious rival to the League of Gentlemen's Restart Pauline. Sarah Cakebread, Caroline Conway and Finn Taylor acquit themselves well on writing and performing duties. Neat character studies, unexpected laughs and some great barbs underlie this deceptively gentle show. Nick Awde

Weekend in Rio Pleasance Dome
Sugar is mad as hell and bound for Rio in tourist class. Her fellow passengers are stampeding to the loo to escape her bile. Unbeknownst to her, travelling on the same flight up in first class is her son, the object of her fury. She's chasing Chester, who has absconded with cash from the family business and is now headed for a weekend in the sun with white trash sisters Tina and Jen. In the motormouth Sugar, Ellen Ratner has created a magnificently larger-than-life comic icon: as her anger turns to rejection, the resulting mid-air explosion instantly atomises anyone within range. Later, at the first-class bar, after making mincemeat of the miserable, menstruating Jen (a doe-eyed, put-upon Sara Hammerman), Courtney Shaughnessy's Tina liberates her devastating charm all over Cavin Cornwall's Ramone, who has just paid through the nose to upgrade to safety away from Sugar's attentions. Writer Steven Froelich has created an irresistible monster of situational humour where the laughs are further fuelled by the claustrophobia of the fuselage setting. And as a production, this show is so airtight even the cramped airline loos are the real thing. High altitude camp where every line keeps the laughter soaring higher. Nick Awde

Weirdass Rocket South Bridge
Chicago-based Stephnie Weir and Robert Dassie collaborate in a short improvisational revue that differs from most improv in only invoking audience input once. They open by asking for a theme (e.g. food) and then go into a string of sketches, some of which are connected to the theme, while others are clearly staples of their repertoire - I would guess, for example, that the used car salesman and the doctor panicking a patient find their way into every show. It is clear from the fact that they both know exactly when a sketch ends that the bulk of their material is pre-scripted. The improvisation comes in choosing which sketches from their repertoire to use and in what order, and one may not know until the other makes a transition to a new bit exactly where they're going next. There is evidently also some improvisation within the framework of each sketch, as they challenge each other with ad-libs. The result sometimes feels more like a rehearsal exercise for their benefit than a performance for an audience, and the show is neither fish nor fowl, not sufficiently polished for a prepared revue nor truly enough off-the-cuff to be satisfying improv. Gerald Berkowitz

White Van Man C Underground
It's a funny thing to find yourself in a theatre laughing at someone you pass a hundred times in the street each day for free. It is the hallmark of classic comedy that you are stopped in your tracks and have a good giggle. Dave is that man in the white van, the tool of his trade. On the road for four years, he's got nine points on his licence to show for it. An honest man doing a dishonest day's work, there's nothing he won't deliver, clear or fix. Yes, Dave likes life in the free lane where he's his own man, because here, in between breakdowns, roadkill and the cross-channel booze 'n' fags run, he can hold forth on everything: mobile phone monopolies, wife Mitsi, other drivers, garden gnomes, Disney and the tabloids, and remarkably little football. Nothing new here, but writer Martin Beaumont and director Oliver Langdon have created a disturbingly heart-warming slice of life where the humour is unexpectedly gentle, separating lovable rogue from the bigot - a spot-on portrayal by Andy Spiers. And it manages to be well topical without dating the script, hitting the comic mark with incisive regularity. Just the tinest of quibbles about the accent, which tends to veer all over the place, innit. Nick Awde

The Whole Shebang Assembly Rooms
There's a scene in the film The China Syndrome in which Jack Lemmon, attempting to convey essential technical information while over-excited, becomes tragically incoherent. Jack Klaff's current solo show has much of the same quality. Klaff has something very important and exciting to tell us about modern science, but he doesn't seem quite sure what it is, and very little that is clear survives his confused and passionate intensity. Klaff spent two years as the resident humanist in a cutting-edge scientific think tank, and discovered things about science and scientists that excite him, things that amuse him, and things that appall him, and he wants to tell us everything in one unstructured and under-rehearsed rush. He jumps frantically from topic to topic, from personal anecdote to technical explanation, sometimes in mid-sentence. He passes around a couple of glasses full of something without making clear what they're supposed to demonstrate (and, besides, it's too dark in the audience for us to see whatever we're supposed to see in them). He tells stories that have no point, promises revelations that never come. Part WI lecture, part Speakers Corner rant, this unfocussed, un-thought-through jumble is far from the polished theatre pieces audiences have come to expect from Klaff. Gerald Berkowitz

The Whore Whisperer Gilded Balloon II
Australian stand-up comic Meshel Laurie worked for three years as a receptionist in Melbourne's legal brothels, and offers this behind-the-scenes peek into the world of the working girls. Unfortunately, lack of preparation and polish make her one-hour talk a considerable short-changing of those expecting a professional performance. Though there is some titillation in her unsentimentalized accounts of the businesslike atmosphere of the business, and of its participants' total contempt for their customers, there is little in the way of news here. Nor are her brief impressions, of various types of "mugs" (customers) and of girls and "trannies", more than fleetingly comic. Despite her stand-up experience, Laurie is not a polished performer, with little stage presence or sense of delivery, and her presentation meanders rhythmlessly in what seems a stream-of-consciousness way. Half-hearted attempts at audience involvement fall flat, and she seems to lack the basic performance skills necessary to carry her through such lapses. Her lack of preparation was shown in the first performance as she lost her place in the script, and had to call for prompting, at least a half-dozen times. There may be a future for this material in table talk and pub chats, but neither it nor Laurie's performance is yet up to the minimal standards for a ticket-buying public. Gerald Berkowitz

Wiping My Mother's Arse Traverse
Iain Heggie's new play is a TV sitcom with pretensions. An old woman in a nursing home bonds more closely with her gay nurse than with the son who rarely visits and who is displeased to discover that the nurse is his former lover, especially since he is currently wooing a woman. Meanwhile, someone - son or nurse - has been stealing from the old lady's savings account. Most of the action is strictly sitcom - the old lady's mood swings and lapses of memory, the nurse's camping, the son's embarrassment. When the play decides to seriously be about something, it is the son's fecklessness, probably the least interesting strand, and one that drags it down somewhat. And everyone gives more-or-less generic performances, except for Jill Riddiford, who has a really original character in the girlfriend - a hard-nosed realist who knows what she wants from life and what's she's likely to get, and is prepared to compromise to get it - and runs with the role inventively. Gerald Berkowitz

The World of Spencer Brown Pleasance
Spencer Brown is living proof of the fickleness of success - and how a conducive venue and packed house are as much part of a comic's art as the material. He is hardly the most structured of comedians, but watching him work a tiny crowd in the Pleasance Downstairs (read: small dank cellar) makes you wonder what he could do with a good dose of location, location, location, since you'll catch far worse acts selling out the plush Cavern on the other side of the courtyard. Subjects range from the loneliness of the long-distance stand-up to sexual inadequacy via the odd bit of spoofed magic, but promising punchlines are lost in the absence of a truly unifying concept for his show despite the surface schmaltz. Brown works incredibly hard and rarely misses a beat - if a one-liner or visual gag founders he's straight on to the next before you've noticed and the result is a gentle build-up of affection until you're willing him to make you laugh regardless. This is a brave man, a fearless man, in whose vocabulary you will search in vain for the word Œdying'.
Nick Awde

The Year of the Monkey Komedia at Roman Eagle Lodge (Reviewed in London)
Claire Dowie combines the smoothness and audience rapport of a stand-up comic with the hypnotic intensity of an inspired storyteller and the inventiveness of an insightful and sensitive author in this engaging and moving programme of monologues. With virtually no set or production support, Dowie merely stands on a bare stage and offers a quartet of alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) comic, moving and frightening character studies. Two short pieces combine comedy with touching emotional warmth, as a young child develops a comforting magical explanation for a beloved grandfather's descent into Alzheimers, and a neighbourhood of OAPs pooling their hobbies and talents slip imperceptibly into a self-sufficient commune with revolutionary overtones. These are bookended by two longer and darker pieces. In the deceptively innocent-seeming opening, a woman's cheery simplicity is gradually exposed as the morally blinkered self-confidence of madness, as memories of The Man From Uncle are used to justify serial murder. In the powerful closing monologue, a mother finds her daughter's wedding the catalyst for accumulated anger and despair over a life of emotional emptiness. Sprinkled with flashes of high comedy and coloured by the author-actress's own engaging personality, this is the very model of a thoroughly satisfying solo performance. Gerald Berkowitz

You've Been Wonderful C Belle Angele
When the leader of a barbershop sextet dies, the remaining five try desperately to keep their careers alive in this show biz satire that quickly breaks down into a series of independent sketches. Now, before continuing with this review, I really have to pause to point out that there is no such thing as a barbershop sextet (They only come in packs of four), that they have confused a cappella doo-wop singing (Goodnight Sweetheart) with barbershop (Goodnight Irene), and that they've got the wrong sort of hats. (Things like that really do matter if you want your show to have any credibility.) Anyway, there's a very funny speech by an Old Girl revisiting her posh school, and a rather sweet dance of a guy trying to lure a girl out of her mourning. There's also a clumsy satire of Steps-type choreography, a totally incomprehensible mime sequence involving a letter, another opaque one somehow about paper dolls, and a sketch about a pathetic pub act that goes on too long for its joke. The show is evidently group-created by this company from the University of Warwick, and one can applaud their ambition and attractive performances while wishing they had had better writing and direction. Gerald Berkowitz

 

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(Some of these reviews appeared first in The Stage)

 

Reviews - Edinburgh Festival - 2001