EDINBURGH 2002
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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

EDINBURGH 2002

The several simultanous programmes collectively known as the Edinburgh Festival take over the Scottish capital each August, bringing thousands of shows in around-the-clock performances. No one can see more than a tiny fraction, but we reviewed almost 150.

Originally on several pages, we have condensed them onto one page for the archive. They're in alphabetical order (solo comics by last name), so scroll down for what you want or just browse.

 


The Al-Hamlet Summit Pleasance Dome
Playwright-director Sulayman Al-Bassam transmutes Shakespeare into a contemporary Arab setting in this production by the Zaoum Theatre that is too infrequently more than a technical curiosity. Keeping Shakespeare's basic plot but none of his words, the play is set in ultramodern offices, with the characters communicating by webcams and only rarely sharing the same space. Al-Bassam brings Shakespeare's implicit political subtexts to the fore by replacing the ghost with the pamphlets of a counter-revolutionary underground, to whom Hamlet is drawn in his hatred of Claudius, so that the king's concern is less about his nephew's madness or personal threat than about the fundamentalist insurrection he threatens. And strolling through the background of almost every scene is an enigmatic female arms dealer, her presence suggesting that all are pawns of larger outside forces. While some characters and elements - Laertes, the Nunnery scene - translate quite effectively into the new setting, many others, notably the Prayer, Closet and Mad scenes, do not. In the end, the play illuminates Shakespeare slightly by reminding us of the political themes and ennobles the contemporary setting slightly by presenting it in the form of classical tragedy. But for the most part its accomplishment is merely that it manages to pull off what too rarely seems more than a gimmick. Gerald Berkowitz

And The World Goes Round Bedlam
A student group, many from Trinity College of Music, float through this Kander-and-Ebb anthology show without either performers or songs making much impression. It is actually difficult to see why. The singers have fine voices, and act their little hearts out when appropriate, but far too rarely do any of the songs come alive, and then it is their inherent quality, not the performances, that do it. Of course the kids stand in the long shadows of some mythic performers, so that their versions of And All That Jazz or Maybe This Time almost inevitably disappoint. It is when they do something to make the songs their own - a down-tempo harmonising to Cabaret or multilingual New York New York - that they shine best. And it should be noted that, in spite of being miked, in spite of being in a small space, and in spite of the band being restrained, their lyrics are frequently drowned out by the music. Don't they teach anything about projection at Trinity College? Gerald Berkowitz

Dan Antopolski Pleasance
A Heineken among comedians, Dan Antopolski reaches the parts others don't. The baffling thing is working out precisely what those parts are since, like a latterday Wheeltappers and Shunters compere, the groans he evokes from the crowd are as pleasurable as the laughs. Tonight he had a gift in an entire front row of Americans which meant double money for his 'get to know the audience' spoof. Weaving his scripted act in and out of the improv patter, he soon settles down to the act itself - a lucky dip of gags, observations, dodgy props and crooned ditties. These include nude mindgames with his accountant while putting Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals on expenses, Darth Vader and asthma, tampons on the NHS, a serenade (Careless Whisper) by his right foot to his trainer before getting down to some serious toe lurve. There's nothing hit and miss about these surreal launches into the slightly unknown. Throw-away or meaningful, Antolpski's material is immaterial since his disarming style and mastery of inflection mean that even a single word becomes a punchline in itself. Having said that, he delivered the best tasteless Queen Mother joke so far this Festival. Nick Awde

Bachman and Evans - Special Edition Pleasance
The Special Edition appendage refers to a new DVD of the comic duo's show lovingly reproduced here in "live format" complete with frame by frame commentary options from smug director and Big Brother sidekick. Other features include freeze action, rewind and foreign language options - all reproduced with a manic attention to detail. The mini-soap details the eventful flat share of James Bachman (the one like a "plumper Alan Davies") and Mark Evans ("Ian Hislop's drowned corpse") where the latter leads a glamorous highflying life while the former just mopes about. But one day Evans finds himself in the local cornershop and there he purchases a carton of secret formula Ribena - the proprietor used to be a mad scientist - which handily turns him into a superhero. His super powers reveal his flatemate is a sham (surprisingly, for example, his runaway Chicken Twix concept was all made up) but soon the worm turns and Bachman becomes his evil super-nemesis. The hi-tech concept is rendered deliberately lo-tech, producing some wonderful clashes of interpretation, jogged along by surreal turns of phrase and a Goonish propensity for preposterous props. However, the puerile doctor's c*** scene and its spin-offs spoil the whole thing. Nick Awde

Baobabs Don't Grow Here Gilded Balloon Teviot
This play from South Africa's Fresco Theatre is an attempt to create a modern myth and fairy tale while infusing it with socio-political import, so they might be disappointed if I say it is just a fairly successful piece of light entertainment. James Cunningham and Helen Iskander (who devised it with director Sylvaine Strike) play two Romany gypsies travelling through Africa because of a family myth that a baobab tree will encourage baby-making. They actually spend three-quarters of the play in North Africa before they figure out they want to be a few thousand miles south and then get there in a minute of mime - perhaps a result of the improvisational process getting bogged down in early material. Anyway, there's some funny mime of chasing trains, getting lost in the Casbah and the like, along with some clever use of a few drapes and some miniatures to evoke the journey. But the whole premise never makes sense, and the two performers have clashing styles, he playing fairly straight while she affects the bugeyed grimaces and exaggerated reactions characteristic of some who have studied with the wrong French masters. Gerald Berkowitz

Battery Operated Birds Pleasance
This group-created piece by Theatre Trash presents itself as a comment on a world full of rules and instructions, but you wouldn't know it if you hadn't read the programme note. What you see are a series of essentially unrelated scenes involving a core group of characters. A boarding house landlady tries to maintain the fantasy that her residents are a happy family. One boarder, a sad planespotter, tells obviously falsified tales of his romance and marriage. The other boarders let a very thin veneer of excessive politeness barely mask their aggression. From time to time a disembodied voice gives a conventional safety warning, such as be careful with knives, which is the cue for someone onstage to cut himself. Then everyone moves backwards to replay the scene until the offender gets it right. But these sequences are no more central to the work than the scenes of self-delusion or, indeed, the scenes with no clear content at all. The cast of five do a fair job of pretending they know what's going on, though most in the audience are less successful. Gerald Berkowitz

BBC New Comedy Awards Grand Final George Square Theatre
Climaxing a series of nationwide heats, the eight finalists in the BBC competition appeared together for a final head-to-head, to be broadcast next month. The finalists were easily divided into two groups. Karl Spain, Paul Kerensa, Ninia Benjamin and Bob Kobe offered typical stand-up sets with varying degrees of success. But the other four each had an effective original touch. Gary Delaney delivered a languid, laid-back series of off-the-wall one-liners much in the mode of American comic Steve Wright, holding the stage through his pauses with confidence and authority. Stefano Paolini displayed a remarkable repertoire of voices and sounds, at one point creating percussion, music and lyrics of a rap number all with his mouth. Ventriloquist Nina Conti, whose Edinburgh act last year was weak, had progressed remarkably both in technical ability and in sharpness of material, so that her interaction with a cheeky monkey doll was fresh and funny. And Chris Tisdall's comic persona Dylan, a West Country rustic, proved an audacious experiment in eschewing jokes entirely and just letting the character behave naturally to comic effect. In the end the judges chose Conti, with Paolini and Dylan as runners-up, all popular choices, though for my money the funniest person onstage was host Jimmy Tarbuck, whose adlibs and fillers during breaks in taping outclassed everyone else, while the weakest was warm-up Phil Nichol, who became increasingly frantic as material that normally works with his fans repeatedly died. Gerald Berkowitz

Bedhead C
Fuse Productions' company-devised play is the sort of thing you feel halfway through that you don't like, but discover by the end that you have liked very much indeed. Its portrait of the lives of super-slacking twenty-somethings is presented with such benign affection and with such inventive staging that it is a delight. The play follows the nights and morning-afters of flatmates played by Jake Smith, Ben Davies and Sarah Coyle, with a very inventive design allowing one set to serve as the bedrooms of each. They drink, have hangovers, lie about, bring people home, have nightmares, and try to revive themselves with endless cups of tea - not necessarily in that order, but in a regular rotation. Each actor doubles and quadruples as various friends, lovers and partygoers, and not the least of the play's pleasures is the technical skill with which, under Chris Gage's flawless direction, they accomplish lightning-quick changes. In the end, two of the three become a couple while, with their aid, the third finds a girlfriend of his own. No doubt many in the audience will recognize their lives or memories in this depiction, but infused with a warmth and innocence that are a tribute to sensitivity of the writer-performers. Gerald Berkowitz

Best of Irish Comedy The Stand
Six o'clock is perhaps not a prime time for a comedy club, and performers and audiences at the Stand's Irish showcase can find the going particularly hit-and-miss. Lineups change from day to day. On this occasion compere David O'Doherty has some trouble warming up the crowd at the start, though at his reappearance later he scores with a routine about the difficulties of writing a traditionally sombre Irish autobiography when you grew up in middle class comfort. Dierdre O'Kane comes on with high energy, generating laughs with her accounts of the Irish version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and building further with a good riff on why the Irish can neither give nor take compliments gracefully, though a piece on sexual fantasies doesn't work as well as it might at a later hour. Andrew Maxwell takes the stage with confident authority, scoring quickly with some ad libs and then solidifying his control of the audience by exploring the image of a Scottish Disneyland. From then on everything works, from jokes on skin cancer to an extended riff on Edinburgh tramps at festival time, with his anti-Scottish barbs generating the biggest laughs. Gerald Berkowitz

Big Value Comedy Show - Early Cafe Royal
Four comics for less than the price of one elsewhere is pretty good value for money, even if the selection is inevitably hit-and-miss. Compere Justin Moorhouse has a nice line in self-depreciating fat jokes to supplement a typical warm-up of audience chatter and insult. Hal Cruttenden's act is built on the tribulations of being a straight man with effeminate mannerisms and a high-pitched voice, though he makes some attempts to branch out from that limited base with a sequence of jokes about living with a Northern Irish wife. Rohan Agalawatta stands out from the crowd by telling actual jokes, a string of unrelated one- and two-liners that score by their novelty and unpredictability. His short set exposes a danger of this approach, which has little room for ad libbing, but as he develops more material his act should grow stronger. Headliner Jim Jeffries runs through a lot of familiar topics, from TV commercials through Big Brother and boy bands, from a refreshingly skewed Australian perspective. Having warmed the audience up with this safe material, he effectively switches to more openly sexual jokes, taking care, as he notes, to offend men and women equally. Gerald Berkowitz

Big Value Comedy - Late Café Royal
Host for the evening is Al Pitcher, a disarming New Zealander motormouth whose skills in crowd control are second to none. Working his way through the crowd he stumbled across real jewels: the Scot with removable teeth, the lawyer sat behind the prison officer, the Frenchwoman with a leg broken from skittling British cows. He milked each leaving enough to link up the rest of the evening. Kicking off is Darrell Martin whose immensely engaging patter of gags and observation of life on the road failed to save him from a comatose Sunday night audience - he stumbled at that vital first gag and valiantly struggled to catch up. A very funny man who deserved better. Angie McEvoy's laid-back delivery hides a wicked incisiveness that can catch you off guard - as indeed it's meant to. Her impending nuptials cued a whip-round for suggestions about successful relationships, each of which she pounced on and despatched with a sly put-down. Last on is Australian Steve Hughes, who combines a sleepy drawl with exquisite timing and Satan death metal looks. He lights a slowburner of a set that relentlessly sucks you into his warped world of Sydneyites and mowing Scotland in a day - yet under the severely dark humour beats a surprisingly political conscience. Nick Awde

Cameron Blair in Afrodisiac Gilded Balloon
Ever since Richard Stilgoe mangled the comic song territory so lovingly staked out by the late and great Jake Thackery, I've felt bum-numbing apprehension each time a comedian reaches for an acoustic guitar (Boothby Graffoe excepted). In between gags, Blair knocks out a number of ditties that aren't that bad but slot uneasily into the act since there are at least three different concepts jostling for space: the songs do Yoda voices and a three-part alternative Scooby Doo a la Jimi Hendrix, politics gets a look-in with amusing though out of date quips, while promising observation stems from Blair's perspective as a New Zealander based in London. Additional material comes in the shape of a one-man re-enactment of Braveheart plus an promising but underdeveloped rant about PC grammar checks and that dreaded green squiggle under tracts of what makes sense to you (btw: the 'afro' in the title simply refers to his mop of blonde curls). Blair looks a funny guy but he's still a comic in search of a theme ­ or management. Nick Awde

Blood Gilded Balloon Teviot
A guy and a girl meet on a Jamaican beach at a tourist orgy. Seven years later they are still together after that first hedonistic locking of eyes and a voodoo wedding but now that perfect moment has fizzled. One night they find themselves plunged into a supernatural menage a trois when a succubus ­ a demon that possesses people for sexual purposes ­ appears demanding they put the fire back into their lives or perish. Awkwardly at first then passionately they reveal their innermost sexual fantasies and then something magical happens as it kicks into a emotional rollercoaster that is alternately funny, sexy, moody and spine-tingling. As the beset couple, Sarah McGuinness settles down to more measured feistiness after an over-frenetic start while Benjamin Brown opts for a brilliantly understated performance. However, an unnecessary distraction for this focused, stark production lurks in their Caribbean accents that make supplementary characters sound like Nigerian leprechauns. Writer and director Michael Phillip Edwards neatly dissects racial as well as gender politics to create a daring, spirited work that effortlessly makes the case for female and male sexuality in the same breath. Nick Awde

The Blue Orphan Traverse
Like a chamber opera production of Our Town designed by Salvador Dali, Catalyst Theatre's new offering is a visual and aural delight, a celebration of myth-like innocence with the haunting evanescence of a dream. Written by director Jonathan Christenson and actor Joey Tremblay, the musical play depicts a day in the life of a North American village, with the theme of impermanence established from the start with the announcement that the town will be destroyed by a tornado before nightfall. There is little plot, as we are introduced to a string of characters and told their back stories: the old woman dreaming of an encounter years ago with the rare butterfly of the title, a street urchin who sells paper butterflies, a young man leaving the security of an orphanage to face the next phase in his life, a young woman dreaming of metamorphosis, and others. Clearly butterflies as symbols of change, beauty and fragility flit through the play, Bretta Gerecke's design of scrims and curtains providing a visual parallel. Michael Scholar Jr as the orphan serves as our guide, sustaining an elegiac tone that is supported by Sheri Somerville's beautiful singing of Jonathan Christenson's haunting music, while every member of the cast, from Harvey Anderson's panto dame nun through Beth Graham's irrepressibly life-affirming waif, gives a performance of exquisite delicacy. The ninety-minute show is perhaps ten minutes longer than ideal, and the whimsey does get a bit thick at times, but for those who give themselves over to its beauty, this can be the high point of the festival. Gerald Berkowitz

The Bomb-itty of Errors Pleasance
It sounds like a really bad idea - a rap version of Shakespeare. But in fact this visitor from Off-Broadway is witty, clever, entertaining and remarkably true to the spirit of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (the one about two sets of identical twins who were separated as children and are now mistaken for each other). Four rappers and a DJ play all the roles, with some remarkable quick changes and hilarious characterisations, particularly the dumb blonde who quickly becomes the audience's favourite. Deviser-director Andy Goldberg follows Shakespeare's plot quite closely, sometimes line-for-line, while the translation into contemporary vernacular and rap rhythms (for those who care, essentially anapestic tetrameter in rhymed couplets - ain't I erudite?) is witty and sufficiently varied in rap styles to stay fresh throughout. There's plenty of visual comedy and some very tight ensemble playing, making this a Fringe high point. Gerald Berkowitz

Addy Borgh - Hearing Voices Pleasance Dome
The putative theme of Addy Borgh's set is the variety of voices we hear in our heads encouraging or tempting us to rash action. But his act might just as well be called Cybermeister, since he devotes at least as much time to, and gets far more laughs from his ruminations about computers. These range from a consideration of the sudden rise in significance of the formerly useless @ key to the computer's satanic delight in telling you you've made a fatal error. So thoroughly is his act infused with computer consciousness that in a different part of the act he effectively labels the blank look of a daydreamer as screen-saver face. Among the internal voices he examines are the DeNiro-like anger voice that lures us into road rage and the Faginish voice of temptation. Borgh has fun doing these different sounds, and a high point is a replay of a gangster movie scene in alternate dialects. Fast-moving, inventive, and with enough first-rate material not to have to depend on audience chatter, Borgh is an engaging performer who gives good value for money. Gerald Berkowitz

Born African Augustine's (reviewed last year)
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

Bright Colours Only Assembly
Pauline Goldsmith's meditation on death, dying and bereavement looks at it all with a tenderly amused eye, domesticating the subject without disrespecting it, and paradoxically creating one of the happiest and most emotionally satisfying hours on the fringe. Goldsmith begins in the persona of a frighteningly perky undertaker, welcoming us into her parlour and proudly displaying the tacky but oh-so-tasteful-looking accoutrements on offer, such as the gold-effect plastic handles which, she warns us, should not actually be used to lift the coffin. She follows with a realistic and benevolent mix of warts-and-all memories of the departed - a spinster aunt, a grumpy grandmother - and the incongruous behaviour of the living - watching television at a wake, or babbling hysterically. Projections of computer-generated animations, particularly effective in their simplicity, accompany key sequences. Goldsmith's performance in this self-written and self-directed piece is beautifully controlled, moving seamlessly from one persona to another and from the gently comic to the touchingly evocative, such as the catalogue of a child's first experiences of death or the departed's realisation of the life not yet lived. And the piece ends with a fourth-wall-breaking coup de theatre that is as unexpectedly moving as it is audacious. Gerald Berkowitz

Brendon Burns - The Thinking Man's Idiot Pleasance
There's a certain apprehension at any Brendon Burns gig: will he hurl himself into the crowd and nut someone for an over-resemblance to Richard Branson or bang his own head repeatedly against the backstage wall to stop the voices? It never happens but there'd be no difference from the verbal bruising he usually lashes out. Prowling the stage like a man desperate to pee, Burns sticks to his favourite themes of political correctness and world idiocy and proves he's pure comic Velcro. As usual, he's pulled a front row to die for. As usual he gets more laughs per nanosecond than any comic on the circuit. He improbably links a shaggy dog story about illicit goat copulation with the state of Virgin Rail while throwing in visions of heckling at Fringe performance art shows. Aside from a perceptive work-out on President Dubya and Al Gore's rivalry, he steers clear of September 11 possibly because it's done to death everywhere else. We are left with the image of Burns launching into violent philosophical debate with an unintended heckler as to whether the gag he's just closed with is irony or coincidence ­ deliciously provocative. Nick Awde

Brought to You by the Makers of Norriss Toothbrushes Hill Street
Philip Hansell's short story, as adapted for the stage by Lucy Shuter and performed by Will Gore, is a mock soap opera that moves beyond parody to dramatise the interconnectedness of seemingly separate lives. While a dentist's wife is cheating on him, her lover's son adores the dentist's receptionist, who is being blackmailed for her affair with her boss, who (unbeknownst to both of them) is actually her father. Meanwhile, one of her mother's other former lovers is a thief breaking into the dentist's home, where his daughter is sending hate text messages to - well, I think I've got that right, and I know I've left a lot out. While each new twist is funny, the characters are sketched in effectively enough for a sense of brooding dread and fatality to accompany the humour. Gore tells the story in a style similar to Guy Masterson's Dylan Thomas shows, jumping from character to character, sometimes in mid-sentence, and illustrating every word with a gesture in an almost charades-like way. His performance is always skilled, frequently witty and occasionally touching, the only weak points being a couple of wordless mime sequences that are meant to serve as dumb-show preludes to the next section of the story but are merely opaque. Gerald Berkowitz

Cambridge Footlights - Today of all Days Pleasance
The student revue, particularly at Oxford and Cambridge, has for generations been a showcase for the cleverest undergraduate writing and performing (and, inevitably, the nursery of generations of British comics). Content and quality have varied over the years, with a genre that once flaunted its erudition generally moving more toward TV-level mainstream. This year's Cambridge entry swings the pendulum a bit back, with a premise that assumes knowledge of Connor MacPherson's play The Weir, about story-telling in a village pub. We get the same premise here, with the gruff barman, visiting actor, innocent-seeming schoolteacher and flirtatious village maiden taking turns holding the floor. One gets the sense that each member of the cast wrote his or her own material, and I preferred the barman's wordplay and the girl's casual sexiness to some of the broader and more self-indulgent sequences. Gerald Berkowitz

Camped Out Pleasance
It's 1976 and it's holiday time at Pontin's where an expectant family of safari-suited dad, buxom mum and sulky daughter have just arrived, just part of the millions who flocked to the holiday camps that empowered vacationers unable or simply unwilling to venture abroad. Directed by Clare Humphrey, Mad Half Hour's physical comedy is a fun-filled series of snapshots of the hapless trio's sojourn. Punctuated by 8mm film clips, the vignettes come fast and furious involving beach shenanigans, snog-lust at the disco, doggy doo and banana skin gags, confusion of identity in the shower, plus the ubiquitous emu puppet skewered at the end of a lusty Bluecoat's arm. Keeping things well oiled is an authentic soundtrack involving all the usual suspects, topped by Cilla Black and Frank Sinatra. Spliced with deadpan Tannoy announcements, it makes the camp a living muzak heritage park where the sixties haven't stopped swinging, the seventies aren't quite rocking and the Swingle Singers rule supreme. Each a master of characterisation, Michael Royce, Corinne Emerson, Katy Stephens and Janice Dunn head an energetic cast that keep the concepts standing proud - the knob jokes too. Nick Awde

Jo Caulfield Pleasance
Taking a respite from writing for Graham Norton and Ruby Wax, Jo Caulfield eases into her own show by working the audience in time-honoured fashion. Soon everyone feels they can sit back and relax. Wrong. Caulfield reads minds and she's sussed out who and what to spring, sneakily setting up a battery of triggers (the mention that her husband's Aberdonian gets an instant "baa!" response) - no one's immune, not even her tecchie. Things are kept rampantly topical, revolving around her recent sectarian wedding which starts a demographic whip-round, a porn DVD commentary by her Irish mother, then kids as designer accessories which somehow, plausibly, logically, raucously leads to Liz Hurley's "natural alternative" to Nivea. A group of latecomers are forced to explain why they're late - and under Caulfield's expert handling a hilarious true story emerges about a shaving taxi driver. Her finger's right on the audience remote control. She pauses with evident glee, rewinds, fast-forwards or slots in a back row punter to enhance her own chain of thought. Sometimes she just lets the audience get on with it. And like boiling a frog, Caulfield keeps upping the shock factor till there's no escape. Nick Awde

Caveman Inc. Pleasance
Life's tough in the world of the modern open-plan office, particularly when you're trying to climb up the corporate ladder and most particularly when your current position is Neolithic Man and that open-plan office happens to be the Historical Funland theme park. Struggling to observe the total immersion imposed by his contract, our living tableau hero is kept on his toes 24-7. When he's not trying to lapse from the stipulated caveman talk when taunted by VVPs (that's Valued Vacation Participants) and their snotty brats, he's eavesdropping on the other Funland slaves ­ they're all mad too ­ or conscience-wrestling whether to report his co-caveworker for breaking wind. Performer and adapter Kerry Shale is billed as the "BBC's voice of Bill Bryson" and it is easy to see the attraction of this adaptation from a novella by George Saunders, an American writer in similar mould. Directed by Benjamin Twist, the tale starts slowly but grows on you as Shale increases the Caveman's anxiety amid the creeping, funny dysfunctionality that surrounds him. More than a piece of whimsy but not quite an incisive slice of social commentary, this is a finely comic piece of observation. Nick Awde

The Chicken Show Pleasance
Eryl Maynard's solo show is a lightweight, light-hearted character study with just a bit more meat on its bones than the lunchtime audience might expect. Maynard plays a housewife who takes a move to the country as the opportunity to raise hens, just because she likes the look of them wandering through her garden. The project is, of course, more complex than she imagined, involving lots of books, an unsympathetic vet and an overenthusiastic fox hunter. Along the way we learn a lot of fun things about chickens, and more than a little about their owner. That she is unhappily childless is certainly relevant, but Maynard doesn't belabour the point, and Chrys Salt directs this pleasant little show so that the performer's attractive and infectiously cheery personality carries it. Gerald Berkowitz

Cincinnati Assembly
A philosophy lecturer poses this conundrum: since we can never really appreciate another's pain, do we really believe in it? And if we don't believe in their pain, how can we believe in them? Indeed, how can we be sure anything exists other than us? An interesting classroom exercise in solipsism, except that the lecturer is mad. Reacting to an unbearable tragedy in her life, she is trying desperately to control and cope with her own pain by compartmentalising and distancing it, and we are watching the inevitable failure of that process. Don Nigro's play lapses occasionally into sub-Mamet rhythms, but Nancy Walsh carries the hour with a performance of insightfully textured intensity. She begins on so high a note of near-hysteria that you worry she'll have no place to go, but brilliantly surprises you by moving downward as the character rationalises her way into the eerie calm of madness. Gerald Berkowitz

Clearing Hedges CO2
A contemporary of thirties superathlete Jesse Owen, Babe Didrikson Zaharias was another sports pioneer who had a battery of prejudices to deal with after bursting onto the scene as a Wonderwoman of Olympic athletics, then turning her hand to a legendary career on the world's golf circuit. Writer and performer Jennifer Barclay uses the voices of key players in this extraordinary life - including that of Babe herself - to recreate her teenage years overcoming small-town attitudes to become the "world beating girl viking of Texas" but still having to tackle a male-dominated profession aghast at seeing the playing fields depriving kitchens of the fair sex. She married a boxer who became her manager and fell into an unlikely menage with a youthful female golfer before battling cancer. Accents are not Barclay's strong point (Babe's Norwegian mum sounds Yiddish Ghanaian) and her material is often irritatingly coy, but her infectious delivery more than makes up for Jay Paul Skelton's static direction while her respect for her subject shines through.Though uncomfortable with (screaming) lesbian undertones and issues of sexism, this is a delightful, sometimes ironic tale even if a tad too apple pie. Nick Awde

The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled "Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll Sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!!!" Assembly
In between writing the title and the lengthy Beckett Foundation disclaimer that takes up half the programme notes, co-creators Greg Allen, Ben Schneider and Danny Thompson somehow found the time to get this together ­ and thanks to their comic efforts, the audience gets to join in the joke. Po-faced presenters Thompson and Bill Coelius reverently describe their momentous discovery of the above-mentioned Beckett scripts. Interrupted only by a flurry of legal writs, our literary archaeologists introduce then recreate these lost works with mind-numbing awe, aided by Schneider as the hapless actor in thrall to bizarre utterances and unlikely props. Literary allusions abound but knowing your Krapp from your Godot is not the point. Marvel therefore at the playwright's first ever offering, a fluffy puppet show penned by the nascent seven-year-old genius, and be moved by his last, the posthumously penned and bewigged Foot Falls Flatly - a wicked masterpiece of minimalism. Though it unravels somewhat by the end, under John Clancy's direction this is such an original comedy that even the late Beckett would not sue - he'd be too busy cacking his shroud with laughter. Nick Awde

Crash Diet and Other Sins Greyfriars
A troupe of North Carolinians with a strong sense of folk realism perform adaptations of their favourite American writers. You'd be forgiven for thinking it's a touch rarefied but in fact this is a perfect if eclectic blend of storytelling and drama. Other Sins kicks off, culled from the writings of novelist Clyde Edgerton, in which a bemused Preacher (Chris Chiron) launches into a hilarious retelling of Genesis before Preacher Crenshaw (Matthew Spangler) describes his temptations before the vision of femininity that is local waitress Cheryl (Hannah Blevins). Accompanied by guitarist Bill McCormick, Chiron provides light relief with Playing the Devil's Banjo, a raucous paean to self-pleasurement. The barbed Dinner with Preacher Gordon is another Edgerton vignette where Andrea Powell enacts the genteel politicking of guests around the local minister's table, while in The Mountain Whippoorwill Paul Ferguson's dodgy fringe does not detract from a rousing rendition of hillbilly duelling fiddles penned by folk poet Stephen Vincent Benet. Concluding is Crash Diet, a more contemporary tale adapted from a Jill McCorkle story, where Sandra (Sarah Whalen) is caught in the crossfire between her expanding waistline, the prized Mazda of philandering husband Kenneth (Spangler) and his love interest Maria Chrysanthou. Oddball but very funny. Nick Awde

Daddy Take Me To The Funfair Pleasance
Veteran monologuist Jack Klaff's earlier pieces were marked by a polish and precision that may have felt mechanical to some, perhaps even the actor himself, since his more recent work has swung a pendulum to the opposite extreme. This rumination on life, death, truth and human connections is assertively unpolished, to the extent of veering toward the incoherent. In the persona of a film-maker reading his diaries, Klaff sets off on a rambling stream-of- consciousness that involves interrupting himself, circling back on himself, starting stories or parables that he either never finishes or never draws a moral from, jumping from subject to subject seemingly at random. Along the way some moving things are said about the naturalness of death, the loneliness of living and the value of making contact, but they are all-but-lost in the jumble. It may be that Klaff has carefully constructed the illusion of disorganisation to capture what he sees as a realistic portrait of mental processes. But one gets the impression that he has fallen into the trap of relying on his considerable personal charm as a performer to carry him and his audiences through an underwritten and underprepared show. Gerald Berkowitz

Rhys Darby is the Neon Outlaw Gilded Balloon
No he isn't. Not-ready-for-prime-time Kiwi comic Darby stretches a very small quantity of material very thin, his occasional strong effect all but lost in the fits and starts. His best one-liner involves a one-way street that's also a dead end, an image that unintentionally haunts the show as he repeatedly opens a new comic subject, finds nothing there, and awkwardly drops it to try again elsewhere. The adventures of a New Zealand country lad in London (none, actually), a visit to a brothel (nothing happened), and an encounter with a mermaid (peters out with a weak punchline) all seem ideas for comic material that he hasn't actually written yet, while a number of other false starts are abandoned even before it's clear where he was going. Darby does have considerable charm, and an impressive facility for making mouth noises, from cars and doors through music and underwater speech, and he might do better to give up the attempts at conventional observational humour and build an act around his strengths. Gerald Berkowitz

Dead Landlord Gilded Balloon Teviot
Family Curioso's short comedy is a frustrating example of immense creativity dissipating through lack of focus and firm direction. In whiteface and rags like Eastern European theatre clowns, the actors depict a rambling story about tenant-landlord relations that is really just the peg to hang a lot of more-or-less inspired clowning on. A man takes a bite out of a banana and then uses the rest as a working telephone. A landlord runs a rigged quiz show to determine how much rent his tenant owes. Somehow World War One gets reenacted. There's a lot of Marx Brothers type absurdism, and almost as many gags work as don't. But too many just peter out or are left as unresolved set-ups, and the whole thing has a self-indulgence that desperately needs curtailing by a firm director. Gerald Berkowitz

Deep Throat Live On Stage Assembly
The world's most famous pornographic film is the basis of this deceptively simple-seeming account written by Simon Garfield and performed by Alex Lowe and Katherine Parkinson. What is presented as merely a retelling of the background, notoriety and aftereffects of the 1972 film becomes a complex evocation of the odd mix of innocence and sleaze that made up the 70s The premise is that the film's co-star and porn legend Harry Reams has been reduced to performing a nightclub act about his career, much like DeNiro in Raging Bull. Assisted by Parkinson's showgirl, he tells how a nice Jewish boy got into porn and how Deep Throat made international stars out of him and Linda Lovelace. Lovelace's later revelation that she had been beaten and abused into performing, and Reams' own decline into obscurity end the tale. What raises the piece above documentary is the frame of Reams' act, which, under Ed Dick's subtle direction, is appropriately shoddy and cringe-inducing, conveying the sad air of talentless desperation that the narration attempts to deny. The images of both Saturday Night Fever and Grease are specifically invoked in the play, which transcends its nominal subject to offer a picture of the darker side of the Travolta decade. Gerald Berkowitz

Rob Deering - The Facts Pleasance
The title of Rob Deering's new show says it all as he bravely puts his knowledge to the ultimate test ­ the comedy crowd. Guided by a backdrop of projected graphics, the audience is invited to call out their choices at random from ticklists of significant topics ­ art, politics, pop music, the future... Then everyone waits to see if the comic's done his homework as he reels out fact after related fact like a living, walking, talking Trivial Pursuit jukebox. It's a bit of a lucky dip: 'food' triggers an uneventful ramble about Quorn and fungus, 'family' prompts an entertaining comparison of family likenesses while 'drink' has him reaching for the guitar and knocking out a quick ditty before passing around remarkably strong vodka martinis. The delivery's not as sharp as it can be and the clown side is sometimes overplayed, but the format frees him up to introduce not only any subject but any style ­ gags, visual puns, observation, audience participation, politics, songs, even a rummage through the archives that produces videoclips of TV appearances by the younger Deering on ancient quiz shows Crack It and 15 to One. Nick Awde

Diarmuid and Grainne Assembly
Dublin's Passion Machine Theatre translates a folk tale of Finn mac Cumaill's runaway bride into modern terms in a production that is amusing and inventive for at least three-quarters of its length, until an excess of theatrical cleverness threatens to sink it. In director Paul Mercier's adaptation Fionn (Denis Conway) is a gangster lieutenant hoping to insure his inheritance of the gang by marrying the boss's much younger daughter Grainne, played by Emily Nagle. But the somewhat ditsy girl loves Fionn's bodyguard Diarmuid (Eanna MacLiam) and kidnaps him, beginning a cross-Ireland chase that involves the constantly shifting intentions and allegiances of Fionn, her father and rival gangs. The play thus takes on elements of Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and even the Marx Brothers, as high passion alternates with low farce, and menacing gangsters are likely to turn into backing chorus boys whenever the heroine is moved to burst into song. Very inventive and fast-moving staging always threatens to teeter into chaos, and unfortunately does near the end, when an extended wordless sequence is so difficult to follow that it can be over before you realise that one of the major characters died somehow along the way. Gerald Berkowitz

Dr. Bunhead's Kamikaze Cowpats George Street Theatre
He says "poo" and "fart" a lot, he sets gasses on fire, and he makes a lot of things go bang, so the kids are happy; and he sandwiches in the occasional sentence explaining in the proper scientific language what all this has to do with the digestive system, so the parents convince themselves that it's an educational experience. And whether the kids even notice, much less understand much of the scientific stuff, and whether all the bangs really have much to do with the digestive system is subject to question. Or maybe it doesn't matter. The kids see him pump something into a hot water bottle (liquid nitrogen, actually - by that point in the show he's given up all pretense of talking about bottom burps and is just blowing things up for the fun of it), and along with the explosion they carry away the memory that they saw some stuff do that. And so when they run into nitrogen again ten years from now in chemistry class, perhaps some bells will ring. Tom Pringle plays Dr. Bunhead as a cross between a mad scientist and a TV presenter, which is to say as a grown-up kid with lots of neat toys and not a whole lot of grown-up seriousness. And he blows things up for a living. It would be enough to make any kid want to be a scientist. Gerald Berkowitz

Dorothy's Friends C
The Wizard of Oz gets a catty upgrade as Kansas becomes contemporary Essex where the tornado's an internet maelstrom and the search for the Wiz is now the coming out of the closet metaphor it may always have been. Dorothy is a young man who senses he is not quite as other men are. Sucked up by his PC, he finds himself in 'Soho City', slays the Wicked Bitch, dons a dress and ruby slippers, and picks up slutty Scare-Ho, yuppy Tin-Woman and wideboy Lion. Created by Fruit of the Womb's Nina Lemon and Kate Plumb, this spunky reworking is imaginative but overlong and not half as camp or subversive as it would like to be. The performers tend less to musical and more to comedy but work their tushes off in every department - Nathan Guy in particular makes a sympathetic Dorothy while Chris Jones is gloriously OTT as the Sorceress. Though the plot runs out of steam, the music keeps things pumping to the climax thanks to Greg Patmore's bubbly melodies and lyrics that are acid or winsome as required. Indeed, I can only shower with golden praise a show that dares to rhyme 'worms' with 'sperms'. Nick Awde

Keith Dover - The Ustinov Files Pleasance
Keith Dover's lary builder-plumber is a man who takes lip from no one and whose knowledge of West End theatre and the Arsenal are equally encyclopaedic. After breaking up a brawl between Peter Ustinov and a Belgian fan during a disastrous Gunners away match in 1984, a fruitful relationship strikes up between the two. It becomes more Peter's friends since Ustinov is a portal to the upper echelons of theatrical aristocracy. Dover's East End posse of white van men, decorators and fitters welcome the actors as fellow members of the service industries - and the stars readily turn to them for advice on life skills, be it acting technique, choice of boiler or whether to glass 'old gitface' Steven Berkoff . To Dover's chagrin, however, they don't always listen, viz Helena Bonham Carter trying to nick his chicken Kiev, Ian McKellen failing to grasp simple role research, Alan Rickman's kitchen-fitting standards, or paintballing with Simon Callow. If you can follow the wall to wall references it helps, but Dover's awesome research is tempered by infectious delivery and laconic Cockney humour that keep things firmly grounded and the audience well hooked.Nick Awde

Dust to Dust Assembly
Mick fell down the stairs - pissed probably - and now he's dead. The surprisingly unsurprising news does the rounds at his local and, in the absence of any nearest and dearest, a trio of those who sort of knew him find themselves looped into mourning their dear departed drinking buddy. As they lurch from boozy brawls to soul-searching lucidity then back again, loss turns to rejection to resolution as Robert Farquhar's wry comedy avoids every cliché while laying out a few home truths in a slowburner that keeps you hooked to the end. Julie Riley is Mick's fiery ex-wife Holly who struggles to contain a wounded heart that is constantly provoked by Ron Meadows' caustic yet equally vulnerable Henry. Between the two flits the meek but well meaning Kev, played with winsome sympathy by Warren Donnelly. Director Sarah Thornton sensitively meets the challenge of this unusual pilgrimage to create a vibrant narrative enhanced by simple staging - courtesy of the ensemble's effortless minimalism ­ that creates sweeps of space and time while preserving a gossipy intimacy. Nick Awde

Ebony and Irony Underbelly
If comedy was the new rock'n'roll, it's now reached that mid-seventies bloated Las Vegas phase. So it comes as a surprise to discover two new hard-edged faces on the scene who look as if they could kick things into the next generation. Irony appears in the form of Russell Howard whose boy band persona lasts only up to the point he opens his mouth. Tempering his vitriol with tales from the underbelly of Britain, he's unafraid to admit how crap he was in getting away from a mugger or what his girlfriend really thinks of him ­ best of all is his violent dad's inverted Tourette's syndrome. Representing Ebony but equally ironic is Matt Blaize, a East Ender who prowls the stage in search of answers. As a Black Briton he hits the race angle with incisive humour then unleashes a battery of hard-hitting people observations before pausing for a truth game which gets the audience sweating. In between there's a thoughtful political viewpoint that could easily become a show within a show. Both natural comics, these are two guys with personalities to match their potential. Now all it needs is managmenent with clout to get that working in front of the audiences they deserve. Nick Awde

Electra Underbelly
The primary reason for seeing this youthful production of Sophocles is the extraordinarily mature and powerful performance by Lydia Waine in the title role. Deceptively fragile-looking, her Electra constantly threatens to explode from the critical mass of energy within her. Alternately frenzied and exhausted by her passions, with madness playing in her eyes even at her quietest, and as frantic in joy as in despair, she makes you believe that the wrath of the gods has been set loose within this small human body. Since Sophocles, unlike Aeschylus, builds the entire play around Electra's passion, Waine's performance goes a long way toward carrying the whole show. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of Kate Donald's strong and textured characterisation of Clytemnestra, there is little else to this production of Decoy Theatre to recommend it. Setting the play in Tsarist Russia adds nothing to its meanings or resonances, and the other performances range from adequate downward. Gerald Berkowitz

Fairly Tales CO2
Outlaw Theatre has devised the perfect panacea for showed-out theatregoers and performers alike. Each day four scriptless actors take their chances as the audience supplies one-word prompts for improvised stories. The tension's high today as mischievous punters chalk up such improbable offerings as 'croak', 'tractor', 'penguin' and 'bounce'. No problem since the performers plunge in without hesitation to reveal impressive instincts for a theme. As they proceed to make this most difficult of genres look easy, their evident fun in doing so is infectious. And with Andrew Jones' guiding format helping to spin out the imagination, there are no misses here. Ciaran Murtagh's tale of a scientist contributing to air safety by constructing a plane of india rubber ('bounce') is more than chucklesome in its insane logic while Maggie Gordon-Walker's penguin and Juliet FitzGerald's Eskimo create a bizarre epic of cannibalism at the South Pole. Contributions don't always have to be spoken ­ Lesley Stone's light-hearted account of a woman seduced from the city lights to become a farmer's wife ('tractor') is graphically illustrated by an impromptu mime from the rest of the group. Nick Awde

Fallen Aurora Nova
In a Festival overflowing uncomfortably with 9/11 eulogies it is appropriate that the most successful is mainly wordless, courtesy of Gravity Physical Entertainment and fabrikCompanie, where the breathtaking, sublimely beautiful movements of Jess Curtis' piece push the metaphor of falling and gravity into every aspect of our lives. Subtitled "a visual poem of weight in space", an empty, evocatively sidelit space reveals outlines of splayed bodies, like a police crime area. The performers fit themselves to these shapes, then enter an outwardly spiralling mosaic of dance and movement where falling is the constant theme. The outlines are made of flour and their gradual disintegration and dispersal lends the stage and performers a ghostly hue as they writhe across the ground. Curtis, Sabine Chwalisz, Wolfgang Hoffman, Anise Smith, Sven Till form a tight, confident combo whose fluidity and awareness of each other is remarkable. Driving it all is Matthias Herrman's music, summoning an entire orchestra from a single cello and electronic effects as he attacks his instrument with a battery of manic doublestops and legato harmonics, underpinned by beatbox rhythms. Nick Awde

Fear of Fanny Garage
Brian Fillis' thoughtfully comic look at the life and career of TV cooking instructor Fanny Cradock gives a balanced image of her achievements and frailties in a package that is ultimately as light as any of her souffles. The play's premise is that Cradock's hard-edged harridan image was invented for the camera, to make for interesting television, but that, like partner Johnnie's amiable vagueness, it grew out of something within her, so that eventually she could no longer turn it on and off at will. That, along with a few scandalous biographical facts, is as dark as the play gets, the general tone being amiable pleasure in the progress of her rise and fall, while the play also reminds us of how very much of what a whole generation of British housewives knew about food selection and preparation came from this dedicated teacher who ironically could only communicate by feigning contempt for her students. Under Andrew Fillis' direction Caroline Burns Cooke lets us see the serious cook, the ambitious businessperson, the harridan and the woman beneath, without any of these negating the others. But it is David Slack as Johnnie who repeatedly steals the show, conveying the laid-back and bemused contentment that made him the real backbone of the partnership. Gerald Berkowitz

Fern Hill Assembly Rooms (Reviewed last year)
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]Š" - 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

Fireface Gilded Balloon
Marius von Mayenburg's short play is a study in the seeming impossibility of surviving adolescence, but in the hands of the Gilded Balloon's Studio Ensemble it may be even heavier going for the audience than for the characters. While his sister revels in her escape from childhood, a boy finds puberty deeply disturbing and takes refuge first in an incestual intimacy with her, then in random acts of arson that escalate self-destructively, finally in an open and murderous madness that contaminates his sister as well. Meanwhile their parents and the girl's boyfriend spend most of the play either oblivious, in denial, or impotently hand-wringing. The script, as translated by Maja Zade, is overwritten rhetorically, with all characters prone to effusive but semi-coherent speech-making, but underdeveloped psychologically, with none of the figures more than a thin cliche and no real insight offered into the boy's psychological journey. Acting ranges from barely adequate to embarrassingly poor, with direction shapeless and rhythmless, so that the play drags through ninety minutes that feel much longer. Gerald Berkowitz

Alan Francis Gilded Balloon
A character comedian who offers a series of sketches in different personae rather than a stand-up monologue, Alan Francis is a bit out of place in the stand-up world and, judging from this performance, has difficulty guiding audiences into the mindset to appreciate what he's doing. His characters tend to be life's losers - a thirty-year-old Star Wars fan resenting a friend's treasonous involvement with a girl, a pensioner bargaining down the cost of a take-out meal, a lavatory attendant trying to convince himself he's as happy as the people he reads about in celebrity magazines. The lav attendant sketch raises a few chuckles, as does a more energetic one about a desperate stately home owner begging money from English Heritage. But for the most part Francis's act is either pearls before swine or simply the wrong show aimed at the wrong audience, and his talent, which lies more in writing than performance, might find warmer reception in a different form.Gerald Berkowitz

The Frog Prince Assembly Rooms
David Mamet's wistful fairy tale begins in familiar fashion as a prince offends a witch and finds himself transformed, but then wanders into new and sobering territory. The maiden he hopes will kiss him becomes his best friend instead, the human world becomes less appealing from his new perspective, and when the inevitable ending is reached, it is not as happy as the genre would seem to demand. New York's 78th Street Theatre Lab underplays the piece, giving it a contemporary feel. While Karen Michelle Wright as the maiden and Jonathan Uffelman as a loyal servant make the most of their more conventional roles, Toby Wherry's Prince might be a modern New Yorker, mildly egotistical and presumptuous but good at heart, and it is a nice touch that he retains some of his blokeish attitude even as a frog. But this frog is capable of learning the values of friendship, gratitude and humility, so that his modest complaint at the end that his punishment was excessive carries a lot of weight. But, Mamet is reminding us, the world is not perfect, and there's only so far that fairy tales can go - a conclusion that children might be more comfortable with than their sentimental parents. Gerald Berkowitz

The Gallant John-Joe Pleasance
The title character of Tom MacIntyre's play is nominally the mythic Irish football star John-Joe O'Reilly but actually his partial namesake J-J Conncannon, played in this solo show by veteran Tom Hickey. Our John-Joe appears at first as a stereotypical boozy, garrulous, self-pitying old Irish tramp, a walking cliche who interrupts his free-flowing verbiage only for occasional singing of an anthem in praise of the other J-J. But as his meandering monologue goes on, we discover that Conncannon's claim on our interest and pity is more deserved than we thought, and that the cliche surface covers a truly and legitimately broken heart. Hickey's performance is a model of sustaining an initially unattractive character and subtly drawing us into him until we respect and share his pain. Gerald Berkowitz

Gimpel the Fool C
Storyteller Saul Reichlin's presentation of the classic story by Isaac Bashevis Singer is low-keyed to the point of transparency, virtually his only concession to theatricality being an appropriate costume. Still, his amiable delivery is appropriate to the character in whose voice he speaks, the good-natured shlemiel who believes anything anyone tells him because he can never really believe they'd have any reason to lie, and besides, it says somewhere in the Talmud that everything is possible. So, as he narrates with little rancour, Gimpel's childhood was a series of pranks at his expense, and the defining event of his adult years was marriage to a woman who repeatedly cuckolded him while he repeatedly found her lies easier to believe than the truth. Only as he approaches death, with the comfort that in the afterlife there will be no lies, is there a hint of bitterness. Reichlin's respect for the master of modern Yiddish literature is obvious, and may be the performance's greatest weakness. The tale is something of a shaggy dog story that makes its little point early and then lingers on, with a serious drop in energy in the second half, and some judicious trimming might have made a stronger theatre piece. Gerald Berkowitz

Goering's Defence Assembly
He was Hitler's trusted player on the board of Nazi Germany plc and, unlike those who believed in the system, fat cat Hermann Goering was the system. His skill at spin and cultivated theatricality make him the perfect subject for this slickly compelling portrait. In his cell on the eve of his execution during the Nuremberg Trials, the former Reichmarshall revisits the key events that led him here ­ punctuated by his Allied prosecutors in the form of Justice Jackson, lent gravitas by the voice of Tim Ahern. Yet what drives him is not guilt but a consuming fear lest he be denied his place in history. Quite what that history is becomes a subtle debate with the audience. Like a corporate lizard he has an answer for everything. Though somewhat detached, Ross Gurney-Randall is a convincing condemned man from whom director Guy Masterson evokes a powerful range of emotions. And, along with Andrew Bailey, they have created an epic script that possesses not only a telling eye for dramatic device but also an almost poetic ear for language. Gripping rather than chilling, it effortless achieves that difficult triple whammy of education, entertainment and provocation. Nick Awde

Goner Assembly
Brian Parks' very inventive, very funny comedy is - and I mean this as a compliment - undergraduate humour of the highest order. This is the kind of show in which every single line is a gag, every single character a grotesque, every single plot turn a flash of absurdity, so that the occasional dud goes by too fast to interrupt the flow of laughter. The President of the United States (an idiot, of course) is shot and finds himself in a hospital full of idiots. The chief surgeon wouldn't recognise a scalpel if he saw one, his chief assistant is busy developing a Chemotherapy Barbie doll (Her hair falls out and she throws up), the lab head has just discovered that there are black people in America and is off to make a documentary film to inform the world of this, and so on. The fast-moving production and polished performances almost disguise the fact that this is essentially an over-extended revue sketch whose basic gags are repeated and stretched almost to the breaking point, but it is very funny. Gerald Berkowitz

The Government Inspector Pleasance
Gogol's satire about the visitor to a village who is mistaken for an official and thus wined, dined and plied with bribes and willing women, can be played as either light comedy or bitter attack on petty corruption. The British-based but internationally-staffed Theatre de L'Ange Fou takes the second course while also reducing Gogol's text to merely the jumping-off point for an inventive if not always coherent piece of physical theatre. The stage is overpopulated to the point of crowding with grotesques who move in synchronised and choreographed ways to communicate the essence of each emotional development, with dialogue reduced to the absolute minimum needed as skeletal markers of the plot. Not for all tastes, to be sure, and with many sequences carried on far longer than necessary, to the point of self-indulgence, but certainly one of the most polished and inventive examples of this sort of thing that you're likely to encounter. Gerald Berkowitz

Grass C cubed
Simon Rae's portrait of 18th century poet John Clare is an attempt to illuminate the internal experience of a man whose talent was matched only by his madness. The playwright's conceit is to update Clare to the twentieth century, so that his world includes automobiles, cellphones and the NHS, and his pastoral yearnings translate into leading tree-saving protests against highway construction. Even the fictional Clare's poetry takes on a hard-edged modern tone. The device is harmless enough and may even make the character more accessible, though uninformed audience members could be excused for thinking there was another, modern mad poet. Rae's Clare is a sympathetic figure, witty enough to imagine his doctor as a grinning clown of a madman and even to enjoy their encounters, but obsessed with a girl he saw once or twice as a youth, who has become, Beatrice-like, the fantasy love of his life. David Keller plays Clare with an engaging combination of amiability and intensity, rattling off the poetry attractively but also carrying us believably through the disjointed stream of consciousness and the uncontrolled passions of the madman. The success of both play and performance lies not so much in explaining Clare or updating him as in making believable the coexistence of mental disturbance and poetic genius. Gerald Berkowitz

Rich Hall and Mike Wilmot - Pretzel Logic Assembly
Has box-office tumescence created flaccidness in Rich Hall's comedy department? Repeating the success of last year's mixed bag format, his latest satire-fest with fellow conspirator Mike Wilmot is already a sell-out but it all seems, well, a little lazy. A string of trademark rants from motormouth Hall dissects post 9-11 United States via Dubya and his eating habits ­ focusing on the president's now classic choking on a pretzel routine, detailed by eccentric lifestyle guru Professor Heimlich (as in manouevre). Meanwhile Wilmot bursts in as a jaw-dropping Texan bigot to provoke lively debate abetted by Hall's Ku Klux Klan hand puppet. Both are consummate comic actors as well as stand-ups who set industry standards, but disappointingly the routines and characters fail to gloss over the fact that things don't gel. Perhaps they've thought too hard or simply cobbled the thing together at the last minute. Either way, the charabang swiftly runs out of steam. None of this matters since both come with guaranteed flop immunity (witness the growing number of pensioners swelling their crowds) ­ and any show named after a Steely Dan album can't be that bad. Nick Awde

Happy Natives Assembly
Life is confusing in the modern South Africa as even those who applaud the social changes aren't sure where the boundaries of political correctness lie. That is the theme of this occasionally bittersweet comedy by Greig Coetzee, performed by him and James Ngcobo. A plot about developing a corporate entertainment to promote investment in the country is the excuse for both to play multiple roles - the two performers, a conservative white man trying to adjust to the new world, a female media producer whose liberalism is wafer-thin, a black maid unable to shake off the subservient habits of the old, an Indian shopkeeper dubious that any real changes have happened. The two actors don't always quite keep up with the rapid role changes, but the piece is effectively thought-provoking while still being fully entertaining. Gerald Berkowitz

Hammerklavier Assembly
This stage adaptation by director Mark Kilmurry and performer Susie Lindeman of Yasmina Reza's semi-autobiographical novel plays like Reza's stage works (Art, etc.), almost a radio play in its focus on the voice and almost total absence of visuals. Lindeman plays a musician contemplating age, death and music in a series of disconnected scenes. Her father's decline and death, a beloved friend's retreat into senility, and her own ongoing relationship to ever- elusive classical music all give her pause, even if they don't connect together into any coherent vision. The waves of thought and emotion inspired by encountering an old friend are real even though the person turns out not to be the friend after all. Her dying father's embrace of an AIDS victim he had previously shunned is one of several striking images created entirely in words. Dressed in a microskirt and tights like a woman who was told a long time ago that she resembled Audrey Hepburn (though Lindeman actually looks more like Rita Rudner), and affecting a dreadful cod-French accent that would embarrass Peter Sellars, the actress adds little and frequently gets in the way of the author's imagery. Gerald Berkowitz

Happy With Half Your Life Gilded Balloon Teviot
Vanessa O'Neill's semi-autobiographical monologue is a celebration of both vital youth and wizened age, and while it may not have very much new to say, the writer-performer's high energy and engaging personality are irresistible. O'Neill plays a young art student turned loose in London, revelling equally in the joys of urban life, creativity, dancing and sex. Her life is punctuated by encounters with five older women - her grandmother, three invalids she cares for in a part-time job, and a friend's mother. They all strike her first with their fragility and otherness, but gradually she sees in each a strength or beauty she does not possess. The title, implying envy (as in "I'd be happy with...."), ends up being relevant in both directions. O'Neill's monologue is essentially a shaggy dog story, with no real structure or rhythm, and you could begin to wonder whether this essentially unoriginal tale, with its unoriginal discoveries, is really of interest. What makes it so is less the content than the vitality and infectious joy of the storyteller, which are more than enough to carry the fully entertaining hour. Gerald Berkowitz

The Hare and the Tortoise Netherbow
The instant Hare and Tortoise bound onto stage to buffet each other with fluffy toy puppets of themselves to a samba soundtrack you know Aesop's enduring fable of misplaced rivalry is going to be a fun-filled ride. Virginia Radcliffe (Hare) and Deborah Arnott (Tortoise) promptly launch into all manner of madcap adventures as they count down to a frenetic version of Wacky Races and press every chucklebutton in the process. Delightful delays and an amazing amount of red herrings along the way are encountered in the form of bakers, cakes, a washerwoman laundering garments of nursery rhyme personalities plus a final leg through the Spooky Wood. Directed by Radcliffe with Andy Cannon, and aided by Catherine Lindow's inventive set and costumes, Hare and Tortoise's conundrums provoke real debate amongst the younger members of the audience, resulting in yells of support for the plodding underdog while each new scheme hatched by her speedy rival is met with howls of deserved suspicion. Tim Brinkhurst's music and the duo's songs slot effortlessly into the flow of things and never drop in energy or comedy. Nick Awde

He Died With a Felafel in his Hand Gilded Balloon
The two words 'house share' evoke a wide range of emotions from nostalgia to pure terror ­ like mullets and pierced nipples, it's something most of us do at some point in our misguided youth. Fifth Wall's hit comedy, hot from Australia and penned by John Birmingham, goes some way to creating an exhaustive record for posterity of this peculiar rite of passage. In between visits from the law, social services, drug dealers and debt collectors, a motley group of roaming housemates recount their various line-ups. There's the bonding, the liggers and laggers, the I'll-have-the-rent tomorrow excuses, the Latvian flatmate and commercial sex, the affairs, the parties, the weeing in the fridge, the fatalities... And that's it really. The Young Ones pales into comparison and the gross-out factor is high ­ although taking out the four-letter words leaves you in fact with a respectable politico-social satire. Dave Sheehan and Craig Wellington head a cast of comic Steve Irwins that is as comfortable without the script as with it in order to unleash a ripping good time. The laughter of recognition, even, dare I say it, catharsis, from the audience says it all. Nick Awde

Hell for Boats! C Venue
An earnest Oxford student company offers this new take on the Orestia story that unfortunately has less new to offer than its creators might have hoped. Trapped together in a hellish rowboat, Clytemnestra and Electra seems doomed eternally to retell and re-debate their conflict, taking us from the mythic past of Atreus and Tantalus through the events of the Trojan War, Clytemnestra's murder of her husband, and Electra's vengeance. In the course of the telling the women repeatedly switch debating roles, each taking turns presenting her version of history from an idealised or romantic position, only to be undercut by the other's cynical reaction. A lot of material is covered, and those who don't know the tale might find this an easy introduction. But anyone even vaguely familiar with the story will be looking for some new understanding or insight into the characters, and we don't come away from this play knowing any more about either woman than we did going in.  Gerald Berkowitz

Here Comes the Neighbourhood Pleasance
Hot from the Boom Chicago stable, improv specialists Jordan Peele and Brendan Hunt bounce onstage and promptly announce they're here to resolve racial conflict in the world ­ by holding a contest and letting the audience vote on the winner. Obviously it helps that Peele is black and Hunt is white. Barely have they shaken hands, the contest's begun as they launch into their first inprovised scenario set up by suggestions taken from the crowd. For their pains they get "carjacking teenagers", replayed over a series of scenes as kidz 'n the hood, blaxploitation, Merchant Ivory. Things get complicated when a supermodel and compere introduce a mini-play about "uneven breasts" and "Mauritius' - the colour angle gets a little skewed if not lost at this point. As things degenerate into controlled anarchy it's gratifying to note even their keyboardist nearly electrocutes himself laughing. Things somehow land back on the race track with Morgan Freeman auditioning an actor for a Ku Klux Klan role. Juggling jargon, accents and running gags like comic slot machines, Peele and Hunt are consummate magpies who pile up the visual punchlines and barn-storming songs and make it look as if they invented the format. Nick Awde

Hollow Men Pleasance
The place is heaving and the four Hollow Men disappoint no one as they keep the skits and sketches coming fast and furious. There's not a duff routine ­ cops blatantly misrecording their suspect's interrogation, a restaurant encounter between flirts who speak a blend of Hepburn, Coward and Mamet, the psychoanalyst curing a man's affliction of being Scottish, the frighteningly realistic fast food morons. Running gags keep a structure to the show fleshed out by mini soundscape links. The team lovingly plunders Monty Python via Not the Nine O'clock News with the odd swipe from The Fast Show. You don't have to join up the dots to see there's a massive gap in the market - which David Armand, Nick Tanner, Sam Spedding and Rupert Russell are filling with confident style. They're slick and make it all seem easy but, like a comic boy band, they do all the work for the audience. Pertinent therefore is the fact that the mightiest surges of applause by far were for mimed sequences of Natalie Imbruglia's Torn by a Viennese performance artist and a berabbited Total Eclipse of the Heart. Nick Awde

Horse Country Assembly
C.J. Hopkins' two-hander has been compared to Beckett, and like some of the master's works it probably needs repeated viewings before you can begin to understand it or be sure the emperor isn't naked. Two men, played with unquestionable polish and authority by David Calvitto and Ben Schneider, sit at a table and talk compulsively, filling up time for eternity, without even a Godot to wait for. Their dialogue ranges from enthusiastic pep talks to ruminative speculations (We call an assemblage of wood a chair, identifying it as a thing to sit on. But is it the wood or the word we relate to thereafter?), including but not restricted to a lot of topics and attitudes that are identifiably twentieth-century American. What does it add up to? As I said, I'd have to study it closer to be sure, and at the moment I can only confess that I'm not sure there's anything there beyond an impressive acting vehicle. Gerald Berkowitz

Infinite Something and the Third Monkey Pleasance Dome
After three years of group revues, writer-performer Tim FitzHigham goes solo while retaining the revue format of a string of loosely-connected sketches. The theme is human history as Big Brother, with homo erectus able to nominate neanderthal for early ejection just because he developed speech first, and the Dark Ages imposed on the participants as a challenge. Highlights include an Irish builder explaining why he hasn't completed Rome in a day, William of Orange facing an immigration officer, and a day in the life of a mayfly. While the satire is rarely too biting, a sketch in which selectors choose George over the Bede as England's patron saint just because he's more butch scores some telling points. Running gags feature the Four Horsemen killing time waiting for the Apocalypse and a series of Alan Bennettish clergymen, while the comedian's verbal skills are displayed in a fast-talking sketch on the impossibilities of imperial-to-metric conversions. FitzHigham's quick changes are covered by clever prerecorded bridges, and the performer himself is charming, versatile and fast-thinking enough to provide a far more satisfying hour than most stand-up comics. Gerald Berkowitz

Neil Innes and John Dowie - Ego Warriors Traverse
Neil Innes and John Dowie combine talents in a late-night hour that is easy, comfortable and edge-less, with no surprises for their fans and nothing difficult for newcomers to like. Innes carries the bulk of the show with a series of mildly comic songs such as Eye Candy, about how easy it is for a couch potato to be sucked into the TV. The most dangerous he gets is a subtly wicked Elton John parody at the keyboards, all the more effective because he doesn't announce it as such, but lets us discover the satire as he does it. In the same spirit, the Beatle parodies in a medley of Ruttles songs are just there for us to find and chuckle at. Dowie punctuates the music from time to time by reading from a notebook full of his whimsical Milliganesque poems, his one extended set being a light and touching evocation of his Birmingham childhood. Perhaps more suited for a smoky coffeehouse than a theatre space, the programme is gentle and ephemeral to the point of almost disappearing before your eyes while it's going on. Gerald Berkowitz

Intimacy Assembly
Hanif Kureishi's 1998 novel depicts a married man gathering up his energy and courage to leave his wife, either - as he claims - because their relationship has simply died or - as the novelist suggests - simply because he is infatuated with another woman. Guy Masterson has adapted it for the stage as an almost uninterrupted internal monologue for the man, compelled to justify and explain himself to us, to a handful of other characters, and to himself. Unfortunately, what works in a novel, where the author has time to establish the character and guide us gradually toward insights, plays as whining, whingeing self-absorption to the nth degree, and neither actor Riz Meedin nor directors Susannah Pack and Oliver Langdon can make him anything but annoying. Gerald Berkowitz

The Invisible Bob Show Gilded Balloon
This four-actor revue is modest even by the standards of mid-afternoon shows, stretching a limited amount of familiar material unusually thin. Almost half the show, in bits and pieces, is devoted to a running gag about which of the men - supposedly smooth Gary Drabwell, shy Julian England or laid-back Russell Pay - will be the first to score with seductive but ultimately unavailable Lizzie Roper. But there's no real payoff to the extended setup, which thus seems mere padding. A sketch about dubbing a porn film has some original touches, but I'm prepared to bet there are a few more designer-baby sketches in town, while men treating preparations for picking up girls as a military operation appear in at least one revue every fringe, and the version here offers no new twists on the cliche. Two other sketches are built on exactly the same joke, of a woman being condemned not for her promiscuity but for her bad taste in partners. The hour passes quickly but contains too little to satisfy any but the least demanding. Gerald Berkowitz

Iron Traverse
Rona Munro's new play is a strong character study that repeatedly foils expectations and thus tells us more than we expected about characters we thought we could pigeonhole. Fay (Sandy McDade in a subtly multi-textured performance) is in prison for life, for killing her husband. Out of the blue comes a visit from Josie (Louise Ludgate), the daughter she hasn't seen in 15 years. But what we then get is neither recriminations nor instant bonding. Josie wants help remembering a childhood she has blocked, and Fay wants some sense, however vicarious, of life outside. So a delicate bargain is reached - this bit of the past in return for doing that between visits and describing it. Inevitably, we eventually learn about the murder, which proves both believable and banal, and inevitably the women reach the limits of their ability to connect. There are also strong performances by Helen Lomax and Ged McKenna as sympathetic but clear-eyed guards. The play is quiet and sedately paced, but delivers. Gerald Berkowitz

Jimeoin Assembly Rooms
The popular Irish-Australian comic has reached the enviable stage in his career in which he really doesn't have to be funny. He is funny much of the time, but his audience comes in so primed to enjoy themselves that even incidental interruptions like losing his place or scratching himself get laughs. Indeed, he can make a reference, as to a nursery rhyme, and openly state that he has nothing funny to say about it, and still get a laugh. His material is entirely observational, without a single self-contained joke or even many obvious cappers or punch lines to the hour. Still, he can go on at length about such mundane matters as changing a light bulb or shopping in the supermarket, finding humour in each new turn of thought. Shorter riffs, on why Americans laugh more than the Irish, or on the dance moves of boy bands and backup singers, effectively punctuate the longer pieces. His mode throughout is low-key but confident, more like the most entertaining guy at the dinner table than the polished performer and skilled audience-controller he really is. Gerald Berkowitz

Kebab! The Musical Pleasance
This perky vest-pocket musical from Belly Rub Productions - no cast list or credits available - is a modestly inventive hour presented with the sort of broad playing, large cast and general chirpiness that recall the best of school theatricals. A pizzeria owner who fancies himself a mafia don favours one son over the other, and the neglected boy leaves to seek his fortunes elsewhere. He encounters the daughter of a kebob shop owner and is converted to the new cuisine until plot developments and some fusion cookery effect a reconciliation. While plotting and characterisation are elementary, the dialogue is frequently quite clever. The music is pleasant, with occasional witty quoting from Lloyd Webber and others, the singing and dancing are sprightly, the hero is attractive, most of the acting is broad and amateurish. Friends and family of the cast will have a wonderful time, and others will find it a harmless time-filler. Gerald Berkowitz

Kiss of Life Pleasance Dome
Chris Goode is a nice man. Before his show even starts he asks us how happy we are, and throughout he projects an amiable, attractive air. And this invites us into his solo play and its ultimately life-affirming message. We meet his character on a bridge ledge, gathering up his nerve to jump, only to be pushed by a passer-by and then saved by a character who is himself suicidal. As our hero and his new friend bond and even become lovers, his repeated efforts to foil the other guy's repeated attempts to kill himself help him rediscover the value of life. That may sound preachy, but in performance it is frequently comic; and if the piece goes on a little bit longer than it ideally should, it is a warm and pleasant journey. Gerald Berkowitz

Kit and the Widow - Les Enfants du Parody Stage by Stage
Kit and the Widow start their show on an uncharacteristically political note with a Camp X- Ray samba and the obligatory George W. Bush satire. But they quickly revert to their usual mode of channelling Flanders and Swann with songs about caravan owners, shooting parties, and posh Londoners holidaying in Cornwall. An Edith Sitwell rap and a bossa nova about a suntanned lad soaking up the carcinogens score high, as does the song that manages to satirise the book, the film and the cult of The Lord of the Rings all in one go. Kit hits more serious notes with the sweet song of a father's prayer that his newborn daughter be spared such dangers as "meningitis, men in cars," and with a very Sondheimish anthem of hopeful youth, while the Widow's songs questioning the contents of oxtail and bird's nest soup return things to the duo's usual light tone. The hour ends with a delighted audience singing along to Nessun Dorma lyrics drawn from an Indian menu. Gerald Berkowitz

Daniel Kitson Pleasance
Bespectacled, overweight, with unruly hair and a vaguely tweedy look, Daniel Kitson resembles an ineffectual maths tutor, and indeed his stage persona and comic material are built on his total lack of cool. He talks about not drinking, not clubbing, not being good at parties or sex. He warns of the dangers of cursing in front of your grandparents, and describes wandering into a pro-cannabis protest march more-or-less by accident. He talks about his lisp and his stutter, and nervously adjusts his eyeglasses more often than Rodney Dangerfield fiddles with his tie. Even his stories of losing a gig on a matter of principle and of dealing with an angry heckler are double-edged, as he seems pleased not so much to have triumphed as survived. But a running theme of his low-key act is the danger of rash first impressions, and Kitson is not as harmless as he looks. Woe betide the innocent audience members who cough, sneeze or giggle at the wrong moment, as they will find themselves the comic targets of the next three minutes' biting ridicule. Gerald Berkowitz

Lags Pleasance
A young female drama teacher comes to a men's prison to offer improvisation classes to the inmates. Ron Hutchinson's play deliberately flirts with dramatic cliche, to the extent of peopling the classroom with a predictable cross-section of prisoner types, but then repeatedly confounds expectations in dramatically complex and thought-provoking ways. The girl, played by Emma Fildes, is no naif, but street-smart and impressively courageous. The inmates are neither rehabilitated instantly nor totally unmoved, but are affected in the small ways one can believe might happen in the single session shown. The joker in the bunch (Laurence Saunders) finds new outlets for his energy, the mousy coward (Nick de Mora) gets to express some of his anger, the hard man (Michael Aduwali) lets slip a veiled hint of ambitions for self-expression. And even as these small victories are called into question by the cynical but insightful guard played by Claire Cogan, the play insists that something, however small, has happened to these men's lives that will remain with them. Caroline Hunt skilfully directs a production that combines subtlety with high energy. Gerald Berkowitz

Latin! Gilded Balloon Teviot
Stephen Fry's puff pastry of a public school satire is given an appropriately knowing production by Activated Image, with Mark Farrelly and Tom Noad clearly and infectiously enjoying themselves in the roles of the Latin master caught in a forbidden affair with a boy and the rival master not above a little kinky blackmail himself. Fry's signature combination of naughty-boy shockingness and delightfully plummy writing translates to the stage with complete success, with audiences quickly attuning themselves to a pattern of Freudian slips of the tongue or chalk, and director Adam Barnard adding their equivalents in visual humour. But as inventively decadent as the plot scenes are, the real fun for many in the audience will lie in the milieu-setting sequences, as Farrelly turns the theatre into his Latin class in order to browbeat and insult individual students, or Noad gives a parents' day lecture explaining absurd but immediately recognizable school traditions. Gerald Berkowitz

David Leddy's On the Edge Pleasance Dome
There was once a period when mysterious killings threatened to cull Britain's upper classes during the inter-war years. Thankfully documented for posterity by Agatha Christie and others, David Leddy's inventive one-man show now invites us to wipe our feet as we cross the threshold of murder most horrid. Deep in Chipping-Claybourne, a Cluedo paradise of rich unmarried ladies and retired military gentlemen, the dapper Doctor's wife is discovered mortally stabbed. The investigating Inspector, aided by the unimpeachable physician, lines up the houseguests for a thorough probing - the Sapphic Spinster, the Muddled Major, the Bright Young Thing, plus sinister Johnny Foreigner, Blackmailing Butler and sundry salt of the earth retainers. All manner of dark secrets emerge from the closet as the suspects whip out their alibis and compare motives. Leddy's own motive lies in the fiendishly clever way he constantly challenges our acceptance of stereotypes without skipping a beat in the entertainment factor. Although there are longueurs in the form of musical interludes, the rest sizzles with the pure, camp joy of the genre. Definitely a killer of an evening. Nick Awde

Like Thunder Gilded Balloon (reviewed last year)
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. Gerald Berkowitz

Looking Up Assembly
A young couple's eyes meet across the club where they work and so begins a gentle romantic comedy with a difference. The difference being that one of the protagonists spends much of her time hanging upside-down. Trapeze artist Wendy and bartender Jack's mutual attraction unfolds with much mood swinging and dissection of life, the universe and everything. Though both are struggling to keep their feet firmly on the ground, the slightest hint of rejection sends one retreating into the rafters, the other to the bar. Understandable space constraints mean there's little flying through the air yet Wendy's job as an aerial pole-dancer demands more subtle movement so her trapeze becomes a life metaphor where commitment and safety nets top the list. Writer Carla Cantrelle plays the show girl past her prime who's looking for a life outside the womb of the circus while, as the younger man, Ben Tollefson gets the best lines - his late-night rant after a heavy day at the bar is a mini-masterpiece. Guided by director Annie Levy's sensitive touch, they effortlessly glide through a blend of styles and technical challenges, and their Œwill they won't they' teasingly keeps you guessing to the end. Nick Awde

Losing It Pleasance
Like a lot of men, Simon Lipson lost it before he was 30 ­ and he admits to having some regrets. After all, going bald is a life-changing event, one we can all relate to when viewed through his own follicly-challenged history, subtitled A Tricho-comedy. Doomed by genetics, Lipson takes a darkly ironic ramble through acceptance of being a slaphead via bizarre therapy groups before regressing further to his own family experiences and a smooth-pated father. He meanders halfway into an evocation of growing up in the seventies which is funny but loses the thread, regaining it by the finale thanks to a slide show that takes a wicked dig at everything from a shaven Beckham to wig catalogue models. Co-written with director Mark Paterson, this is a deceptively ambitious show that frequently places Lipson at the centre of prerecorded dialogues with other members of his discussion groups - the timing is tricky but he hits every cue and every gag. While not the most natural of performers, he is at ease under the spotlights and a surprisingly gifted mimic who instantly engages the audience with the gruff Cockney of his East End dad or any number of surprise celebrities to produce a shaggy dog story filled with unexpected laughs. Nick Awde

The Love at Last Gilded Balloon
This short and fragile play by Mike Bartlett and Dan Snelgrove offers a modest and almost tentative statement about the process of dying, but one that is both convincing and moving. With Bartlett directing, Snelgrove plays a man in a hospital bed with some unidentified malady whose seriousness only gradually becomes evident. A series of erotic encounters with the nurse played by Nadine Khadr are obviously fantasies, but the role they serve and the direction in which they evolve are surprising, and lead to the discovery that the dying may come to need the comfort of illusion less rather than more. Both performers are successful in maintaining the play's double vision of fantasy and the reality behind it, Snelgrove by treating both with the same mix of wonder and respect, and Khadr by letting us see the shadows of the real in the dream, as when her loving embrace resembles the manoeuver nurses use to lift a patient. Hardly more than a dream itself, the play's images are likely to haunt the memory as those of dreams do. Gerald Berkowitz

Macbeth Lyceum Theatre
Continuing its tradition of importing only the most ponderous and lifeless of foreign theatre, the International Festival offers this almost totally affectless Dutch-language production from Rotterdam's ro theater. Despite heavy cutting, including among others the witches' pot-stirring, Banquo's murder scene and the line about tomorrows, Alize Zandwijk's staging runs over two hours without interval, the extra time provided by slow, droning recitations of most speeches and extended silent interludes in which little is accomplished beyond the moving of a few props. When emotion is shown, it is almost always incongruous or in direct contradiction of the words. Duncan's courtiers punch and shove each other like pre-teen boys, and Lady Macbeth (Jacqueline Blom, got up like a 70s punk rocker) joins them in a wine-spitting contest at the dinner table; she later plays what must surely be the jolliest sleepwalking scene on record. Meanwhile Macbeth (Steven Van Watermeulen) looks blankly at the invisible dagger as if scanning a supermarket shelf and later reacts to the news of Macduff's untimely birth with a oops-like "oh" that gets a surely-unintended laugh. Did anybody here read this play? Macbeth speaks the lines comparing the imaginary dagger with the one in his hand, but there is none in his hand. When Lady Macbeth berates her husband for still carrying the knives that killed Duncan, he isn't carrying them. In the final confrontation with Macduff, Macbeth cries out his defiant determination to go down fighting, and then lays down his weapon to let himself be strangled. The few original touches, such as having the witches wander through the action, drawing crime-scene-like chalk outlines where each of Macbeth's victims fall, have no effect. A little of the play's inherent power inevitably seeps through. But the evening is almost totally unengaging, untragic, unilluminating of the protagonist's mental and spiritual journey, and the greatest of theatrical sins, boring. Gerald Berkowitz

Malice in Wonderland C too
This short play from Chatham's Changeling Youth Theatre is an impressive piece of teenage writing and acting without ever transcending the limits of the form. In a series of brief scenes we encounter a couple who met on an internet chat room and have taken the first tentative steps toward an actual romance. When an enigmatic second boy bursts in on their chat and starts playing them off each other, it will come as little surprise that he goes on to cause more trouble or that they have to do some quick growing up survive him. Author Neil Carter plays the boy, Amie Mercer the girl and Samuel George Carey the troublemaker, all with enough strength to make the play's fairly simple point - be careful online - effective for the intended audience.  Gerald Berkowitz

Men in Coats Pleasance
The movie Quadrophenia started the process but it has taken Men in Coats (and South Park) to finish the job in reinstating the lowly parka. Accordingly attired, the duo lovingly plunder vaudeville and music hall to produce a winning silent blend of sight gags, mime and clown theatre. There's not a gag that's less than a century old but it all seems newly invented thanks in part to the fact that they radiate a humour lacking in their European counterparts and an earthy surrealism missing in the Americans. You'll find disembodied heads and ducks - well, disembodied everything unless it's truncated, elongated or sliced in two - while running jokes include Kenny and cheeky horse heads accompanied by a driving soundtrack of every cheesy big band samba and sixties/seventies soundtrack you can think of (and yes, there's a Mission Impossible sequence plus The Godfather and Vision On). Being self-referential is not off-limits nor are bodily emissions, and any roughness around the edges is merely proof you're watching real theatre and not a sideshow at Disneyland. And so the Men hit that rare achievement of keeping everyone happy via the highest common denominator. Nick Awde

Messenger C3
There's a genre of play that involves a man (it's always a man) waking up in a psychiatric ward not knowing how he got there. Sometimes he knows his name, mostly he knows little else until syringe-wielding doctors and barking inmates prod him from amnesia to the dawning that nothing is as it seems. It could happen to you. Writer Andrew Shepherd has taken all these ingredients and more to create a thoughtful play that is more O Lucky Man! than Kafka and remarkably free of the self-indulgent philosophising that usually distinguishes such apocalyptic works. His protagonist is John Messenger, an articulate, sensitive man haunted by dreams and visitations no one can see - or can they? Questioning by the medical staff, assailed by the passion or aggression of the other patients, he slowly pieces together his fragmented past towards the revelation of a dark secret. As Messenger, Colin Hardy heads a focused ensemble that goes for maximum effect with the minimum of props, while director Anna Ostergren keeps the pulse of each performer firmly on the emotional output, driven by Al Sarafaglou's moody soundtrack. Nick Awde

Mort C Venue
Terry Pratchett's black-comic fairy tale has been adapted by Stephen Briggs into a potentially entertaining 90-minute play that Wonderland Theatre do not do justice to. Pratchett imagines a lad named Mortimer apprenticed - appropriately, given his nickname - to Death, he of the black cloak and scythe. While his boss takes his first night off in millennia, Mort fouls things up, sparing someone who should die, and thus screwing up the course of history. At this point you might lose interest in the plot, as Pratchett himself seems to, since the real fun is in the quite witty jokes he colours the story with. Seen at their first performance, the clearly under-prepared cast offer a catalogue of bad acting, either mumbling incoherently or overacting grotesquely, and most of the jokes are lost in bad delivery or timing. There's nothing wrong with this show that another three weeks of rehearsal and a stronger directorial hand couldn't cure, and it might be worth visiting toward the end of the Festival.
Gerald Berkowitz

Mrs. Shakespeare Roman Eagle Lodge
Bridget Wood has adapted Robert Nye's novel into a solo show that is a harmlessly pleasant hour for the undemanding, but tells us little that is believable or enlightening about either the playwright or his wife. Speaking to us as widow, the former Anne Hathaway is presented as one with no understanding or appreciation of her husband's art, a country mouse who was perfectly happy to have him go off to the big city for years at a time, except that he didn't always send money home. Centrepiece of her story is a fictional visit to London in 1594. She hated the town, but remembers a sex-filled week of role-playing games - we were the children of feuding families, he was a black general and I was his unfaithful wife, and so on, through the yet-to-be-written canon. Only a pedant like me would notice the anachronisms and historical errors, and I wasn't bothered by them. But the story and characterisations simply don't ring true, even as fictions, and Wood's stolid performance does little to bring them to life. Gerald Berkowitz

My Matisse Roman Eagle Lodge
Last year, director Andy Jordan was busy with Brian McAvera's Picasso's Women and here he runs over similar ground with Howard Ginsberg's My Matisse, possibly a more satisfying work in that the protagonists are gathered on a single stage and interact to paint a more immediate portrait of their subject. Like his rival Picasso, Henri Matisse was a painter who declined to die young and capitalised instead on his own reputation. Like Picasso, he was also an artist who painted with his dick. Forever evolving in style, he "loved to paint women, only women", i.e. only those he found attractive. And so, gathered in a colourful tableau to compare perspectives, the defining females who describe how they shaped his life are split into those he lusted after and those he didn't ­ wife, mistress, model, secretary versus mother, daughter and Gertrude Stein. A frequently overlinear script and Jordan's sedentary direction cannot hold back mostly strong performances across the board, reinforced by excellent casting. Unfair therefore to single out Karen Archer for the poignant strength she brings to Amelie, Matisse's long-suffering spouse. Nick Awde

Navelgazing Pleasance
Cheddwang Park is a cruddy theme park where "there's loads to see!" as the manager gushes with misguided optimism and he's right - since you get a perfect view of the more successful Alton Towers next door. Today the new PR man is doubling as Francis the (child-frightening) Fly and, more worryingly, the trades descriptions inspector is appraising the attractions. In between lugubrious Tannoy announcements, radio spots and rejection letters from celebs declining invitations to reopen the UK's oldest working toilets, ungrateful punters wander through the terracotta collection and dodgy Waxworks Ride. No Navelgazing live show would be complete without a degree of graphic violence and both the nipple losing incident and gore of the Mock Tudors minstrels fill the quota. In a welcome return to live work, Ewen MacIntosh, Jack Brough, Jamie Deeks and Dan Johnston create a whole world of strangeness via trademark quips, quirks and scary comedy. The never-ending characters means some momentum is lost but this is also the attraction ­ nearly 30 perfectly formed roles in an hour and that's not including the voice-overs, the two corpses in the gardens and the dead asylum seeker in the bus. Nick Awde

Phil Nichol - Things I Like I Lick Pleasance
This sometimes manic comic has toned down a bit, with a little less frantic gay innuendo and flirting with audience members than in past shows, though those in the front row live in constant danger of being licked. The slightly subdued nature of his current act has much to do with a strong core of material, much of it a wryly comic account of his tribulations of the past year, which included being arrested on a train and punched on the underground, along with a string of medical maladies. Other fruitful sequences include a string of jokes with the same punch line, and a catalogue of bad taste humour culminating in a song about being Helen Keller's fella. In that and a few other songs, Nichol is modestly backed by guitarist Mick Moriority, and each show ends with a different (and unpredictably effective) practical joke played on him by a friend. The overall sense one gets is of a performer in transition, beginning to trust his material enough to relax and not push as hard as he sometimes feels compelled to. Gerald Berkowitz

1933 And All That Demarco (reviewed last year)
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 - Sonic Waffle Pleasance
While many stand-up comics begin their acts with some direct chatter with individual audience members, Ross Noble is the absolute master of the quick-thinking development of a brief exchange into an extended routine, which is then woven into his prepared material so seamlessly that it is difficult to tell where the ad libs end. On this particular evening one latecomer, one exuberant American and one guy carrying drinks for his friends became the basis for extended riffs that somehow included coasters strapped to one's knees, the absence of lockers in British schools and (I'm really not sure how we got here) Billy Elliot dancing in a coal mine. That last bit may have been part of the regular material, because ballet became a running theme, along with mixed nuts and the Dalai Lama. On the other hand, a throw-away reference to being attacked by a drug dealer, which seemed inspired (somehow) by the latecomer, turned out to be a carefully-planted set-up for the evening's final joke. It's enough to make other comics just want to give up. Gerald Berkowitz

Nothing to Declare Pleasance
A young designer clambers over the cab of her jack-knifed truck, roves the desolate desert that surrounds it. Armed only with an out of date map, insufficient water and colour swatches, she has come in search of inspiration and found it - crisis chic. The only problem is that what she has found is preparing to consume her. Visibly fading, she defiantly reports on her situation like war correspondent from the front line. In this bold production from Point Blank, Liz Tomlin gives an impassioned performance of an ironic, contemporary piece that still retains an accessible Bennett flavour. For all its promise, however, it proves ultimately unsatisfying and it's the usual suspect since Tomlin also directs and writes, a hat-trick that rarely augurs well for structured theatre such as this. The direction is over-obsessed with the poetry of movement yet ignores the dynamics of delivery - vital laughs are lost and the build-up of tension is compromised. In the writing department there are messages delivered as the symbolism racks up but it all ends up running on dry. Incredibly, to achieve this it took an additional choreographer, a dramaturg and no fewer than three credited additional directors. Nick Awde

Oh Hello! Venue 13
Audiences may come to Dave Ainsworth's portrait of Charles Hawtrey expecting a joke-filled celebration of the Carry On films. But, while Ainsworth offers a fair share of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, his solo play is actually a moving study in decline and self-delusion. After a brief prelude hinting at future unhappiness, we meet Hawtrey near the end of his Carry On career, as the veteran, presented as twice as camp in real life than either he or Kenneth Williams ever were onscreen, bemoans the lack of respect and remuneration he is getting. He acted with Will Hay, he repeatedly reminds us, and he takes great pride in the fact that the young Jim Dale looks to him as a comic mentor. Over the next few years, as Hawtrey leaves the series and sinks into alcoholic oblivion, his backstory is also revealed as less pleasant than he first remembered it, and we learn that he was less of a victim and more the agent of his own downfall that he wants to believe. Appropriately, Ainsworth's playing also becomes more subtle, engaging our sympathy for a man whose greatest performance may have been the one he put on to deceive himself. Gerald Berkowitz

Oleanna Assembly Rooms
Former Stage acting award winners Beth Fitzgerald and Guy Masterson offer an intense and remarkably balanced revival of David Mamet's 1993 dissection of sexual politics. A female student who has come to a male professor for help later charges him with a long list of sexual prejudices and offenses and, while we know he is innocent of the specific charges, we come to see a more subtle paternalism and insensitivity of which he is guilty. At its best, the play can inspire audiences to side with one character or the other in equal proportions and, guided by director Emma Lucia, Masterson and Fitzgerald seem to have accomplished this ideal. He plays the professor sympathetically, emphasizing the well-meaning liberalism that accompanies his self-blindness. While she never completely solves the text's central conundrum - how the mousy student of the first scene turns into the militant feminist of the rest of the play - she brings a sometimes frightening passion to her character's confident zeal. On a bare stage, with nothing more than two chairs and a few hand props, the author, director and performers create one of the most emotionally intense and intellectually challenging hours on the fringe. Gerald Berkowitz

One Fat Lady The Stand
The seriously insane Bruce Devlin sub-subtitles his new show as the "harrowing tale of one heroic homo's escape from Dundee" and as trade descriptions go that's a pretty fair assessement. His is a rampant, surreal picaresque, a rollicking run-through of his childhood and life apprenticeship on a yellow brick road that boomerangs from deprived Dundee to Edinburgh via Soho. Call centre hell and casting couch contretemps conspire to deny him the stardom and media frenzy that surely beckons. The blow-job gags and rentboy banter paradoxically reinforce his disarming, demonic glee in demonstrating it isn't only the straight and boring who end up in shite jobs. It all disguises a master of observation who, while sneakily pushing the values of home, job and hope, hits every climax and leaves no grimy detail unturned right down to the effects of smeggy mould and facial soap. No so much offensive as utterly shameless, Devlin takes queer humour where happy campers fear to tread and is not for those of a nervous disposition, yet he plays to such a brilliantly broad audience he has to be an essential stop-off on this Fringe's comedy circuit. Nick Awde

100 Underbelly
If you had to spend the rest of eternity comforted only by a single memory from your life, what would it be? Like an existentialist Desert Island Discs, the scenario is a well-trodden one yet here The Imaginary Body spirits up a show that is as innovative as it is mainstream. Four strangers are thrown together in limbo and though they have no idea how they got there, the man who welcomes them may yield a clue or two. Their questioning reveals more than they bargained for as he starts off a countdown to their eternal future, in the process raising intriguing questions about honesty and the choices we make. Armed only with bamboo poles for props, Matthieu Leloup, Matt Boatright-Simon, Tanya Munday, Claire Porter and Lawrence Werber weave a Zen-like definition of space and action across the eerie expanse of this gloomy cavern that helps keep the tension high. In a seamless, unexpected fusion of words and movement, Neil Monaghan's sharp script resists the temptation to plunge into whimsy while director Christopher Heimann keeps a strong current of humour underpinning the philosophising and minimalism. A hit undoubtedly bound for the international circuit. Nick Awde

Outlying Islands Traverse
As clouds gather at the onset of Second World War Two, a pair of ornithologists find themselves despatched by their ministry to a remote piece of rock far off the Scottish coast. Their mission is to survey the island's bird population and, though initially treated with bemused suspicion by the island's crabby leaseholder and his inquisitive niece, the interplay of the humans with each other and their wild surroundings leads each to a liberation of sorts. David Greig's latest exploration of the human condition swirls with superbly paced language, a gift that director Philip Howard uses well, while the action finds an evocative setting in Fiona Watt's circular pagan chapel. However, despite the life-altering insights he experiences, Laurence Mitchell's chief birdwatcher Robert becomes ever more one-dimensional as the events roll on and Sam Heughan as his assistant John fares little better. Working on safer ground, Robert Carr and Lesley Hart flesh out the islanders with a confident, ironic grittiness. They ultimately founder because Greig fails to deliver his grand ideas and so the themes fail to connect for the protagonists by play's end. A gripping experience but one that remains tantalisingly one rewrite short of the finished product. Nick Awde

Out in the Garden Assembly
Set in a gnome-filled Birmingham garden, Carolyn Scott Jeffs' tale of matrimonial disaster is an entertaining interplay of personal differences with some neat social satire lobbed in for good measure. Gregarious matriarch Denise (Rebecca Simmons) presides over the comic time-bomb of a family gathered for the wedding of her son Stuart (Richard Smith) to mousey Ang (Anna Barker). Arriving from London is elder brother Alex (Gresby Nash) and partner Susan (Georgia Reece), City sophisticates already at odds with the Midlanders. More worrying is the presence of stranger Liam (John Pickard), last seen dashing about in naked panic in Stuart's company. Naturally everyone has a secret bursting to get out and the misunderstandings pile up nicely as the wedding arrangements disintegrate. Copious drunkenness, vomit and mobile phones lend a contemporary feel to the genre and add to the human snarl-ups. In director Caroline Hadley's department things are a touch over-frenetic and lack edge while Carolyn Scott Jeffs' writing needs tightening ­ there are kinks in characterisation and key moments are fluffed. Cavills really since there are wonderful belly laughs along the way as some of the oldest lines in the business get a fresh airing plus sparkling performances all round. Nick Awde

The Oxford Revue Gilded Balloon
Poor. No, bad. No, lousy. This franchise, which in the past has brought us generation after generation of university wits, hits a nadir in this assertively unfunny, unwitty and uninspired show. There's a weak running gag about how the town of Hove is overshadowed by its neighbour Brighton, and a string of undeveloped ideas about frustrated love affairs. Late in the run, they're still flubbing lines and missing cues, with the we-know-we're-in-a-flop-so-who-cares hysteria that makes those onstage have far more fun than the ticket buyers. And, like the old joke about complaining that the food was lousy and, even worse, the portions were small, I have to note that they could only come up with a half-hour's worth of this weak material. Gerald Berkowitz

Peace Augustines
Aristophanes was a pretty brave guy. In the middle of a long war and in the face of government-generated jingoism he wrote a couple of satirical pacifist comedies. Lysistrata is of course his masterpiece, but this play at its best does a pretty good job at sending up not only war but the whole culture of heroism. Since the goddess of peace has fled to Olympus, and received lore is that the only terrestrial beings that can go there are dung beetles, our hero has to spend the first part of the play shovelling dung to get his beetle strong enough to carry him on its back. Then he has to deal with various comic and serious characters in order to get to her and win her back to earth. The young actors of Anky Park Productions have fun with the farcical dung-collecting scenes, but far too soon their production sinks into static speech-making, some of it dramatically strong but too little of it funny. Gerald Berkowitz

Personal Belongings Gilded Balloon Teviot
Elbowing her way through the dodgy detritus of humanity filling up coach D on the Edinburgh train, an aspiring actress takes her seat and prepares for a journey that will convey her northwards to that hallowed Mecca for thespians. Barely has the whistle gone and she is conversing and communing with her fellow travellers ­ sex-deprived academic, self-obsessed mother with kid, precocious teenager, ubiquitous Aussie ­ just a typical day out really. Oh, and everyone's harbouring a secret of sorts. In this entertaining one-woman show from Live Theatre, Zoe Lambert is a bundle of infectious energy who jumps in and out of character and accent quicker than it takes Virgin to cancel the weekend service. Written by Julia Darling and directed by Jeremy Herrin, there is a tad too much technique and clever twist of phrase leading to gradual loss of the narrator's perspective. Nevertheless, some gorgeous surreal flights of fancy abound particularly in the form of the country and western conductor ­ personified by a husky voiced Lambert, accompanied by guitarist David Scott on laconic ballads such as Since I Became Lost Property and No Such Thing as a Straight Line. Nick Awde

Priorite a Gauche - Le Best of the Greatest Hits Queen's Hall
Fringe favourites Jean-Francois and Didier are back dans la maison, slipping each other haut cinqs and doing their muddled best to enhance cross-Channel grooviness. The basic joke of a pair of franglais-spouting French entertainers with a bit more self-confidence than talent is a good one, and the pair of would-be Eurostars, played this year by Justin McCarron and Arnold Widdowson, keep the multilevel satire afloat through the eighty-minute show. From the faux-French jokes -- a list of favourite bands that includes Toi Aussi (U2) -- through the genuinely witty material - a rap made up of the rhyming names of great Frenchmen - the pair sustain a high energy and audience rapport. Only occasionally does one sense the material being stretched thin, as when an early routine built on Jean-Francois' embarrassment at having to translate Didier's increasingly explicit French lyrics reappears in a minor variation in the second half, or when Didier's mastery of English rises and falls to meet the needs of each new bit. Audience involvement, ranging from being flirted with by the amorous Didier to being brought onstage for a wine-drinking ritual, culminates in an enthusiastic YMCA-style sing-and-gesture-along that sends everyone out avec les high spirits.. Gerald Berkowitz

Quasi-Murder Garage
The ugliest man in the world is a staple of literature and theatre, be his name Quasimodo, Cyrano or Merrick, and this dramatisation by performer Patrick Goddard of Amelie Nothomb's novel Attentat nods to each of its predecessors. Like Merrick he is unexpectedly sensitive of soul; like the hunchback he loves the beauty, here a warm-hearted actress; like Cyrano, he can only express his love by wooing for a rival. The hard-to-look-at hero revels in his revoltingness but is clever enough to exploit it, conning the fashion world into employing him as a shock-effect model. And when he is finally driven to violence, it takes a form both appropriate and oddly fulfilling of his needs. Goddard holds the small stage with the intensity of his performance, creating the effect of ugliness with nothing more than grimaces, oversize clothes and a sustained air of self- loathing. He is never far from one of the cracked distorting mirrors that make up his set, making clear that the character needs constant reassurances of his own hideousness to energise him. Admittedly a work-in-progress, the piece will benefit from further trimming and focussing, but its potential strength is already evident. Gerald Berkowitz

Requiem for Ground Zero Assembly
A last-minute addition to the fringe programme, Steven Berkoff's ruminations on September 11 are openly a work in progress, and the performance's variations from the published text indicate that the author-actor continues to work on a piece whose strongest sections are both moving and evocative. Writing in unobtrusively rhyming quatrains, Berkoff opens with a portrait of a New York morning with only the image of silver birds overhead spoiling a lightly comic picture. As he jumps to Boston and the beginnings of the fatal flights, he repeatedly uses Manhattan breakfasts as time markers, cementing the sense of connectedness, and uses his trademark mugging and broad playing to stress both the innocence of the soon-to-be victims and the spiritual foulness of their murderers. The whole first section of the one-hour piece is its strongest, with a precision of observation and imagery that brings alive the planes' passengers (oddly forgotten in much of the 9/11 mythos) and the human tragedy to come. Oddly, both writing and performance lose focus once Berkoff's account reaches the towers, with only generalised invocations of brave firemen and innocent secretaries, though the occasional telling image, such as seeing the first crash site as an obscene grin on the building's face, catches your heart and breath. Text and performance reach their nadir with some cheap and irrelevant parody of George W. Bush. It is clear that the second half of this Requiem is most in need of further development, but if Berkoff can shape it to the form and level of the opening section, the whole will be one of the most powerful of 9/11-inspired works. Gerald Berkowitz

Ride Assembly
Rarely has the morning after the night before been captured with such exquisite, humorous agony as in Jane Bodie's romantic whodunit where, with each eye opened, aching joint stirred, intimate garment retrieved, the participants in a one-night stand face up to an understandably awkward breach of etiquette. Worse, this couple went to bed strangers and, thanks to alcoholic-induced amnesia, wake up not knowing if they have even had the pleasure let alone who with. Hang-overs and a curiosity to locate the spark that induced them to get naked conspire to keep them in the bedroom and so unfolds a detective story of the sexes as each fresh reactivation of their crumpled memory banks buffets them in the effort to determine who conquered who, who used protection, and whose place is it anyway. Fiona Macleod's sensible but fun-loving waitress and Todd MacDonald's laidback writer convince on every level, while Bodie's direction smoothly takes every advantage of the natural chemistry so evident between the duo. The result is a sexy, intelligent exploration of how we are truthful to ourselves, creating such a delicious sympathy with the characters' story that we don't know whether to laugh or cringe. Nick Awde

Roadmovie Pleasance
In this solo show written by actor Nick Whitfield and director Wes Williams, a video shop clerk and one of his co-workers both go quietly mad in different ways. Bored senseless by their work, united in contempt for the taste of most of their customers, immersed to the point of obsession in the semiotics of their favourite films, and frustrated film-makers themselves, their futile little lives and free-floating anger finally become too much for them. Whitfield plays the more passive of the two, reporting on and occasionally conversing with his potentially violent friend. What begins as healthy grumbling comfortingly balanced by happy thoughts like the memory of his son's birth gradually breaks down and goes sour, a key indicator being difficulty keeping film plots separate in his mind. Projected film sequences, of the narrator's clumsy attempts at direction and of his fearful reaction to his friend's breakdown, punctuate the live action. But ultimately it needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us that little people in dead-end jobs can be unhappy and disturbed, and the play lingers on in a rambling and unfocused way long after it has made its small point. Gerald Berkowitz

A Room of State Underbelly
This production from the Prodigal Theatre Company is a bit of a fraud, and a missed opportunity, and that's a shame. It advertises itself as the story of the Players in Hamlet, and you expect at least a little of the insight, if not the wit, of Tom Stoppard in exploring what it's like to live on the edge of someone else's great tragedy. What we get instead is just a straight-forward, heavily condensed version of Hamlet itself, a kind of Hamlet-Lite. On those terms, the actors don't do a bad job, and if all you want is a one-hour plot summary of Shakespeare, you'll get it here. But it could have been something really inventive if only what was inside the tin was what it said on the label. Gerald Berkowitz

The Secret Death of Salvador Dali Assembly
Dali was the ultimate drama diva if this innovative collage from Stephen Sewell is anything to go by. As a suspended picture frame focuses you on a great bed upon which the masturbatory surrealist painter lies dying but typically priapic, he is visited by a stream of flashbacks that include his precocious sister, vampish spouse, pompous surrealists and his own younger self. First shown in 1997, this highly comic two-hander - to which El Joglars' larger-scale Daaali (premiered two years later) bears an uncanny resemblance - has a thoughtful script off which hangs a quickfire repertoire of physical and absurdist motifs. Trevor Stuart and Julie Eckersley draw on a never-ending palette of outrageous characters that mix low camp with high philosophising. Bestowed further perspective by directors Scott Maidment and Sue Rider, plus live swashes of music from Shenzo Gregory, they depict in broad strokes the obsessions that made and marketed the artist: death, onanism, ordure, incest, rotting things and lashings of Catholic guilt all feature. All you need to make up your own mind whether Dali was a genius, buffoon or plain wanker. Nick Awde

The Seinfeld Conspiracy Hill Street
When American comic Jerry Seinfeld was planning his TV series, an acquaintance named Joey West suggested a plot line that showed up in an episode five seasons later, and now Joey thinks he deserves some of Jerry's millions. That, at least, is the premise of this solo show by the real-life Joey, but the author-performer's inadequacies destroy any effectiveness the piece might have had as social history or satire. As writer, West has trouble finding his subject, repeatedly getting bogged down in irrelevant autobiography or losing sight of his point so that, for example, he is half-way through his hour before he even mentions Seinfeld. As performer, he has no stage presence and no awareness of how to carry himself, weaving aimlessly about the stage, fumbling with props, lapsing into the nervous habit of covering his mouth with his hand while he speaks, and repeatedly forgetting his own self-written lines, despite constant reference to a script. There are scattered hints that West intended this as a parody of resentful nobodies and conspiracy theories, but it comes across more as the unrelenting harangue of a barroom bore. As argument it is unconvincing, as comedy it is unfunny, as writing it is undisciplined, and as performance it is embarrassing. Gerald Berkowitz

Seven Affidavits on Authority C
Brandon Toropov's collection of short playlets studies power and powerlessness in a mix of social settings, to comic or serious effect. The seven pieces, some little more than revue sketches, observe such rich subjects for farce or satire as a liberal arts graduate facing the horrors of the employment market, a student's nightmare vision of examinations, and radio pundits preaching strict morality to their listeners while indulging their appetites off the air. More serious scenes depict a female politician allowing her success to emasculate her husband, a working woman venting pent-up anger at an innocent man who has become the focus and symbol of all her oppression, and two separate pictures of men haunted by memories of women they failed. The easy humour of the comic pieces makes them generally more successful than the serious sketches, which also tend to take on too many emotionally-charged issues at once. Under the direction of Betsy Carpenter, the four actors of TheatreBoston - John Arnold, Margaret Ann Brady, Neil A. Casey and Rachel Grissom - impressively display their talent and versatility in a string of quickly-established characterisations. Gerald Berkowitz

Shakespeare for Breakfast C Venue
This fringe perennial is always one of my first stops each festival, with its lightweight and light-hearted humour a happy way to start the marathon of theatre. Each year's show is different, usually some variant on bringing characters from various plays in comic conflict with each other. This year's version takes a different tack, turning Romeo and Juliet into that British Christmas theatrical staple, the panto. (Note to non-brits: a popular family entertainment with well-established conventions) So, along with turning the family feud into a battle of competing bakeries, allowing lots of croissant jokes, we have a principal boy (i.e., actress in trousers) Romeo, panto dame (i.e., man in drag) Nursie, ritualised audience participation, mild double-entendres (e.g., Juliet's family are now the Copulates), and incongruous insertion of pop song lyrics and dance sequences. It is all very silly, infectiously enjoyable, and performed with verve and polish. And you get free coffee and croissants.  Gerald Berkowitz

Sholom Aleichem - Now You're Talking! C Venue (Reviewed in London)
Today's memory of Jewish life in the shtetl is inevitably, happily tinged with the work of 19th century Yiddish writer Sholom (or Shalom) Aleichem. Adapted and performed by Saul Reichlin, it is clear these frequently bitter-sweet tales are no nostalgia trip but as incisive and revealing as any modern documentary. With little more than a change of headgear, Reichlin brings to life the denizens of the village of Kasrilevkeh. Sometimes there is a punchline to the stories, more often there is not, but it is the getting there that counts.And Reichlin has his work cut out: not only does he have to keep track of a flurry of characters but also, on occasion, stories within stories within stories, such as the rabbi worming out a crook from a group before him for judgement. All proceedings are leavened with humour, even when the subject is serious, such as the brothers shamed for squabbling over their father's prized seat in the synagogue. No subject is too great to be filtered through the village perspective for the understanding of all - world figures such as Dreyfus and Rothschild jostle with the intimate domesticity of matchmakers and children's Hanukah money. The real magic kicks in during the second half when Tevye the Milkman launches into a shaggy-dog story of how he stumbled into ownership his first cow. It is so easy to see how this and other stories inspired Fiddler on the Roof. Reichlin gives a fluid performance that is more drama than storytelling, which - not to make comparison between the genres - opens it up to a wider audience. Nick Awde

Shut Eye Traverse
Philadelphia's Pig Iron Company and legendary alternative theatre director Joseph Chaikin combine forces for this poetic and visually splendid exploration of sleep and sleeplessness. In a string of seemingly unrelated scenes we encounter a handful of vaguely connected characters: a man in a coma from an automobile accident, his sister, the businessmen in her office, an overworked and sleep-deprived bride, an insomniac, and some mystic musicians. With carefully choreographed transitions the play follows the logic of dreams, jumping about in time and space from one plot line to another, with characters appearing incongruously in each other's scenes. The whole is driven more by recurring themes and symbols - muffins, missing data, music and movement up and down a long ladder - than by linear logic, which offended some critics. But if you give yourself over to it, it is both beautiful to see - there's an aerial ballet that is breathtaking - and extraordinarily evocative of the mysteries of sleep. Gerald Berkowitz

Shut Up, I'm Your Mother! Gilded Balloon Teviot
Subtitled "the world of mothers and daughters", this string of wicked sketches is a romp through the generations and social orders with characters brought to life by Lorraine Molins (who also writes) and Zoe Lyons that deliver a few home truths with delicious wit. There's a 14-year-old who resists maternal pressure to be bouncy and beautiful, aghast at her outgoing mother's trendiness, while at the other extreme there's a cloyingly close relationship of a posh young woman comparing sexual notes with her understanding, exploitative parent - cross, bi, group, trans, nothing shocks. Then there are the trailer trash East Enders whose preparations to go out for the night indicate that putting on make-up is no different to warpaint, followed by an endearing, epic ramble about a harassed daughter trying to get her crabby old mother safely into her surprise 75th birthday party. A more serious side pops up in short but sweet monologues such as the telling titled GNVQ - A Schoolgirl's Lament. Playing against a set of giant interlocking picture frames, Molins and Lyons radiate gentle humour that hides quite a bite through the easy delivery of these accomplished comic actors. Nick Awde

Slaves of Starbucks Hill Street
It has nothing to do with coffee, but Canadian Peter Aterman's solo show is a nightmare vision of the American century. His mode is a string of revue-style sketches ranging from the lightly comic to the deeply disturbing, and inevitably their effectiveness is hit-and-miss. While some pieces, like the picture of boorish American tourists abroad or the contrasting announcements on Dutch and German airlines, poke easy fun at easy targets, others, such as the academic finding hidden political messages in comic books or the TV chat show encounter between a communist dictator and an all-American teenager, leave it unclear just who is being satirized. In the most successful sketches, Aterman presents a skewed vision that is far more disturbing than mere satire. Celine Dion, Adolph Hitler and Andrew Lloyd Webber make an unlikely and scary combination, while a deadpan account of obscene violence in a shopping mall embodies much that is terrible about America. The programme is handicapped by Aterman's tendency to slip into a private language or symbolism that makes some sketches or bridging sequences opaque, and judicious editing could significantly strengthen the effect of the whole. Gerald Berkowitz

A Slight Tilt to the Left Assembly
Michael Mears' solo show is an amiable, low-key shaggy dog story that makes its quiet points with admirable delicacy. Mears plays a man coping with the aftermath of his father's death and with the comic complications arising from the seemingly simple task of choosing a headstone. While his brother obsesses over details like typefaces, and in the process exposes his difficulty coming to terms with the death, the narrator seems to have bypassed the textbook steps in grieving. Inevitably, as the process of getting the headstone right lingers on for over a year, his facade cracks, and we realize at play's end that he is only now ready to begin the journey to acceptance. Directed with unobtrusive sensitivity by Guy Masterson, Mears portrays a variety of comic characters, from flu-ridden vicar to mousy undertaker, in addition to the contrasting brothers, but the backbone of the piece is the subtle and considerate way in which he guides us into the heart of a man who feels more deeply than he realises. Gerald Berkowitz

Somehow I Feel Dirty C
The title of Fuse Productions' signature piece is the weakest thing about it, giving no real sense of its subject, performance style or quality. The group-created play uses scripted scenes, mime and solo bits to follow a handful of characters from birth to adulthood, touching with sympathetic humour on all the milestones and pitfalls of growing up. The attractive cast of five are first seen mewling and puking as newborns, but race through the steps to school age in less than a minute. We then follow them through childhood in a series of vignettes which will frequently have two or more things going on simultaneously in different corners of the stage. Things slow down for adolescence and, judging from the response of the younger members of the audience, scenes of awkward first dances, suicidal depression, and first experiences of sex and alcohol are particularly accurate and telling. The play ends with the characters on the cusp of adulthood, as ready to face it as anyone ever is. The three boys in the play tend to be seen as a group, whether of rambunctious schoolkids or blokeish young men, though Ben Davies stands out in a monologue in which he realizes he has outgrown his need for his absent father. The girls are more individualised, Sarah Coyle's bossy youngster dominating Anna Morris's mousy sidekick only to have Morris's character prove the more mature and successful teen. Gerald Berkowitz

Something Else C too
Tall Stories Theatre have adapted the picture book by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell into a quietly pleasant one-hour play for children. The title character is a strange beast shunned by all the other animals because he is different. When he encounters a similarly lonely Something, his first instinct is to reject it because it isn't exactly like him, but good sense wins out and he discovers that they can be friends and play together even if they aren't exactly alike. The three performers present the story with unthreatening charm, punctuating the action with quiet songs. Sharon Morwood's sweetly childlike Something Else is balanced by Angela Laverick's more boisterous Something, while Toby Mitchell provides genial narration. Some jokes, like giving a pair of rabbits a hip-hop song, may be well over the heads of the audience, and in general the piece may be a bit too understated. The under-fives in the audience watched attentively but seemed engaged only by the most active rushing-about scenes, and the subtle moral may have required an after-show chat with mother to sink in. Gerald Berkowitz

The Split Pleasance Dome
Frank H. Strausser's new play is a seriocomic view of divorce American style that is conceived and performed on the level of a made-for-TV movie and never really transcends its genre. The golden couple played by Steve Wilder and Mabel Aitken split up but decide to stay close, literally dividing their house down the middle by a wall, with Paula Jennings' wise-cracking au pair serving as messenger and spy for each side. No points for guessing that they get together again by the end, though you might not have predicted that the image of Jean Harlow (who may or may not have once lived in this house) would be introduced briefly, only to be discarded as a dramatic dead end. And the most interesting thing about a handful of subsidiary characters doubled by Kate Harper and Edward MacLiam is that, for a play set in Hollywood, not one has a screenplay they're trying to peddle. Under Yvonne McDevitt's direction, everyone acts in the broad, signifying mode one associates with the second-banana neighbour figures in an American sitcom. On that undemanding level, the play offers a harmless afternoon's entertainment. Gerald Berkowitz

Jovanka Steele...But Enough About Me Gilded Balloon Teviot
Luckily for us, LA-born Jovanka Steele has put in enough time each side of the Atlantic to earn the authority to launch into both cultures with withering accuracy. And so she holds up a mirror to both sides propelled by an infectious, chatty style that makes even the most mundane observation compelling ­ such as confronting an English boyfriend with the obvious as, teeth on edge, he mutters invective against American tourists mispronouncing our wonderful London place names, or the trials endured by the hard-up comedian temping in offices where everyone's a joker ('You can use that in your next show, ha, ha, ha!') It's intriguing to guess what's real and what isn't ­ eye-witness accounts of confusing a thug attempting to mug her after she's just broken up with a lover or her shotgun-wielding, drugs dealer father sorting out a lost remote control situation keep the audience working overtime. The pace is fast but it's when Steele pauses and lets her real personality shine through that you really feel the comic force. Easily my favourite of the Festival, if only for the bizarre impromptu Tabasco incident for a sizzling though gut-wrenching finale. Nick Awde

Stitching Traverse
The newspaper critics almost without exception completely misunderstood Anthony Neilson's new play, and based their sometimes outraged reviews on the misunderstanding of what is actually a very tender and moving story of failed love. The problem is that the play juggles three time frames, deliberately and legitimately withholding key information until the end. We see a couple trying to decide whether to have a baby when their relationship is already rocky, we see them facing a later deep tragedy, and we see them after that, when she is so emotionally wounded that the only way she can deal with him is by closing down entirely and acting like a cold-hearted whore. (The critics thought those scenes were somehow part of the pre-baby bickering.) When Neilson guides you toward fitting the pieces together, you realise you're watching two people trying their damnedest to find some way to reach out to each other and stay together against all odds, and that's very moving. The author directs Selina Boyack and Phil McKee in impeccable performances, she a monument of wounded self-protection and he a puppy dog refusing to be rejected. Gerald Berkowitz

Sucker Assembly
Cheekily introducing himself as a 'spoken word performance artist', Lawrence Leung launches into a humorous history of the world's classic con tricks. A biographical ramble recounts growing up in an Australian Chinese family where his lack of ambition is a disappointment to his mother but a boon to his cardsharp uncle. Each episode prompts a dissection of the relationship between con artist and sucker and a fresh example of how he learned the tricks of the trade. Each recreated scam is aided by a mixed media presentation that includes tantalisingly live video close-ups and a flurry of terminology such as the different styles of shuffling and the ritual known as 'farting the cards'. The tricks themselves are few ­ there's a lot of padding ­ while Leung is not the most natural of performers and neglects to take advantage of an audience practically hurling itself onstage for a crack at participation. Nevertheless his disarming delivery and enthusiasm gamely maintains a level of showmanship throughout, underpinned by a nice line in cheesy one-liners ­ phrases like 'sleight of hand for the slight of mind' will always keep them groaning with delight. Nick Awde

Swimming in the Shallows Pleasance
Adam Bock's comedy of unordinary folk with ordinary dreams living on the sleepy coast of Rhode Island is a ripping, multi-level work that keeps you hooked right till the end thanks to this near perfect production from BrightChoice. In her quest for security, Donna (Marlo Haas) needs to give up smoking to get no-nonsense girlfriend Carla Carla (Celia Robertson) to marry her, while next door their middle-aged friend Barb (Trudy Weiss) feels she has to cast off hubby Bob (Eric Meyers) along with the other worldly possessions she's shedding as part of her faddy Buddhist angst. Their mate Nick (Philip Bosworth) is desperate to land a boyfriend who lasts more than three weeks and, as is often the case, love crops up in the most unexpected of places - the aquarium where Donna works and where The Shark (James Frost) becomes a masterpiece of surreal logic. Director Owen Lewis has a dream of a cast who work as hard for each other as for the audience within Carrie Southall's shifting, simple set and witty lighting. Add bold writing that constantly surprises and they have one of the most exciting plays to make a splash this Fringe. Nick Awde

Talking Cock Pleasance
Rising from somewhere between The Vagina Monologues and Puppetry of the Penis, Richard Herring has the audience by the balls the second he bounds onstage to reveal a severely over-optimistic codpiece and an awesomely infectious feel for masculine vital statistics. His latest offering is a rummage through the strange dichotomy of reactions to the penis in the world, punctuated by constant screen updates to statistics issuing from the by now thousands of responses to his web site questionnaire, cunningly split into male and female versions and penetrating where sexologists Kinsey, Hite et al feared to. Nudged along by a flood of frequently scrotum-tightening trivia and inspired, truly dreadful visual puns, it's a mind-boggling journey along which some very, very strange truths emerge ­ accompanied by an audible sigh of recognition that we're not at all as weird as we thought we were. This is no one-shot dick gimmick ­ Herring stands proud as he raises interesting questions for all sexualities and the way we view each other. But lest we get too serious, after size and shape are dispensed with it's back to pressing questions such as 'Where have you put your penis for fun?' Box office Viagra. Nick Awde

The Taming of the Shrew St Augustine's
This stripped-down production from Zimbabwe's Over the Edge displays an innovative quality that easily rivals International Festival fare. Clad in sumptuous costumes best described as Afro-Renaissance, the all-male cast juggles life-size mannequins to double and triple characters while utilising the stage to its full, shifting a simple set of stools and frames to create doors, stoves, bowers and verandas at will. Adam Neill's Petruchio is a sophisticated suitor who cannot resist a challenge - his charisma is both his weapon and defence in his determination to break the object of his affections. Deliciously psychotic, he peppers his wit with an almost shocking physicality. As Kate, Zane E Lucas is feisty - naturally ­ but he also gives a portrayal of a woman prepared to fight to her last using only the limited ammunition granted her sex in an unequal, enclosed society. Meanwhile Michael Pierce's sly, coquettish Bianca is fought over by Craig Peter's Luciento and Gavin Peter's Hortensio ­ a magnificent comic duo ­ aided and obstructed in turn by Wiina Msamati, whose Tranio scurries between the protagonists with meticulous absurdity. Nick Awde

Tangled CO2
From Australia comes a solo show written and performed by Noni Bousfield that tries to be both an intense psychological study and an attack on the culture of media celebrity, and is almost as successful as it hopes to be. The author plays a young woman who seems to have accidentally killed a child and is now hiding out in Australia's outback. As she becomes more and more cut off from news of the search for her, she begins to see the ironies in her earlier dreams of fame and fortune, even as the isolation takes its toll on her mental health. Scattered hints in the text, notably repeated references to the famous dingo-and-baby case,  seem to be pointing toward one sort of shocking revelation, but when the denouement comes, it is a different twist entirely, which you may find anticlimactic and unsatisfying. Gerald Berkowitz

Throat Pleasance
John-Paul Zaccanini is a dancer/mime/aerialist/performance artist whose solo performance has a number of striking moments, but doesn't add up to much. We first see him in the guise of a drag queen kneading bread, only to have the dough take on the shape of a babe-in-arms, sweetly betraying his unhappiness. He watches trash TV, speaking along with the dialogue in several languages. He attempts to flirt with every person in the audience. He becomes a picky, demanding pop singer in rehearsal. He climbs a rope for aerial ballets or splashes around in a pool of water, the ripple effects projected on a screen. Some of it is lovely. If there is a subject, it is loneliness, as he portrays the isolate, the social inept, the wanker. Gerald Berkowitz

Trev and Simon Unwigged Pleasance Dome
Ticket-buyers come to former TV presenters Trev and Simon already knowing and loving them, and the two performers build their show on that assumption. There is little attempt to warm up or ingratiate themselves with the audience as they dive into the premise of a mock telling of their behind-the-masks life stories. This involves Trev becoming an Ernie Wise-style playwright, with scripts about key events in each of their lives and, in the absence of guest stars, audience members recruited to play supporting roles, in sequences that resemble TV's Generation Game. For a show that thus invites audience participation, the pair prove oddly ill-equipped to handle the almost inevitable, and are visibly thrown off-stride by the mildest heckling. The other backbone of the show is Trev's incessant insulting of the increasingly resentful Simon, usually involving some variant of calling him a monkey, until the victim's threat to walk out is forestalled only by the reminder that he is wearing a particularly tatty monkey costume at that moment. This one is strictly for the fans, and even they may find themselves disappointed. Gerald Berkowitz

Tuesdays and Sundays Pleasance Dome
This delicate two-character play, written by performers Daniel Arnold and Medina Hahn, comes from Canada trailing a string of festival awards. Until an ending that is a bit of a letdown, the piece tells a lovely tale of 19th century romance and tragedy, while providing a vehicle for the two very personable actors. Arnold and Hahn play village teenagers in 1887 who begin a courtship that is sweetly believable and essentially innocent, despite a pregnancy that tests and strains their unpreparedness and leads to a climax that, while believable, veers a little too close to melodramatic cliche to be fully satisfying. The real strengths of the piece lie in the first half, as the two actors quietly and generously capture the complexities of first love. She can hardly stop grinning with delight while still thinking clearly enough to seek out subtle ways to encourage him, while he captures the boy's confusion as waves of unfamiliar emotion and happiness run through him. If this is not truly what first love is like, it is what we would like to believe it is like, and the image the writer- actors conjure up is a happy and welcome one. Gerald Berkowitz

Victory at the Dirt Palace Garage
James and K are anchors on rival stations and when they're not reading the autocues, they're feeding a bitter rivalry aided and abetted by slimy PAs whose parasitic power grows with each sweaty grovel. The candour of their self-obsessed tirades becomes all the more shocking since they are father and daughter. As each is briefed pre-show one morning, the first reports reach their studios of the World Trade Centre attacks and the chance is seized to ride this once in a lifetime tidal wave of breaking news. What ensues is a gore-fest of hyperboles, put-downs and one-liners as the pundits vie to show who's got the biggest spin and overnight ratings. Hard on the heels of Wreck the Airline Barrier and The Zero Yard, The Riot Group are back with as relentless fare as ever. Adriano Schaplin's script unleashes far more than the Lear it purports to be by ruthlessly hacking away at an American sacred cow with all the irony of Larry Saunders and knowingness of Network. Performed and directed by James Schnabel, Stephanie Viola, Drew Friedman and Schaplin, the grim, wicked humour and machine-gun delivery never strays far from the message. Nick Awde

Andre Vincent is Unwell Gilded Balloon Teviot
Some comics will go to any length to find material for their acts. Andre Vincent developed kidney cancer. His always upbeat and frequently very funny set is based on his experiences with doctors, hospitals, friends and family since being diagnosed last spring. It is obvious that his skewed sense of humour, along with the skill and dedication of the doctors to whom he gives full credit, is what got him through the experience, and he reserves his strongest satirical contempt for those who lacked the same sense. Foremost, interestingly, are his fellow comics who were unable to handle his news with any aplomb, except for the guy whose immediate response was to put in his bid for Vincent's DVD collection. Elsewhere, humourless nurses and a hospital psychiatrist are the butt of his jokes; and he has passing comment to make about Harley Street interior decor, 94-year-old racists, and things to do in a disabled toilet. The state of his health still uncertain, Vincent's only response is to fantasize about the most colourful and score-settling ways to die. It is a remarkably happy hour that leaves us wondering only what he will do next year to top it. Gerald Berkowitz

We Haven't Said a Porky Pie Yet Pleasance
Random conversations taped from members of the public are snipped and edited into a stream of soundbites, religiously marking every "um" and "er" courtesy of speech wizards Jo Harper, Rachael Spence, Louise Wallinger. But the audience cannot hear the original aural collage; instead it is relayed to the performers via minidisc earphones which they in turn simultaneously reproduce aloud and verbatim. Cut into pieces for individuals as well as groups, Non Fiction's verbal meltdown is a provoking mix: sometimes obvious, such as the hilarious recounting of feminine intimate depilation in Hair Removal or internet jokers using fake chatroom IDs in Love on Lycos. Others are utterly left-field and catch you unawares, such as the unexpected pathos in the gay soldier's tale. This is no Creature Comforts, however ­ just talking heads. Mark Wing-Davey directs only from the neck upwards so it takes the actors time to flesh out a character. The fact that the speeches are devoid of context makes this a success but it needs more of a concept to rise above what is admittedly a hugely entertaining flip through the contemporary sound archives. Nick Awde

Who Is Bobby Lopez C cubed
This post-midnight show actually benefits from a party-minded late night audience, since uninhibited reaction energises performer Jud Charlton while aptly fitting the monologue's skewed absurdism. Backed by a team of technicians armed with videotapes and a live camera, Charlton tries to make contact with the mythical Lopez, a process that somehow involves telephone conversations with onscreen characters played by himself and the sacrifice of bunny rabbits named after dictators. The rest of the show is putatively filler until Bobby's arrival, with Charlton meandering comically through accounts of a haunted CD player that will only play Nearer My God To Thee, the life and history of Victorian crusading journalist W. T. Stead, and his own attempts to convince the job centre that he has the qualifications to be a Time Lord. A foul-mouthed ventriloquist's dummy makes an appearance at one point, and it comes as no surprise that Bobby's arrival is delayed until tomorrow night. The show's inventiveness and bizarre wit deserve a larger audience than its late slot is likely to bring it, but perhaps only late-night audiences can best appreciate it. Gerald Berkowitz

The Whole Shebang Assembly Rooms (Reviewed last year)
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 unfocused, un-thought-through jumble is far from the polished theatre pieces audiences have come to expect from Klaff. Gerald Berkowitz

Who's Harry? Pleasance Dome
Welcome to the world of sales and marketing where grandly titled 'executives' slide from one bubble to another ­ both professionally and personally. For these wannabe city slickers lying is a way of life and none more so than Icarus. Until he meets Harry, that is. Her own brand of mendacity is equally breathtaking and creates a passionate tension between the two that breaks down the barriers with each self-deluding porkie. Writer Henry Fleet and director Pip Pickering have forged a fast-paced comedy that never takes its finger off the comic pulse. The result is akin to Glengarry Glen Ross on acid and, though the symbolism can get a touch OTT, it forms a wicked snapshot of United Kingdom plc. Meanwhile, choreographer Christopher Dennis peppers the action with a physicality that drives the verbal slapstick of snappy criss-cross dialogue ­ a gift this talented cast uses well. Omer Barnea and Henrietta Clemett shine as the star-crossed lovers surrounded by the scary office flotsam of Kevin Bishop, Will Norris, Alastair Sims and Ben Watson. Things are more complete when the female characters finally join the male circle and one esepcially regrets not seeing more of Sarah Paul's manic therapist Hope. Nick Awde

You Couldn't Make It Up Gilded Balloon
Patrick Wilde is a successful TV writer who wrote a play about a gay youth which he had difficulty making into a film. Now he has written a play about a successful TV writer who writes a play.... Actually that part of this new play is its least interesting and involving element, as the subsidiary characters and their relationships present intriguing and touching views of the contemporary scene. And so the playwright is a rather sad idealist, more comfortable with platonic fantasies than actual human contact, while the object of his admiration is a straight boy finding delayed comfort in his straightness after a childhood rape. There's a deeply closeted case and a bitchy queen with the clearest vision of all - all of them familiar types, perhaps, but given individuality and life that push the movie-making plot into the background. Gerald Berkowitz

Paul Zenon - Off the Street, On the Road Assembly
Zenon's latest show does what it says on the packet. Stringing together a series of stand-up tricks, he recounts the highlights of his life that launched a conjuror's career on the road: how he first got hooked as a kid on holiday in Blackpool, then going from magic shop assistant to street entertainer in Athens before launching into the big time via the obligatory pantos, corporate functions and, er, entertaining the troops with Mike Reid. The bollards and dustbin set hides all manner of cues to return to his roots and cheekily rediscover hoary classics - three card tricks, interlocking rings, storytelling using cards ­ in the process revealing unexpected new angles. And boy does he deliver. The running gags alone deserve a spin-off of their own, Making it all gel is Zenon's near perfect timing in the comedy department - hardly surprising for such a disciplined magician ­ and his infectious, indeed ruthless way of involving everyone in his slick mayhem. After all who wants to watch po-faced Germans with perms make albino tigers disappear up their fundaments when you can watch a prestidigitator gleefully get well-proportioned women to stuff cards down their bras? Nick Awde

Zipp! Assembly
This musical revue, with the premise of including selections from 100 stage musicals in 90 minutes, is polished and professional to a degree unheard of on the fringe, and if it isn't here as a London tryout, I'll eat Gyles Brandreth's fishnet stockings. The former MP and all-purpose media figure devised the show and acts as its genial and quick-witted host, the stockings showing up, naturally, in the Rocky Horror sequence. Brandreth is backed by a trio of real singers and a pianist, and they do manage at least a few bars of over 100 theatre songs, never taking themselves or the material too seriously. Highlights include a deconstruction of The Sound of Music, killing several birds by inserting songs from other shows, an appropriately irreverent salute to the man they call Andrew Lloyds Bank, and proudly low- budget versions of Mackintosh-style megamusicals. This is one you needn't regret missing in Edinburgh, because I'm sure it will be coming to a theatre near you soon, and I can recommend it. Gerald Berkowitz

(Some of these reviews appeared first in The Stage)

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Reviews - Edinburgh Festival - 2002