Edinburgh 2006
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The Theatreguide.London Reviews


Each August the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe bring thousands of shows to the largest and most concentrated arts event in the world. No one can see more than a fraction, but with an expanded review team that included Edinburgh veterans Duska Radosavljevic and Philip Fisher, we managed to review more than 175. Virtually all toured after Edinburgh, and many came to London during the following year.

Our reviews originally covered several pages, but we've squeezed them into two for this archive. They're in alphabetical order (solo performers by last name), with A-L on a previous page, and M-Z on this. So scroll down for what you want, or just browse.

Vladimir McTavish - Taylor Mac - Mama Cass Family Singers - The Man Of The Future Is Dead - Inder Manocha - Marlon Brando's Corset - The Marriage of Figaro - Mickey Mouse Is Dead - Nick Mohammed - Moon the Loon - Mummenshanz - My Name Is Rachel Corrie - Netochka Nezvanova - A New Routine - One Night Stan - One of Our Ain - One Set To Love - Onysos The Wild - Opera Burlesque - Otway on Otway - Over The Hill - The Oxford Revue - Paramour - Parasites - Particularly In The Heartland - Past Half Remembered - Perky and Mann Are Spooked - Persae - Petrol Jesus Nightmare - The Phone Book Live! - The Pool - Lucy Porter - Rain Pryor - Pumpgirl - Purgatory - Radio - Rebus McTaggart - The Receptionists - The Regina Monologues - Rockaby & Krapp's Last Tape - The Romeo and Juliet Syndrome - Lizzie Roper - Sclavi - Shakespeare For Breakfast - Shakespeare's Passions - Sing A Storm Of Blackbirds - Sit - A Slice O'Minnelli - So Simple - Songs of The Unhinged - Sophie Tucker's One Night Stand - The Sperm Monologues - Spite The Face - Tom Stade - Star Trip - Stars - Strawberries in January - The Syringa Tree - Talk Radio - Teen Scream - Terre Haute - Territory - Think No Evil Of Us - Third From The Left - Tom Crean, Antarctic Explorer - Too Close To The Sun - Tossers - A Tourist's Guide to Terrorism - Township Stories - True West - Twinkle Little Star - The Tylwyth Teg - The Umbilical Project (Uncut) - The Umbilical Project (Cut) - The Unattended - Virgins - The Visitor - Waiting For Romeo - Wasted - We Are Klang - The Whale And The Bird - Wheeler's Luck - Why The Long Faces? - Luke Wright

Vladimir McTavish: A Brief History of Scotland The Stand - Gruff and Glaswegian, Vladimir McTavish has decided to headbutt history into the present. But though his haircut is as bad as his attitude, there are probably few stand-ups who can make you laugh and think in equal measure through reading 18th-century philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment (³now that's an oxymoron!²) or comparing the Wee Frees to the Taliban. Working his way from Bannockburn to the present - the first time in 300 years that sees Scotland running its own affairs - he finds every excuse to take a detour in order to take a swipe at life today, especially if it's Scottish. The anti-smoking laws, for example, leads in sequence to a glorious pub rant about a man's ashtray being his castle, sex workers forced to observe the law by smoking outside their illegal sauna brothels, and a vision of Saturday night in a Paisely bar where a pool cue through your head should not be considered as detrimental to your health as breathing someone else's second-hand smoke. It is only a matter of time before McTavish gets to Tommy Sheridan, which unleashes a flood of observations on the peccadilloes of other Scottish politicians (and Kirsty Wark), none of which we shall mention here for legal reasons, of course. Everything links together ingeniously and gets you laughing, no matter your nationality (Wee Frees and Rangers fans excepted). Somehow McTavish even finds the humour in sober stuff such as how philosopher Adam Smith's free market sparked the Highland clearances while connecting them with England's World Cup win in 1966. And the Declaration of Arbroath also fertile ground for a stand-up? You bet. Nick Awde

Taylor Mac  Baby Belly - New York performance artist ('That's just a fancy way of saying drag act') Taylor Mac uses his sharp wit and instant audience connection to disguise a sentimental and philosophical core. In whiteface and heavy make-up that make him look like a mad clown, and wearing various dresses and negligees without any real attempt at female disguise, he offers a 'Best Of' compilation of songs and monologues from his various shows. Each one starts as a joke and maintains its humorous surface while gradually revealing a sad undertone and an unforced moral message. A song cataloguing past lovers and friends, for example, exposes the ways each of them failed him, but the refrain 'But I loved him' quietly builds to a blanket forgiveness and loving embrace. A monologue about trying to come up with a fresh masturbation fantasy is comic  but ultimately telling about the nature of memory and loneliness. Another of his almost tuneless songs quietly juxtaposes the comic tale of a failed sexual encounter with the simultaneous birth of a friend's first child and, without moralising, reminds us of what's important in life. Audiences who come to laugh may be surprised to find themselves thinking and feeling. Gerald Berkowitz

Amy Lamé's Mama Cass Family Singers Gilded Balloon Teviot - What do you get if you cross Crumb with the Partridge Family and throw in a dollop of kidnapping whodunit plus a serving of hits from yesteryear? Well, probably something approximating Amy Lamé's deliciously off the wall docudrama. The opening vision is large-bodied lesbian Lamé languidly eating a ham sandwich to the Mamas and the Papas' self-referential hit Creeque Alley, with its refrain of 'No one's getting fat except Mama Cass!' Crowned the 'Earth Mother of Hippiedom', Cass's vocals set the soundtrack for a generation in the late sixties with the Ms and the Ps. In 1974 she was discovered dead, choked on a ham sandwich... or did she? The connection becomes apparent as Lamé recalls her own eccentric fat American family in New Jersey. Without giving too much away, together with her little brother and sisters she was kidnapped by a mysterious stranger who put them on the road as a kiddie band singing sixties classics. Lamé's siblings back up her story in the form of onscreen talking (and occasionally bitching) heads. Food punctuates the narrative while bizarre family snapshots complete the picture. Fact and fiction blur and you are never sure what to believe in Lamé's heart-rending yet affirming detective story. What you can be sure of is an immensely palatable hour in her infectiously dippy company (plus free ham sandwiches at the end). Nick Awde

The Man of the Future is Dead Hill Street Theatre - Performed in repertory with Hedda Gabler (See separate review), John Elsom's new sequel moves more into the realm of Shaw than Ibsen, being constructed on a series of discussions and debates, and invoking the concepts of progress and the Life Force. Six months after the events of Ibsen's play, Tesman and Thea are reconstructing Lovborg's book, which turns out to be a call for both eugenics and revolution, in mankind's efforts to control and shape the future. This puts the inherently cautious and conservative Tesman in the uncomfortable position of being a spokesman for local radical groups, and he vacillates between eagerness to publish this groundbreaking book and fear of its effect on his security and that precious professorship. As in Hedda Gabler, the company take clear pleasure in thwarting our expectations about the familiar characters, with Ben Caplan's Tesman more intellectually agile and emotionally complex, Ronan Paterson's Judge Brack less sinister, and even Tamera Howard's servant Bertha more ambitious and bolshie than Ibsen would ever have imagined. The new character of a radical newspaperman, cast with a nice symmetry to Philip Bosworth, who plays Lovborg in the original, provides the energetic voice stimulating the central debates. Gerald Berkowitz

Inder Manocha Pleasance - Inder Manocha begins his short act by declaring that he does not want to talk about being Asian and then, naturally, devotes the rest of his monologue to the subject, with a particular focus on the identity problem of being a second-generation middle-class British Indian and thus part of both cultures and not quite part of either. Growing up without Asian culture heroes and thus having to make do with Shaft and other black figures, watching his father swing from being more British than the British to more Indian than the Indians, trying to make sense of multiculturalism - these are all exactly the topics you might expect from an Asian comic, given a slight twist by his repeated assertion that they are just one more brief thing he wants to get out of the way before moving on to his real material. Manocha affects an amiable, shambling and slightly shy persona, half-mumbling to his shoes and as surprised as us that a joke has slipped out, that recalls the young Woody Allen. He still can't disguise the fact that he has very little material, and even at a quarter-hour short of most Edinburgh comedians, one comes away with the sense of a very thin and padded set. Gerald Berkowitz

Marlon Brando's Corset Pleasance - Nick is the harried scriptwriter for TV hospital soap Healing Hands. He is not a happy man, beleaguered as he is on all sides by actors after juicer roles and a debt collector after his knee-caps. Manic director Lex inadvertently puts fuel on the fire when he bounds in for a pep talk. 'You're a troubled genius!' he soothes. 'I'm a troubled HACK!' comes the anguished reply. Les Dennis and Mike McShane - as Nicky and Lex respectively - grab you the second they come onstage during the opening five minutes. Like Matthau and Lemmon their banter sizzles with world-weary wit, yet don't expect a star vehicle since this turns out to be an energetic ensemble piece, with every actor acquitting themselves well. Getting their teeth into the soap's rabble of a cast are Jeremy Edwards, Kelly Ryan, Jim Field-Smith and Jennifer Tolliday. Entertainingly, their TV roles sum up their offset characters: there's the dumb but scheming blonde nurse, the dumber but just as scheming romantic male lead, the frustrated second lead who longs for more than a scene with an injured monkey, and the sensitive motherly one secure in her position as Nick's muse. Events take a darker turn as the hapless, self-centred actors suddenly find themselves faced with a dilemma and lose the plot in way that even Poirot would struggle to help them out of. So will they overcome their differences and finally work together? How will they react to drama when it becomes real life? And what exactly is Marlon Brando's corset? Writer Guy Jones balances comedy and suspense with a healthy dollop of satire aimed directly at today's altar of celebrity. But though the laughs kick in with a vengeance as things turn more gruesome, his script still needs a good overhaul while Ed Curtis's direction can be a tad sticky despite its overall reliability. But all this is carping of the minor order since this is a thoroughly enjoyable comic ride with an unexpected moral sting in its tail. Nick Awde

The Marriage of Figaro Augustine's - Beaumarchais' original play, from which Mozart took his opera, has a complicated plot that defies summary in that virtually everyone in a noble household, masters and servants, is involved in at least two separate deceptions, disguises or other bits of trickery designed either to advance or thwart seductions. It combines the tone of Wildean high wit with the franticness of Ray Cooney-style farce, and is therefore a very difficult challenge for a young company. Disappointingly, director Rebecca Gadsby and the cast of the Distraction Theatre Company have mastered neither high style nor low farce, and their production plods woodenly where it should romp. Neither the physical scenes of people hiding from each other nor the moments when the wily servant Figaro must think on his feet to keep up with unexpected plot twists ever come alive. While some of the secondary roles are particularly poorly acted, directoral responsibility is evidenced when even the two strongest performances, Matt Parkinson's Figaro and Katherine Glenn's Suzanne, are too often marred by woodenness or mugging. The most charitable conclusion is that the company's strengths may lie in other styles and genres, and this was just an unfortunate choice. Gerald Berkowitz

Mickey Mouse is Dead   Pleasance - Exposing the dark underside of the Magic Kingdom, this new play by Justin Sherin is based on post-death revelations that Walt Disney was a rabid anti-Communist, anti-unionist and possibly anti-Semite. In the 1950s two Jewish Disney writers unluckily try to form a union just as Walt is cosying up to Senator McCarthy. Plot twists put them and the WASP girlfriend of one in the situation where they must choose between fighting the common enemy or sacrificing each other to save their own skins. And that, more than slandering or exposing Disney, is the real subject of the play - the perilousness of the times that made good people have to choose between their ideals and their survival, and that forced some of them to fail the test of character.  Come to dish the dirt on Uncle Walt, by all means, but look beyond that to find a chilling and moving little drama. Gerald Berkowitz

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Nick Mohammed - The Forer Factor Pleasance - Nick Mohammed makes a welcome change from the wall-to-wall, off-the-rack stand-ups that each year attempt to corner the comedy section. The laughs in his well-crafted monologues creep up on you, enhanced by recorded voices and effects that create a compelling gallery of madcap characters. There is Mr Agatha Christie, for example, who works the audience in search of posh suspects like a stand-up, resulting in gloriously convoluted summaries that become increasingly implausible as he loses the thread of who did what and where. Later, a ventriloquist struggles with his recalcitrant puppet - his bare hand. The joke flips into another dimension when a second hand and a third voice join in. Mohammed's skill with sound gets a mini-showcase when a clacking typewriter and a desk full of blockbuster movies are created from nothing but soundbites and his mugging, combining to create one long entertaining visual joke. In another skit, sound puns abound as a conductor rehearses an orchestra that flippantly replies with snatches of choirs, drum'n'bass and baaing sheep. Other routines are less successful. The scary teenager in pigtails babbling about finding the loo and her first childhood crush is more unsettling than funny, while the bored TV reporter who creates imaginary guests out of Scotsmen and singer Heather Small's family is a non-starter. Additionally, the performance is not as smooth as it should be, but that shouldn't hinder Mohammed one whit since he's already TV-bound, and deservedly so. Nick Awde

Moon the Loon Pleasance - Keith Moon was the best drummer in the world, in his own eyes but also those of many fans. He was also destabilised by drink and drugs to the extent that he became a psychopathic madman who threatened friends and family alike. This biographical play completely by-passes the good times and enters his life in 1970 when everything was rushing downhill at breakneck speed. Co-writer, Chas Early plays Moon as the ultimate hedonist who craves attention above anything and eventually even drives off his loving wife Kim, convincingly portrayed by Reanne Farley. The clever element of this production is the casting of comedian, Gordon Southern as both Moon's driver Neil and the psychiatrist requisitioned by the other members of The Who, tired of their drummer's excessive behaviour. Director, Richard Hurst ensures that the transfers between the scenes with Neil, leading up to his tragic death and those with the doctor are intercut using lighting to distinguish. This adds pace to the production as well as a measure of intrigue. Moon the Loon is a play on a small scale that catches something of the manic energy of a superstar who eventually drove everyone around him mad before finally killing himself. Philip Fisher

Mummenschanz 3X11   George Square Theatre - Nobody is quite sure what the numerical title means, but the venerable mime-puppetry-mask company continues to weave its unique theatrical magic in this show that mixes new material with some classic bits they've been doing since 1972. It's difficult to explain what they do to those who haven't seen them, but basically their pieces fall into two categories. In some, one or more performers are completely inside some invented costume, such as a length of industrial tubing, which they can mould and manoeuvre to create surprising shapes and creatures.  Other sequences involve performers in black against a black background, with brightly coloured shapes on hands or feet which can be made to float, fly or combine in surprising ways. A particularly inventive number turns two hinged rods into a man, two men, a snake, a bird and a few other unpredictable things, and their finale involving heads made of modelling clay shaped into ever-changing forms is a true classic. Kids of any age are delighted by the stage magic, while adults can appreciate the imagination and technique on display. Gerald Berkowitz

My Name is Rachel Corrie Pleasance (reviewed in London) - Rachel Corrie was an American university student who went to Gaza in 1993 with an international group who hoped their presence would deter Israeli attacks on Palestinian villages. They were not successful, and Corrie was killed while trying to block a bulldozer. She had kept journals and written extensive e-mails home, and Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner have edited this solo performance piece from them, with Rickman directing.We are introduced to Corrie as an attractively kookie-artsy student, and in Gaza her sensitive insights are at first coloured by a believable naivete and romanticising of her Palestinian neighbours, but her political awareness and her commitment grow together, culminating in what may have been her last e-mail home, an eloquent and powerful expression of moral outrage. The piece is unapologetically pro-Palestinian, building to an eloquent rage against the Israeli government and against the world that permits their actions. It is a flaw in the play that we are asked to feel for this one American girl more than for the people she was there to help, a bit like the newspaper headlines that read MASSIVE FLOODS IN INDIA - ONE AMERICAN KILLED. Gerald Berkowitz

Netochka Nezvanova, Nameless Nobody Baby Belly - Dostoevsky's story of a poor but vain musician who is driven mad by hearing a truly talented player is told in this solo performance through the eyes and voice of his adoring stepdaughter in a production that introduces British audiences to a Russian acting style that is operatic in its passions even to the point of disorienting excess. Actress Vera Filatova declares the broad style from the first seconds, when the simple statement 'I cannot remember my father' explodes like an excited football cheer, and maintains it to the very end, when the sad fact of the stepfather's death is trumpeted triumphantly. There are moments when this incongruity actually enhances the narration, as in the comic description of a bad dancer, but for too much of the hour one must fight the suspicion that Filatova, who in fact is British-trained and speaks perfect English, doesn't know what she is actually saying, so incongruous is her phrasing and emoting.  The attempt to raise what is actually a very small and touching story to passionate high drama, which also involves a music track that is far too grand for the fragile material it accompanies, does not succeed, leaving the technical interest of this unfamiliar style the piece's primary attraction. Gerald Berkowitz

A New Routine Bedlam - Dizzy, earthy, ambitious: three different young women in the modern world facing the challenge of making that next step in life, be it career, marriage or simply stepping out of the shadow of family and friends. The mates chat about their dreams and the decisions they have to make and, each time that perfect emotional moment appears, those feet start tapping and finely tuned voices soon follow. This is a multi-layered show: an imaginative melding of tap (in the modern and British Stompy sort of way) with ambient reworkings of both pop and show tune classics. Add the bubbly, infectious energy of Amira Matthews, Bret Jones and Holly Dale Spencer combined with Jo Turbitt's choreography and you know that a show like this can do no wrong. Wishing on a Star combines tap interludes with lush harmonies before moving into a couple of arrangements that surprise: the usually sedate Fool on the Hill goes up tempo with a drum'n'bass feel without losing any of the original's gentle majesty, while a stripped down tap and a cappella Get Happy makes the 1929 song seem as if it was always meant to be played that way. All that's missing is Sondheim's Putting It Together. Overloud music, an out of tune saxophonist and a boomy stage surface mean that the tap routines themselves are nowhere near as tight as they could be, and yet feet, voices and band click magnificently in the epic closer Let's Face the Music. So really, the only real gripe is a plea for loads more tap routines, please. Nick Awde

One Night Stan Cafe Royal - There are few actors who actually made it past Hollywood to get immortalised by children's cartoons. That Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had such an iconic status and could still fall prey to simple human vulnerabilities such as parental dispproval, stage fright or even heart attack is almost unthinkable. And yet, this piece, based on a real life event when the double act got separated one night during their variety run in 1954 due to Hardy's unexpected illness, focuses on just such human flaws among the stars. Miles Gallant's monologue in the persona of Stan Laurel reads like a very well researched biography-cum-history of the entertainment industry. It helps that he bears resemblance to his subject and can pull off a couple of gags and physical gestures that are uncannily reminiscent of Laurel's own. However his tendency to punctuate his delivery with nostalgic tutting and repressed chuckles gradually becomes indicative of pacing problems and a lack of a sufficient dramatic drive to his prose which is still a couple of rewrites away from where it wants to be. Duska Radosavljevic

One of Our Ain Underbelly - Sandra Brown takes the familiar Fringe staple of biographical monologue a step beyond mere theatre by telling her own actual story, and with an activist agenda. She begins slowly, with almost half her talk devoted to setting the scene of a 1950s childhood, citing cultural references such as brand names, bus colours and children's games to which her largely 60+ audience can relate. Only gradually does she back into her subject, her vague uneasiness around her father who, as she only discovered as an adult, was a paedophile. And only some years after that revelation did she make the connection with a 12 year old girl who disappeared in 1957. Brown is convinced that her father, who died earlier this year, attacked and killed that girl, and this talk is part of her ongoing campaign to have her charge investigated. Her undeniable sincerity does not fully mask the fact that her case is based entirely on conjecture and personal revulsion, and however strongly she presents her theory of how it could have happened, it remains a hypothesis, only as convincing as your  sympathy for her earnestness lets it be. Former schoolteacher Brown is not a skilled writer or performer, but some may find her very lack of polish adding a documentary reality to her story. Gerald Berkowitz

One Set to Love Assembly Rooms - In a gloomy dining room in a posh mansion, an elderly wise butler sets the table and lights the candelabra. His master marches in, anxiously awaiting his guest, the long-lost friend he has not seen since... well I won't ruin it for you. Suffice to say that the action is interspersed by flashbacks to a headier past that involves a pushy debutante and the two young friends forced into vying for her affections by her pathologically pushy father. If you have read the novel Embers or seen the stage version with Jeremy Irons, then you will especially appreciate this wonderfully tongue in cheek spoof of the po-faced bestseller, done in a loving physical tribute to post-Monty Python Ripping Yarns with a welter of in-jokes and references thrown in for good measure. You can't help but warm instantly to Matt Devere and Mike Kelly as, with infectious, cheeky energy they put themselves through quick costume changes and an impressive range of technique, from waltzing with dummies to a swashbuckling sabre fight. Director Paul Hunter aids the constantly inventive flow, as do Howard Lloyd's spot-on period costumes and handy set of table and chairs. Admittedly the pace could be snappier, the movement and dialogue smoother, and yet this somehow remains a polished production that manages to be different without alienating. Nick Awde

Onysos the Wild Traverse - Chris Porter is a fine actor, capable of nuance but also unafraid to utilise all of his physical and vocal resources at once. Laurent Gaude's monologue indulges this kind of sensibility but also poses a challenge of storytelling skill and stamina. Despite a great deal of direct audience address, there is a distinct sense that this text might belong more easily to a category of extravagant prose rather than drama. Having met Onysos as a ragged and potentially unpredictable drunk at a New York subway station, we are then regaled by most fantastic tales of his mythological beginnings, heroic exploits and tragic loves all over the Middle East and beyond. Vague resemblance to already familiar stories of antiquity and the present is probably deliberate, although the point of this particular rendition is not all together clear. Still director Severine Ruset accomplishes two important things here: she rises to the challenge of the script's grandiloquence and the venue's restricted visibility with energy and dynamism, and more importantly she gives us an intriguing glimpse into the world of a young new French writer. Duska Radosavljevic

Opera Burlesque Spiegeltent Gayola - In the 19th Century, we are told, opera singers would moonlight in music hall, singing straight and parody versions of their signature arias. This hour of song from three Australian divas - Ali McGregor, Dimity Shepherd and Antoinette Halloran - has little beyond the title in common with that tradition. Though we do hear shortened versions of the best known arias from Madame Butterfly and Carmen, the bulk of the hour is just a mix of old pop standards and novelty numbers, sung by the trio in rotation and occasionally together, and accompanied by either an onstage accordianist or a backing track. Straight numbers include chestnuts Summertime and La Vie En Rose, and the less over-familiar Hubble-Golden Poor Butterfly. Among the comic interludes are Tom Lehrer's I Hold Your Hand In Mine and Dillie Keane's So Long As You're German. A device that's overused, since it really only works the first time, is the mock-operatic stylising of a hard rock song - Bon Jovi's Living On A Prayer, Radiohead's I'm a Creep, AC/DC's TNT. Stripped of its tenuous Victorian connection, this mix of pleasant singing and broad comic mugging would not be out of place as cruise ship entertainment. Gerald Berkowitz

Otway on Otway Gilded Balloon - Quasi-punk singer-songwriter John Otway had a UK hit single in 1977 (with Wild Willy Barrett) - 'Really Free'. It took him almost two decades before he had another - 2002's 'Bunsen Burner'. In between, he sustained his career slump with an autobiography subtitled 'Rock and Roll's Greatest Failure'. Forgive the heavy history introduction, but you'll be happy to learnt that this is all the unintiated needs to know before taking their seat for this lecture by one of rock music's most endearing madcap stars. And a lecture it is. There's no guitar or trademark collapse over the amplifiers, just one man, his Mac and a projector. What ensues is one of the funniest and yet most informative hours on the Fringe. Originally a talk for young media students on the dos and don'ts of the music business, Otway proudly proves how his magnificent tendency to set the controls to self-destruct can help you 'do' quite well for yourself by doing all the 'don'ts'. You'll laugh with Otway and at him, and catch up on some ripping clips of the classic songs that became hits in our hearts rather than in the faceless corporate charts he continues to upstage. (Oh, an important note: Otway is planning a world tour for October 2006 via Las Vegas, Sydney, Shanghai and Dubai - so far. He and his band will be travelling in a specially chartered jet and there is room for 300 fans for the round trip. Check his website for details. Nick Awde

Over the Hill  Sweet ECA - There's at least one at every Festival, and this year's entry in the Dead Comics Chronicles is Matt Byrne's solo salute to Benny Hill. His mode is thoroughly conventional, as he takes on the persona of Hill telling his life story. A nice touch has him incorporating familiar Hill material into the narrative so that, for instance, the fact that young Alfred Hill (as he was then known - the new name would be a salute to Jack Benny) was briefly a milkman leads to a rendition, audience joining in, of Ernie The Fastest Milkman in the West. There may be some news even for devoted Hill fans in the narrative, such as the time young Benny beat out Peter Sellers for a job or the fact that his television career began as early as 1955. Most of the story of Hill's rise, triumph and eventual defeat by the forces of political correctness will be familiar to the fans drawn to this show, and Byrne's performance, while cheerful and attractive, is not an especially strong impersonation. This one is strictly for those who come in knowing the lyrics to Tingalingaloo and happy to join in singing it. Gerald Berkowitz

The Oxford Revue - Girl Meets Boy   Underbelly - The university revue, once the mainstay of the Fringe, has fallen on hard times. Not only have just about everyone but Oxford and Cambridge given up on the form, even the Oxbridge troupes seem in some years to be just going through the motions. Certainly it is not just nostalgia that makes the level of wit and erudition seem to have dropped. Where once there were inventive Shakespeare and even Chekhov parodies, now one has to be grateful for a fairly original Simpsons reference. Oxford's entry this year barely ranks as OK, the premise of Love Through The Ages leading to a totally predictable string of blackouts and sketches. The best moments are really irrelevant to the theme - the lullaby of a castrating mother, or a sketch on the dangers of using supposed failures as object lessons - or dependent on performance, as with Max Pritchard's smarmy narrator, a familiar-enough comic figure, but done very well. Gerald Berkowitz

Paramour Pleasance - A couple in boots and aprons are knee-deep in letters. Far away in an isolated depot on a far, outflung island, their job is to sort all our lost mail but you easily forgive them for getting distracted by both the monotony and the surprises they find hidden in the piles of correspondence. This innovative piece from ChoppedLogic offers subtle humour and visual gags that weave their happy-sad tale as their feelings keep on getting short-circuited by the letterwriters' own emotions. As they read, time slips back until stories within stories are told that may or may not connect with the present, while the events of the characters from the past spiral magically around the love that neither speaks of. Gilbert Taylor and Cassie Werber perform with engaging fluidity in a witty script that operates with an equally witty physical approach. Highlighting the plot are snatches of dance and scenes such as the idle joy of juggling paper or the gentle eroticism of Taylor playing Werber's body like a double-bass. Even drinking from paper cups becomes a mini set-piece Thanks to an evocative soundtrack and Sophie Neil's design that includes a huge hammock filled with post suspended above the actors, the atmosphere is complete. Already a delightful piece, with more development and budget, this has the potential to be a feature on the international circuit. Nick Awde

Parasites C Central - The very model of a Fringe play, Ali Muriel's unpretentious comedy is light and silly, with some wit and even a few hints of wisdom. It would be as easy to overpraise for providing an hour of chuckles as to underpraise for not going beyond that. A university science department awaits with dread the visitor of an examiner who could shut them down, all the more so because she turns out to be the department head's professional nemesis, who trashed his theory about potential parasitical infections. The discovery that she has actually stolen it and has been involved in secret military experiments to create fearless supersoldiers carries the play nicely into the realms of both political satire and absurdist comedy, especially when the bug gets loose among the onstage characters. What's being said about the misuse of science is ultimately less interesting and entertaining than the onstage silliness, which includes the bitchy infighting between the rivals played by Damien Warren-Smith and Antonia Windsor, the bemused disengagement of Richard Ings' drunken professor, the interventions of Heather Wilde's would-be superspy and Ninja avenger, and a fair share of mock-Grand Guignol slapstick. Gerald Berkowitz

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Particularly in the Heartland Traverse Theatre - This group-created show from the company The TEAM is an attempt at a satiric and absurdist dissection of middle America, but too often seems just an overlong and ill-shaped exercise in the incoherence and tediousness of a cast blindly enamoured of their own imagined cleverness. The children of a square and religious Kansas family find themselves Left Behind when their parents disappear in the Rapture, but they are soon joined by a permanently pregnant woman who may be from another planet, a businesswoman named Dorothy with ruby slippers, and the ghost of Robert Kennedy (a particularly bad imitation, and the publicity material seems to think he was once President). And that's the most coherent part of the play. Granted, this is meant to be imagistic rather than linear and literalist, but what they hope to say about the deep fears and honest virtues of between-the-coasts America is buried in a mass of opaque symbolism, shouting, audience involvement and a bad and abandoned enactment of Dickens' Christmas Carol - all in no particular order, to no clear purpose, and with little wit, inventiveness or evocative power in themselves.  Recurring crossed cues or uneasy silences suggest that they are still making it up as they go along, or are just very badly directed. Some may be impressed, but the emperor is naked. Gerald Berkowitz

Past Half Remembered Pleasance - The early part of the 20th century was a tumultuous time for Russia. The outbreak of World War I and the terrible slaughter on the Eastern Front led directly to the Russian Revolution which in turn led to civil war between the Red and White Armies as the Bolsheviks and tsarists fought it out. New International Encounter's funny, touching, dramatic, whimsical tale offers the perspective of those who remained at home, seen through the eyes of Maria, a woman of 100 years old who takes us back through time to her life in the Crimea, in Southern Russia. As a young woman she witnesses world events as they unfold, falls in love with a dashing soldier, marries with the blessing of her huge family, has a baby before seeing her beloved spouse taken away by both conflicts. This magical slice of story-telling theatre uses every trick in the book and still leaves you wondering what they'll come up with next. The multinational cast of six speaks five languages, produces an endless array of props, many with unexpected uses, all the while supplying their own live music and revolutionary songs, keeping it all enviably spontaneous. Although comedy is the vehicle for this rollercoaster, it never obscures the pathos of this very human story, which, thanks to Aude Henrye's understated Maria, is utterly heart warming and winning. Nick Awde

Perki & Mann are Spooked Pleasance - Perki is happily watching his favourite TV programmes (well, one of many) when Death pops in. Well that's a long story, but eventually our hapless couch potato is extracted from the sofa (only after being assured that the video has been set to record while he's away) and wheedles his mate Mann into driving them to a remote haunted castle atop a mountain. The reason? Perki has discovered that he has a fabulously rich great-uncle who has died, leaving a will that invites his relatives to go on a treasure hunt to claim all that wealth. On paper it seems like a simple idea, but as they follow the clues, things get decidedly, hilariously hairy as every corner seems to hold a spooky surprise Glove puppet Placebo Dave and spiritual guide Mick Jagger (not the show's best moment) crop up at handy moments to push the plot along while a spot of demonic possession threatens to jeopardise the dauntless duo's quest. Running gags, music hall mugging abound and there is even a wickedly funny Punch and Judy-style sequence. In between the laughs there are the odds moments where you might genuinely jump out of your seat. Through the inventive use of the stage, with a minimum of props and costumes, Alexander Perkins and Richard Mann need only the cheerful insanity of their alter-egos Perki (he's the trusting dumb one) and Mann (he's the sly dumb one) to create one of those rare comedy shows with appeal right across the spectrum. Nick Awde

Persae Underbelly - In the US, possibly today, a maimed war hero back from the front blurts out tales of atrocities while a former first lady starts to speak her mind on prime-time TV. The entrails of the West foretell evil omens for a society that is awakening to the fact that peace by force in distant Iraq is no guarantee of a peaceful conscience. Then, after a blast annihilates the Australian government, his bleeding, bomb-stunned daughter lends her voice to the growing clamour. Van Badham has made a timely adaptation of Aeschylus' tragedy about the aftermath of his own country's victory over ancient Persia (which included Iraq) - he did not write about legend but actual events less than a decade before his writing it. Badham's own protagonists continue to echo the Greek's challenge to society as scenes of soldiers butchering Iraqi women contrast with the cosy onset TV debates with apple-pie blonde journalists. There is a good sense of co-ordinated movement as this large cast forms a continuous human wave of anchormen, spindoctors and party grandees crashing over what they desperately believe to be a gullible public. Athough Sam Grafton's otherwise deft direction can be a little cluttered and there are no stand-out performances, this company gives a fine showing as an ensemble. Nick Awde

Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5 (In the Time of the Messiah)  Traverse - Henry Adam's antiwar play addresses Israel's various conflicts from a fresh and startling angle, by facing the rarely acknowledged fact that many outside forces have their own reasons for interfering with the course of war or peace. His outsiders are, one hopes, unlikely ones, but as metaphors for all the others they make for chilling drama.  Some Israeli soldiers in the middle of a firefight are joined by two visitors, a Texas oilman and an American rabbi's wife. Surprisingly, it is not so much oil that the Texan is searching for, but the Second Coming, and his born-again theology tells him that that can be hurried by certain events which the soldiers recognise will be exactly the triggers of a disastrously larger war. So we have the soldiers, with their own reasons (right or wrong) for fighting or wanting peace, and outsiders who don't care what's best for Israel or Palestine or anyone else actually involved, but only in their own separate agenda.  Adam makes the issues and the conflict very real, and director Philip Howard and the Traverse company make them very dramatic, with special contributions from Lewis Howden as the Texan, making what seems at first a comic character expand to frightening proportions, and Joseph Thompson as a particularly battle-weary officer retaining just enough of his sanity to see the dangers. Gerald Berkowitz

The Phone Book Live! Baby Belly - The theatrical cliché that great actors would be interesting just reading the phone book is put to the test in this 15 minute show, in which each night a different celebrity is invited to do just that. In practice, the event is not quite as exciting as it sounds, in part because, with a relative paucity of great actors in Edinburgh, the cast list is made up largely of those stand-up comics or performers hungry for the opportunity to use this appearance to plug their own shows. A format that bookends the reading with an introductory interview and a charity auction of the autographed phone book limits the actual reading to four or five minutes. By all reports, the majority of readers opted for the easy gags of hunting out sexual references in the names they read. One created a small drama of rising frustration out of an endless list of Smiths. I watched comedian Ewen MacIntosh subvert the concept by spending four minutes reading silently to himself, with only the occasional grunt or chuckle indicating his progress, and then manage to raise £6 for his autograph. In all, the experiment must be declared inconclusive, awaiting more extended testing with more appropriate subjects. Gerald Berkowitz

The Pool Gilded Balloon Teviot - As it opens, this combination of Cockney and Scouser verse brings to mind Berkoffian theatricalisation of the working class in a scene that could be out of Ayckbourn. However it is not long before writer-performers James Brough and Helen Elizabeth elevate their boy-meets-girl story above contemporary dramatic traditions, all the way up to the top of the Liverpool cathedral. And the city itself will be pleased by its loving portrayal in this urban fairytale of friendship, fate and the forces of nature, coming just in time for its launch as the City of Culture 2008. The tandem's inspired performances also add a lot to this steroetype-busting exploration of the long neglected theme of family values. Elizabeth creates a layered and subtly moving portrayal of a Catholic girl torn between the need for love and a sense of duty, opposite Brough's internalised demon-fighting behind a happy-go-lucky demenour. Essentially, it is a brief yet memorable encounter that is bound to challenge some of your points of view. Duska Radosavljevic

Lucy Porter - The Good Life Pleasance - Lucy Porter comes on bubbling - and dressed as a carrot, but that's another story - and doesn't stop chattering, or indeed seem to take a breath, for the next hour. There may be little that is particularly individual about her material - jokes about shopping, North v. South London, dating, advertising jingles - but her girlish cheeriness about it all is engaging and infectious. Her putative theme, about how one can lead a moral and responsible life, allows for a few Green jokes, but has only the most tenuous hold on her imagination. The carrot outfit generates a riff on corporate sponsorship of comedians, and her one comment on the World Cup is to propose an alternative acronymic designation for the ladies as Spouses, Lovers And Girlfriends. She offers an original  and ingenious plan for hunting out Bin Laden, and an extended flight of fancy about the dangers of lunch dates carries things nicely into absurd territory. But as funny as her material is, Porter is clearly a performer whose  personality and stage presence is her greatest asset. Gerald Berkowitz

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Rain Pryor Gilded Balloon Teviot - In 2005 Rain Pryor brought to Edinburgh a monologue show with musical interludes. This year she offers herself fully as a jazz and blues singer. Backed by a swinging but unobtrusive trio, she keeps talk to a minimum and fits a dozen songs into her thoroughly entertaining set. Pryor has a strong voice and dramatic style, at its best when paying full service to a song's music and lyrics. An upbeat Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered is infused with sexuality and a Billie Holiday medley is appropriately moving, though Pryor's unabashed love for all her music is evident in a happy smile that colours even the darkest songs. Such is her respect for the music that she only occasionally allows herself a jazz singer's usual latitude. A quick-tempo Sunrise Sunset (introduced as a salute to her double heritage as black and Jewish) gallops disconcertingly and loses the song's haunting power, while a samba-flavoured Summertime wanders so far afield from the melody that we are a bit surprised when it finds its way back. But these are brief interruptions in a set defined primarily by the singer's superb ability to bring the most out of a song rather than imposing herself onto it. Gerald Berkowitz

Pumpgirl  Traverse - Abbie Spallen's play, presented here by London's Bush Theatre, is of the genre built on sequential monologues, with the three characters never actually interacting as they take turns telling their stories. The title character is a petrol station attendant in a small Irish town, generally content with her life and with the occasional sexual quickie with the least offensive of the local married men. But when a couple of his buddies come along on one of their evenings, and when his wife has a brief side dalliance of her own, things get very much less amiable and more complicated all around. There are strong performances by Orla Fitzgerald, James Doran and Maggie Hayes as, respectively, girl, guy and wife. But the play never really rises above the level of soap opera, with its only strength coming in what may for some be the exotic Irish setting, and in the image it gives of a world so small that everyone is prepared to settle for so much less than is their due. Gerald Berkowitz

Purgatory C Venue - W. B. Yeats' very short two-hander is a study in the burden of imagined guilt and the misguided attempt at its expiation. An impoverished father brings his son to what had once been the family mansion, whose decay began when his aristocratic mother married beneath her. Ironically, the poor man has an inordinate sense of class, as reflected in the contempt expressed at his son for being born to two homeless parents, and he ultimately takes extreme steps to end his detested father's line and, he believes, free his mother's shamed ghost. It is one of several fragile mood plays Yeats wrote, and might best be seen in a programme of two or three so that the atmosphere could be maintained through an evening. Brooke Morriswood as father and Monique Cornwell as son work hard to capture the play's tone, but at barely 25 minutes it is over almost before they can begin, and it may well have taken the Blank Theatre Company longer to put up the overly and inappropriately realistic set than to perform the play. Gerald Berkowitz

Radio Underbelly - An edgy young man in military combat fatigues relaxes as he warms to his tale of his unusual family background. In this compelling, winning performance, Charlie Fairbanks explains how he was born in 1950, in the centre of the tumultuous 20th century, in Lebanon, Kansas - the centre of the United States at the time. Charlie's father starts manufacturing flags to commemorate the fact, abandoning the farm that has been in the family for generations in order to move around the States as growing Cold War patriotism stimulates sales for the stars and stripes. Even flag burning in the student campuses during the sixties brings an unexpected boost for business. Through conversations and vivid narrative, Charlie's family and friends are recreated although, like most things American, this is very much a father-son story. Here a patient if distant father listens to his son's childhood dreams of space travel, even gravely recommending a good spacesuit maker when his offspring decides he is the one to beat the Russians into getting a man into orbit. Although our protagonist was born into the television age, circumstances mean that it is through radio that he learns about the key events that affect him, and he is impressed how radio waves sent into outer space will alert aliens to our so-called civilisation. It is a civilisation, however, whose space race merely escalates the confrontation between superpowers and, like ploughshares into swords, the technology that gave us the visionary Apollos also created the rockets that ravaged Vietnam. Propelled by James Yeatman's sensitive direction, Tom Ferguson strikes a balance of the drama and humour in Al Smith's mini-epic of a script. You particularly appreciate the teamwork when, at the end, in one magic, emotional moment all the disparate elements of Charlie's tale suddenly fall into place. Nick Awde

Rebus McTaggart Underbelly - In the fairly limited world of character-based stand-up, Richard Thomson's creation of this self-satisfied and totally un-PC police detective (in charge of terrorism and lost property) must rank high. In the context of a supposed lecture to police cadets, Thomson's McTaggart deigns to share his wisdom and expertise while leering lasciviously at every female in the audience and exploiting every opportunity for a quick and crushing ad lib. His audience rapport is instant and strong, as is evidenced when he sets up the idea of a coffee break and then later goes offstage for a costume change and the sound of pouring gets a laugh. Thomson alternates the detective's appearances with other characters, a Greek psychologist with a thing about chickens and a female police artist whose sketches all look the same, but only his sniffer dog, exposing half the front row as harbouring drugs, really works as well as McTaggart. At this performance Thomson gave a particularly impressive demonstration of his quick thinking and comic agility when, for a bit involving an audience member onstage, he happened to pick a very unresponsive patsy and still made the sequence work hilariously. Gerald Berkowitz

The Receptionists Pleasance - An Edinburgh Fringe staple is the fast-moving comedy show in which a small cast play multiple roles, the transparency of their doubling and chintziness of the production being integral parts of the joke. This entry from Trippplicate is a thoroughly entertaining romp that keeps the silliness coming at top speed and wisely doesn't outstay its welcome. Katie Lyons and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm play two receptionists in a large corporation hit by a crisis that somehow involves a menacing balloon and a lift that is as likely to deposit them in the Alps, on the moon or at the battle of Trafalgar as on the floor they are seeking. The airhead played by Malcolm (who thinks the Culture Club song is about a chameleon in a coma) is totally flummoxed and even Lyons' more level-headed character is likely to be distracted by the allure of a snack machine. The two also play all the unlikely characters encountered in their adventure, including a snooty secretary, a psychic sandwich man and Cher, all against a backdrop of cartoonish projections. With absurdity and illogic being of the essence of the genre, the inventive script and high-energy performances produce a full quota of laughs. Gerald Berkowitz

The Regina Monologues C Venue - As the show's producers themselves say, it's amazing that no one has brought the idea to the stage before - the six wives of Henry VIII talking about life as one of his queens. They find themselves reinterpreted for the 21st century, speaking from the same master bedroom that they had all ruled when married to Henry, a fabulously rich, charismatic and powerful man. Not only do they describe their co-existence with the libidinous monarch but also their fears and insecurities about his other consorts and their different child-bearing abilities. Candidly, even shockingly, they graphically discuss their spouse at the different stages of his life, creating a simultaneous multi-angled picture of Henry as hot young stud, mature lover, ageing lech and ulcerous invalid. I can't see the point, however, in the constant references that pander to the current acceptable fad of mocking people with ginger or red hair (Henry was ginger-haired) no matter how funny Tidemark Theatre and the audience may find it. It's neither clever nor of dramatic merit. The modern wives keep the distinct personalities of yore. Rebecca Russell's straight-laced Catherine of Aragon vainly places her trust in the institution of marriage, contrasting with Anna Macleod's vivacious Anne Boleyn, who looks for any chance to see what else is on offer. The eternal romantic is Chrystalla Spire's Jane Seymour, wrapped up in her desire to provide an heir at any cost to herself. Far more grounded is Katherine Barry's Anne of Cleves - a laid-back internet bride whose musings on love over the ether provide some of the funniest moments. As Kathryn Howard, Madison Hughes gives a harrowing portrayal of the confused teenager whose sexual awakening is only going to lead to trouble, but she is let down on occasion by a less than convincing script. Perhaps the most successful is Tina Swain's Katherine Parr, the last wife. Brought to the altar as companion and nurse, there's a twinkle in her eye as she dryly describes the attraction of marriage to an impotent, dying multi-millionaire, and idly wonders how to get the kids permanently banned from the house. Director Rosemary Goodman keeps the story threads interleaved while ensuring the six voices do not become a babble, generating tremendous momentum throughout the monologue segments. In keeping track of Jenny Wafer and Russell's thoughtful script, it might help to remind yourself of the schoolkid's rhyme 'divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived' - although the update, while just as traumatic for some of Henry's wives, is not quite as bloody. Nick Awde

Rockaby and Krapp's Last Tape Baby Belly - Two Beckett staples are given straightforward performances with enough small original touches to please audiences familiar with the plays but clear and uncluttered enough to bring the plays' concentrated power to neophytes. As the almost silent rocking woman listening to her recorded voice speak of the process of withdrawing from life, Kay Gallie gives the impression less of resisting the pull of death than of wanting more help from the voice in preparing her for it. The recording itself is spoken a bit faster than one might be used to, but not to the extent of affecting this small but haunting ten-minute play. Andrew Dallmeyer plays Krapp in a strikingly and attractively unfussy manner, resisting most temptations the text offers actors to invoke pathos or gratuitous comedy, with even the scripted business with the keys and bananas underplayed. His Krapp is a vigourous and passionate man whose age is evident only in his nearsightedness and limited stamina.  He is  enraged by the sound of his younger self's pomposity, and fights any residual impulse toward nostalgia for lost youth and lost love. If some of the colours other interpreters have brought to the role are missing, this bare-bones Krapp is probably closer to the playwright's ideal. Gerald Berkowitz

The Romeo and Juliet Syndrome Underbelly - This frequently comic, surprisingly touching, disarmingly modest but actually quite sophisticated little company-created play pretends to ridicule romantic love and actually affirms and celebrates it. Two bemused and ironic fairies representing the anti-love Heartache Clinic attempt to warn us of the dangers of over-romanticism, illustrating their point with the key scenes from Romeo and Juliet played straight but repeatedly challenged by their satiric and undercutting comments, and with the adventure of a modern couple clearly not meant for each other. And in spite of all the narrators' efforts, Shakespeare's couple do play out their beautiful tragedy and the modern couple do fall in love, and the play decides that, all things considered, that's a rather nice way for things to work themselves out. Nothing major has been accomplished, but you are likely to walk out feeling pretty good about love, and fairies, and Shakespeare, and life in general. Emily Westwood directs with a light touch and an appreciation of the piece's fragility, and Letty Butler and Annie Crawford as the narrators strike just the right balance of silliness and sweetness. Gerald Berkowitz

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Lizzie Roper - Peccadillo Circus  Gilded Balloon Teviot - Verbatim Theatre - that is, scripts made up entirely of the actual words of real people, collected perhaps through interviews - has been around for at least forty years, but more recently a new wrinkle has appeared. Instead of simply copying what people say into a script for actors to memorise and deliver, the original recordings are played into earphones the actors wear onstage, so they can recreate the sound of the original speaker, complete with accent, pauses, coughs and the like. (One wonders why the performers couldn't have done this without the earphones - it's called acting - but that's another matter.) Anyway, Lizzie Roper has collected the observations of a cross-section of people on the subject of sex, and repeats their words to us. There's a gay man who describes some of the more outré clubs he frequents, a man analysing the motives of women who meet him online for sex, a 70-year-old woman with little to say about the subject (though at great length), and a few others. Roper is not much of an actress, and you sometimes have to wait a few minutes into a speech until what is said offers some clues as to whether the person is male or female, old or young, gay or straight. There's not a whole lot of laughs, not much insight into the individuals and - with the somewhat repetitive emphasis on the two or three main characters - not much illumination of the subject.Gerald Berkowitz

Sclavi - The Song of an Emigrant Aurora Nova - Sclavi (meaning : slaves or slavs) crosses the divide between dance, physical theatre and song. It is primarily set amongst Ruthenian villagers in Slovakia who struggle to make ends meet and therefore, send their breadwinners to the West in order to feed the family. The company Farm in the Cave works in a black box space in this converted church but has a sensational and faintly ridiculous prop, a converted horsebox, which becomes an integral part of the action. The story, loosely based on Hordubal by Karel Çapek, is broadly of the hard lives of those who remain at home and the difficulties that those who leave face. In neither case, are things easy. It is told in athletic dance, sometimes with African overtones, often accompanied by live music from accordion, drums, trumpet and once, a mouth organ; and haunting song, based on the traditions of Ruthenia and the Ukraine. Throughout, Sclavi looks beautiful and while some of the meaning is lost in (lack of) translation, enough comes through for this to be one of the most highly regarded shows in Edinburgh. Philip Fisher

Shakespeare for Breakfast C Venue - Traditionally my first stop at each Festival, this midmorning romp always finds a nicely irreverent take on Shakespeare. This year it's a panto-style modern dress version of The Taming of the Shrew, with the all-female cast playing not only Kate and Bianca but various types of blokish wooers. There are speeches made up of cut-and-paste excerpts from a dozen other plays, a scene built entirely on contemporary pop song lyrics, dating service videos of various Shakespearean males, and just about any other joke they can squeeze in, all making for a fast-moving and good-mood-generating start to a fringe day. And they give you free coffee and croissants. Gerald Berkowitz

Shakespeare's Passions Gilded Balloon Teviot - The inventive Passions is an anthology of an anthology, taking as it does the choice parts of a trilogy of previous themed collections of Shakespeare's words - In Love, Royalties and Visions. Condensed as it may be, there are worse ways to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death. Snippets, speeches, soliloquies and songs are artfully segued by devisor David Owen-Bell and convincingly delivered by the supremely energetic Bruce Morrison. All the hits are here - Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, Shylock - and more, reminding you that some of Shakespeare's most beautiful lines were given to his minor characters. There is majestic pathos as the Hostess relates the cold body of the dead Falstaff in Henry V, intellectual humour as young William is taught the genitive case by Evans and Quickly in the Merry Wives of Windsor. As director, Owen-Bell keeps Morrison busy, jumping across the stage and even off it into the audience (he even works the crowd, stand-up style, with appropriate quotes), rummaging in a hamper for swords, crowns and laurel leaves to suit the occasion. Thoroughly contemporary sound effects link the scenes and powerfully arranged musical arrangements provide the backing for finely sung songs such as The Tempest's Full Fathom Five and the achingly beautiful closer When That I was, from Twelfth Night. Whether you fancy spotting the line, sonnet, character or play, or simply sitting back to let the beauty of the Bard's language flow over you, this innovative Best of... has something for everybody. Nick Awde

Sing a Storm of Blackbirds Venue 45 - As Lydia Maxwell's play begins and the warm lights go up on a monochromatic chorus recounting what kind of a year 1998 was, it all suddenly seems a very long time ago, even if the influx of immigrants as the central issue of this piece remains just as topical today. However, as soon as this ensemble embarks on the love story between an Albanian boy and an English girl, we know that we are on an interesting new ground. Gone are the days (around 1998) when theatre about the Balkans was all about the back of convoys and trying to explain to us just who is who and how it all started. Clutching the typically English paraphernalia of bowler hats and umbrellas, the quintet occasionally conjure up a flock of blackbirds. the symbol of Kosovo, but the primary concern of this piece is an examination of the British culture itself, together with all of its constituent elements. Most importantly, this beautifully written and imaginatively staged new work leaps ahead into a future where the physical and verbal language of theatre are fully and seamlessly integrated in the interest of a story rather than a message. Duska Radosavljevic

Sit Pleasance - Rooted in the traditions of mime, slapstick and the cinematic visual comedy, this show by the Catalan company El Tricicle is a series of irresistibly absurd sketches imaginatively strung together through an easy-going mixture of film, voice-over and comic scene-changes. It helps that, as its title spells out, the whole show is themed on one very basic notion of chairs, seats and sitting. From an anthropological study of the humans' need to rest in this particular way, through a rip-roaring study of different kinds of audience behaviour, to a delightful sketch set in a dentist's waiting room, it is a tribute to the imagination and skill of Antonio del Valle, Benjami Conesa and Fedor de Pablos that they take us on this epic journey without ever making us aware of the comfort of our own seats. True, being a quarter of an hour longer than the usual festival offering of the same kind, their set could possibly benefit from some tightening up. However, considering that it would be hard to imagine a more dynamic way to explore such a static subject matter, I can only say 'bottoms up' to what they have created so far. Duska Radosavljevic

A Slice O'Minnelli C Central - You don't have to be a fan of Liza Minnelli or Rick Skye to love this show. And what's not to love? There's sequins galore, great songs from great musicals, a lotta laughs and, of course, more sequins. Dazzling in Liza's trademark bobbed haircut and short little black number, Skye portrays the wide-eyed diva through the the highs and lows of her life without wallowing in nostalgia or, indeed, the Betty Ford Clinic. All the hits are here and, of course, Sally Bowles makes several appearances - Mein Chair is a jaw-dropping adaptation that somehow makes words like 'addiction' and 'incontinence' sound classy, while the closer Maybe This Time, sung without embellishment, brings an unexpected lump to the throat. The subtle touch of MD Michael Ferreri on piano maintains the beat through songs and links with equal measure. And, as is the lot of all such accompanists, his patience with the ad libs and hissy fits of his diva in residence is eminently commendable. Lile Steven Brinberg's Streisand, Skye's Minnelli is simply the best because he spits on conventional impersonation but homes straight in on the personality and attitude. Effortlessly, the rest takes care of itself, although it helps that Skye has a ripping voice and nice legs, sort of. Put him in the Albert Hall and I swear you could prefer him to the real thing. Nick Awde

So Simple C Venue - As creators of theatrically effective imagery Beata Owczarek and Janusz Skubaczkowski come up with some interesting ideas. A carefully lit arms and shoulders solo, a couple lying on a red velvet drape hanging down one end of the stage, a physicalised notion of a gramophone needle getting stuck - these are just some of the ways in which they try to explore the complexities of a romantic relationship. Although aiming for a certain lyricism, the work as a whole feels a bit too rough at the edges and, quite surprisingly, the duo seem to lack confidence in each other on the stage. In addition, their performance vocabulary comes across as a rather basic regurgitation of a range of familiar contemporary dance phraseology rather than being an authentic articulation of any personal meanings. The intentions underlying this piece - namely a quest for poignancy and simplicity - are highly laudable and very well worth the effort, though the company's display of their findings on this occasion just seems a bit premature. Duska Radosavljevic

Songs of the Unhinged Jazz Bar - Paddy Lannigan, singer, comedian, possibly defies reviewability. And yet, let me to crave your indulgence. In the middle of the set you'll encounter a lovingly crafted and performed number, The Gospel According to St Paisley. Lannigan mimes badly to Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing, while against the soundtrack are projected clips and sound bites of Ulster unionist politician and Protestant preacher Ian Paisley, juxtaposed with insulting images of everything but the kitchen sink. Lannigan, by the way, is dressed as a priest dressed as the pope (or it could be Cardinal Richelieu or a Hasidic rabbi). You'll either find this the funniest, wickedest thing you ever did see, or you'll back carefully out of the nearest exit. I forgot to mention that it helps if you are Catholic, from Northern Ireland, a lover of cool tracks from the sixties and seventies, or (God help you) all three, to appreciate this comic masterpiece of a mini-epic. Then again, it might not. It probably doesn't help to mention that an appreciation of Viz-like toilet humour will definitely aid your enjoyment of the myriad other routines such as The Girl from Ipanema/Ballymena (Paisley's hometown, sung straight in Brazilian but sung in English as a paean to an obese colleen as 'she rolls on her fat belly'), or Do-Re-Mi sung as an ode to cocaine and rough trade. Elsewhere, The Laughing Policeman transmorphs into a quite shocking The Laughing Cancer Patient. All this and more is linked somehow by Lannigan's warped vision and slick video show - as arty as it is satirically aware - that promises, amongst other things, in doom-laden tones the revelation of the Da Vinci Code. And no, I have no idea what any of it's about either. Nick Awde

Sophie Tucker's One-Night Stand Pleasance (reviewed in London) - This rip-roaring raucous show is bigger and brassier than its small theatre and cast of two might suggest, and a fitting tribute to an all-but-forgotten American star. Sophie Tucker (1884-1966) was a buxom blues singer in the mould of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, with the notable difference that Sophie was white and Jewish. Though she could bewail the blues with the best of them, in songs like Lord You Made the Night Too Long, her image was a feistier one - when she sang an upbeat Some of These Days You're Gonna Miss Me Honey she practically glowed in anticipation of the bastard's unhappiness. Declaring herself the Last of the Red Hot Mamas and sprinkling her act with mildly bawdy humour, she was a star of vaudeville and later nightclubs into her eighties. Sue Kelvin captures Tucker's sound and, more importantly, her spirit in this bio-salute show, ably assisted by a droll if occasionally too camp Michael Roulston playing a raft of supporting roles from the piano. She gives us all the songs, from My Yiddeshe Mama (which was a hit for Tucker in both English and Yiddish) to the hear-it-to-believe-it Makin' Wicky Wacky Down In Waikiki. She mixes the biographical material with typical Tucker light-blue jokes, delivered with exactly the right 'I'm having fun and I pity you if you aren't' attitude. Chris Burgess' script is better than most of this type and appropriately tongue-in-cheek, as the newly dead Tucker arrives in Limbo and must try to convince God to send her to Hell, which she assumes will be a far more entertaining place to spend eternity than Heaven. If, like an ever-shrinking number of us, you're old enough to remember the real Sophie Tucker, you'll be delighted by how successfully Sue Kelvin captures her look, sound and spirit. And if Tucker is new to you, you'll have the pleasure of discovering an irresistible American original. Gerald Berkowitz

The Sperm Monologues Udderbelly - A video-camera, a clip-on mic and a sample of men, nervous, cocky or otherwise, but all anxious to say something lasting for their five minutes in the frame. They are all part of a sperm donor programme and, having delivered the goods, they now have the chance to leave a record for the 18th birthday of the child they may have unknowingly sired. Donning an impressive array of personas, David Mildon, Paul Heffey and Martyn Scott-Thomas reveal the hopes and fears of their characters - at times funny, at times sad. Their tales unexpectedly trigger the realisation that that we can all relate to their unusual predicament: the concerned family man, the could-care-less yuppy, the gay anxious for progeny, the insecure lad who sings a plaintive ballad, the deaf guy who signs a cheery message of altruism. Pacing suffers in the final quarter as performances and script get samey. The individual stories barely rise above cliché and the cast appear to only have three and a half accents between them to cover a nation's worth of donors. And yet the production deserves five stars for struggling manfully with a barn of a venue lacking adequate sound insulation plus the crashing drum band outside - none of which eases the delivery of such an intimate concept. Nick Awde

Spite the Face Underbelly - Be warned, the dreadful title and poster give no indication of the delightful 55 minutes they herald. Satirical, witty and romantic all at once, Greg Freeman's one-man playlet is a pertinent examination of how we perceive ourselves in society. Ethan is making a video diary in his flat. The intention is to record his feelings before and after the ground-breaking operation that researchers will carry out to restore the sense of smell that he lost as a child. A Heath Robinson-style prosthetic will be fitted while his real nose is grafted on to the backside of a pig just in case the experiment is a failure. When confronting the camera, our transplantee roams his flat, constantly checking the gas cooker (he can't smell if it leaks) while admitting to a slight void in his emotional life. Not lonely as such, he's still looking forward to the new vistas he believes a bionic proboscis will bring to his stalled life - and maybe his luck with the girls will come flooding back. Alex Dee charms with oddball vulnerability as Ethan marks on his journey into the discovery of what is and isn't normal. He doesn't miss a beat even when reaching for a huge raw onion and crunching his way through it without a dropped word or a tear. With a little more development, including elaboration of the inexplicably wasted subplot of the kidnapped pig, this could easily become the show it promises to be. Nick Awde

Tom Stade: And Relax The Stand - Stand-up Tom Stade has an intriguing show this year: he's an American who has been living in Wolverhampton for some time. That's a comic goldmine for a start, and he gets digging immediately. Early morning haggling while drunk at car boot sales, comparing the town to an Olympic village due to the preponderance of tracksuits worn in the street. or Primark where shoppers go to mess the place up rather than buy. Stade is strictly old school, and sticks to the formula like a kid to an Xbox. The result, however, is that it is hard to tell when he's onscript or riffing, and the one-note delivery is so laid-back that you struggle to spot the gross-outs amongst the wry observations of the lighter things in life. Although the force is with him when he ruminates on Han Solo, his material on Islam meanders and seems to be based on the fact that he knows nothing about it. And something bugged me seriously, I was distracted and didn't know why. It was only at the end that I realised what it was - the hippy jazz muzak soundtrack that had played quietly all the way through Stade's set. So I'm going to have to go by the audience on this one: they lapped up every word and laughed all the way. Nick Awde

Star Trip Pleasance - The Spanish physical comedy company Yllana, performing in mime with the occasional bit of spoken gibberish, follows four astronauts from blast-off to the encounter with a monster on a distant planet. Set pieces along the way include a holodeck whose images keep disappearing, a movie watched to kill time, climbing around the audience and out of the building with a video camera to represent the exploration of the planet, and a black-light floating in space illusion. To anyone who has never seen the Blue Man Group, Men in Coats, any black-light company or, indeed, any silent film comedy, some of these devices might seem original, and a few, notably the monster and the floating in space, are cleverly done. But even the best bits are milked beyond their comic limits, and almost everything else has been done better elsewhere, while some sequences just expose the limits of the company's comic imagination. The video trip outside the theatre is simply not funny, and a later video sequence backstage, meant to represent the fight with the monster, is so badly shot that the audience can't tell what is happening, much less whether it is meant to be funny. Gerald Berkowitz

Stars Traverse - Anja Hilling's fragile little character study is an exploration of the way a person's absence can be felt even more than her presence. Two couples plan an LSD trip together, but the mousier of the girls dies from a fall. The acid trip turns out to be a red herring, and the rest of the play follows the survivors as the gap in their foursome forces each of them to redefine themselves and their relation to the others. Expressing their loss in different ways, jealous of each other's pain, surprised to be happier when her memory is present than when it begins to fade, the three become aware of how tenuous their ties to each other are. The dead girl's boyfriend and the other girl mistake their shared grief for attraction to each other, while the remaining boy, now deprived of both girls and his friend, is forced to be the first to find ways of moving forward. Elliptical to the point of hardly being there, the play is more an evocation of emotion and mood than a linear story, and director Kate Nelson and the cast carry it with the light and tender touch it requires. Gerald Berkowitz

Strawberries in January  Traverse - The course of love, true or not, will run its own way, no matter what we try to do to shape it. That's the message I got (if any message there be) from Evelyne de la Cheneliere's romantic comedy, a hit in its native Quebec and here somewhat Scot-ified in an enjoyable adaptation by Rona Munro for Paines Plough. Boy and girl plan to wed but split up. Eventually boy generously fixes her up with his best friend, but friend is unaware that a past one-night stand made him a father, and the mother is the girl's best friend. Compounding this already satisfactorily complex rom-com plot is the fact that many of its scenes are shown, not as they happen, but as one of the characters remembers them or describes them to another, and the narrators are not always unbiased, accurate or fully truthful. And so, despite their attempts to reshape their pasts in a form they'd prefer or shape the future in a form they'd wish for, things happen the way the destiny that rules plays like this would have them happen - which is, you won't be astonished to learn, a happy ending. Gerald Berkowitz

The Syringa Tree Pleasance - A 90-minute show performed by a single actor can be as much a marathon for the audience as for the performer, but Gin Hammond makes it all seem so easy. Her depiction of growing up in South Africa across two decades is as effortless as it is enchanting. The challenge is writer Pamela Gien's semi-autobiographical epic of the interconnected lives of Johannesburg residents - the white Grace family, their black servants, their neighbours. The central role is Lizzie Grace, who is six years old in the year 1963, the first time we meet her. Her transformation as she grows up over the following 20 years throws a mirror on us all just as events in her local community reflect her country's apartheid regime traumatically resisting the winds of change. Through sleight of hand, conversations with herself, dance and song, Hammond shows enviable confidence in juggling the 24 characters that include wise nanny Salamina, a Jewish doctor and bigoted Afrikaner neighbours. Languages such as Xhosa and Afrikaans feature, adding a further layer of rich realism. Paul Bourne's direction and Vic Phillipson's lighting combine to create moods, spaces and the passage of time out of nothing but a stage bare save for a swing. Charming, entrancing, harrowing, inspiring, this is a double must see: for Hammond's technical tour de force and Gien's message that growing up does not have to mean the loss of innocence and that it can evolve into hope. Nick Awde

Talk Radio Udderbelly - Eric Bogosian's night-in-the-life of an acerbic radio talk show host is, above all other things, a vehicle for an actor who can communicate tightly-wound and potentially dangerous energy along with a gradually evident self-hatred. In short, the job description virtually says 'Cast a stand-up comic here,' and it is as the culmination of several recent Edinburgh Festivals in which comics have been invited to stretch their acting muscles that the newly-formed Comedians' Theatre Company and 2005's Stage Award-winning actor Phil Nichol present this high-energy, frequently funny but just as frequently disquieting production. The late-night radio host played by Nichol is the sort who argues with and puts down every caller, whatever position they take on whatever issue. Witty, uncensored and able to think faster than any of his audience, he is entertaining in a macabre way, and it is only slowly that Bogosian lets us notice that he is equally nasty to an anti-Semite and a supporter of Jews, and treats a pathetically agoraphobic woman and a frightened pregnant teenager with exactly the same knee-jerk viciousness as a boring sports fan. Eventually, and perhaps a bit too suddenly, Bogosian lets the guy realise that his listeners don't really respect him either, but listen just for the vicarious sadism, and that triggers a contempt-filled tirade against them that is obviously directed at himself as well. (Here, director and actor choose to play the key final scene of rage as outer- rather than inner-directed as Bogosian himself did it, which is certainly more theatrical but perhaps less chilling.) Stewart Lee directs with energy and focus that allow what is for all intents a one-man show to fill a large theatre, and Phil Nichol, who is rapidly becoming far more impressive as an actor than he ever was as a comic, generates the sense of danger and potential self-immolation that holds the theatre audience transfixed. Strong support is provided onstage by Stephen K. Amos and Tiffany Stevenson as the program staff and Mike McShane as the station boss, and offstage by the voices of a dozen or more callers. Gerald Berkowitz

Teen Scream Assembly Rooms - If you've seen the horror Scream trilogy or any of the slasher movies it spoofs, then this is right up your street. You'll know exactly when to scream and when to laugh and, most of all, you'll understand precisely why, when all the signs shriek 'don't go in there!', people do. A high school teacher (Richard Grieve) has to deal with a unruly cast of teenagers who are rehearsing their summer show. Things turn creepy as the events in their slasher script somehow become real life. But of course that's to be expected since they've chosen a theatre on an isolated island, none of the phones work and, of course, a storm has just washed away the bridge. There is the now classic victim's gallery: rich kid blonde, vampy blonde, rough 'n' tumble blonde, psychic brunette. The guys are a tad more complex: moody white trash, rotund jack the lad, lanky joker. However, this is more Scream than a musical. Just as there is a play within the play, so too are there two stories: first is the rehearsal of the musical show, then comes a sound FX-filled but song-free slasher play with several twists in the tale. The tunes are few and mostly chorus routines such as the vibrant rock'n'roll title number where the chorus of 'teen scream!' is punctuated by stabbing hands and verbal violin screeches a la Psycho, and a show tune boa number Sex Drive belted out by three of the girls while a couple make out in a car. As the rich kid and her moody white trash ex respectively, Amanda Salmon and Jon Lee get a sweet duet, made less cliched by the fact that he is unwillingly roped into the scene by the others after the male lead has popped out for a sec. The cast works hard with great energy and the production benefits wonderfully from the way they support each other. The result is a great romp with as many deserved laughs as it has shocks. Nick Awde

Terre Haute  Assembly Rooms - At one time author Gore Vidal considered visiting Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in prison, much as Truman Capote had done with his murderers three decades earlier. The visits never took place, but Edmund White has written this two-hander imagining them. The Vidal figure, who sympathises with many of the prisoner's criticisms of the American government, if not his methods, is torn between respect for his innate intelligence and abhorrence of his ignorance and prejudices, a dilemma complicated by the young man's attractiveness. The prisoner is fascinated by this patrician and repelled by his sexuality, driven by the need to have his story told but paranoid about being misrepresented.  The play never falls into the trap of excusing the prisoner's crime, but White not only makes both characters believable but takes them both on emotional journeys, the writer acknowledging the degree to which his objectivity has been compromised by desire and the boy facing frightening things about his own sexuality. Under George Perrin's direction Peter Eyre captures the essence of Vidal without attempting a crude impersonation, while Arthur Darvill makes us see what potential is being lost in the prisoner's blinkered view of reality - and both give strikingly generous performances, feeding and supporting each other in a moving and thought-provoking hour. Gerald Berkowitz

Territory English Speaking Union - Our tickets, it would appear, turn out to be invitations to the exclusive preview of an exhibition of Zimbabwean contemporary art. Dapper and besuited, the gallery's Mr Smith introduces himself before leading us from the foyer into the viewing space itself. What transpires is unsettling and gripping as Adam appears, a man whose wild looks give a clue to the weighty agenda he has in mind. Without giving too much away, Adam's reasons for being here today seem to be to confront Smith's authority while at the same time making an attempt to catch up with an old childhood friend, bonded by a dark secret that neither will name. In this site-specific piece the audience become viewers, as active as the protagonists, promenading the length of the gallery as the action moves across between the colourful canvases. Michael Kudakwashe and Victor Mavedzenge, as Mr Smith and Adam respectively, with moody intensity convey the tension of the unspoken hold the friends have over each other. There is something wonderfully apt about setting a play in an art gallery - the way you observe art enhances your observation of the play. Not only can you move around at will to choose your point of view of the actors as they move around, but they also become framed at unexpected points by the large bold paintings that line the walls. Jon Bonfiglio and Giles Ramsey's script - they also direct - feeds off the political turmoil in Zimbabwe, the performers' homeland. The allegory, however, is taken a little too far and becomes over-abstract. No matter, like an abstract work of art that has a hidden meaning of its own, the poetry of movement and words combine to make this an intriguing collage of personality and provocation with one or two surprises. Nick Awde

Think No Evil Of Us - My Life With Kenneth Williams Assembly (reviewed at a previous festival) - David Benson's salute to Kenneth Williams has three movements. It begins with the familiar picture, loveable warts and all - Williams recites a comic poem, answers a simple question with an endless dissertation on philology, philosophy and church history, flirts outrageously with a ditch digger and a butcher¹s boy (with pointed references to mince & tongue), and berates himself for wasting his talent on trivia. It closes with the far less attractive side of the actor bullying friends, rude to fans, self-absorbed, loud and vulgar. In between, Benson takes the audacious risk of stepping out of character and speaking in his own voice about himself. Starting with his very tenuous connection to Williams (as a child he won a Jackanory contest and the comedian read his entry on the radio), he tells a lengthy, convoluted and alternately comic and embarrassingly personal story. We realize only late in the process that this is a typical Williams performance, and that Benson as Benson is actually closer to capturing the essence of his subject than the bracketing scenes of Benson as Williams. Gerald Berkowitz

The Third From the Left   C Central - Jean Colonomos, who once danced with the legendary modern dance goddess Martha Graham, has written a beautiful little play imagining a handful of young dancers cast in a 1960s Graham production. The young women are overawed by the challenge, torn between love of dance and the conviction they are unworthy, vacillating between mutual support and jealousy - and above all cowed by their worship of Graham, even though they hardly meet her while an assistant directs them. Without ever showing us more than a few brief hints of Graham's choreography, the direction by Jon Lawrence Rivera captures a strong sense of the challenge, while the text notes that the girls are all ballet trained and earning their bread by dancing on Broadway at night, and still must work painfully to master the new style. The play has its flaws - some choric speaking in the style of a Greek tragedy gets old very quickly, and the author is a bit mechanical in giving each dancer her own personal emotional burden - a suicidal mother, a failing marriage, etc. - that she must force herself to ignore in her dedication to dance. But by taking these faceless background dancers through the doubts and pains of the rehearsal period to the glorious transcendence of performance, Colonomos tells us, and makes us truly feel, more about what it is to be a dancer than any documentary could.Gerald Berkowitz

Tom Crean, Antarctic Explorer Assembly Rooms - Tom Crean was an ordinary sailor who served under both Robert Scott and Earnest Shackleton in their Antarctic expeditions. Among his experiences were a heroic cross-country trek with a wounded officer that won him an Albert Medal, being part of the crew in Shackleton's almost unbelievable 800 mile row through the south Atlantic after their ship was destroyed by ice, and being one of the party that discovered the bodies of Scott and his comrades. Crean remained virtually unknown until an earlier version of this performance piece in 2001, in part because he was not an officer and in part, as Aiden Dooley lets him note with amused regret, because he didn't keep and publish a diary. Dooley has him simply stand there and tell his remarkable story with quiet modesty. The power of the piece lies almost entirely in its boy's-own-adventure mix of excitement and horror, to which Dooley adds the attractive matter-of-fact understatement of the journeyman hero, along with a surprising cheerfulness, as if Crean can't help getting caught up in the vicarious thrills and chills of his own narrative. Gerald Berkowitz

Too Close to the Sun Gilded Balloon - As a naval attache during the Second World War, the young Jack Kennedy - that's as in the 35th president of the USA - had a steamy affair with Inga Arvad. Billed as the woman with whom the womanising politician was honest, Inga is the subject of BA Robertson's sublime musical, and it's a fascinating story, even more so when you thought there was no more to be added to the JFK myth. The Danish platinum blonde was an older woman and suspected of being a spy for the Nazis. Jack's Godfather-like dad Joe attempted to stop the relationship while, conversely, secret service chief J. Edgar Hoover was happy to stockpile the incriminating evidence for possible blackmail. Although the relationship inevitably ended, Inga and Jack stayed in contact one way or another until JFK's fatal appointment by that grassy knoll in Dallas. In this one-hour taster the historical background is projected via moody archive footage while the songs and story concentrate on the couple's time together and Inga's life and thoughts in the years after their relationship ended. As Inga, Norwegian Katrine Lunde wrings every emotion from her bell-clear voice. 'You don't love us!' she laments on behalf of all the women Jack has slept with, while in a more upbeat number she waltzes with the skimpy tennis dress she has been sent to help her integrate into high society. Later she dons a hat and glasses to sing a gruff plea by Joe to get his son back in the fast track to the presidency. Robertson - accompanying on electric piano - similarly multi-roles, from the dry drama of the epic opening scene-setter to the mad humour of the salsa-tinged Burn Baby Burn as Castro taunts President Kennedy over the Cuban revolution - 'Come on in, the water's Red!' He sardonically delivers a ditty about JFK's college days, Bring on the Skinny Kid, before unexpectedly turning to softer tones as the song becomes a poignant duet with Inga. The lyrics are forward and Robertson is unafraid to find poetry in the often harsh language of our modern world - swearing and media soundbites included. The melodies are subtle but there is always a hook, leaving you pleasantly wanting more. Profane, touching and funny, if Robertson has a deserved eye on Broadway, you can always say you saw it first here. Nick Awde

Tossers Udderbelly - A bunch of people juggle some things for about an hour. That's pretty much it. Using the setting of a restaurant, the cast of eight juggle, in turn, apples, oranges, plates, knives, and the like. Breaking up the pattern are a bit of basic break dancing, some balancing and light tumbling, a choreographed basketball game, and a pas de deux in which a crystal ball is passed back and forth. But for the most part, they toss things in the air and, for the most part, catch them. It must be noted that the general level of juggling expertise is not particularly high, as the razzle-dazzle attempts to disguise the fact that almost every turn is basic three-item juggling and only once does anyone attempt three disparate objects. And a shocking amount of dropping goes on, with every single turn sooner or later marred by something landing on the floor and having to be retrieved or kicked aside. But the few times that all eight have things in the air simultaneously make for pretty stage pictures, and the hour goes by quickly. Gerald Berkowitz

A Tourist¹s Guide to Terrorism Sweet at the Grassmarket - Two young Westerners, an Irishman with an IRA past and an American woman who is a born-again Christian missionary, find themselves backpacking through Pakistan on September 11, 2001. As news filters in about the attacks, including the fact that the woman's fiance was in the World Trade Center, their reactions and beliefs, along with those of their friendly Pakistani host, are put to a severe test, which they do not all come through successfully. Colman Higgins' short play is earnest and sincere, the sort of production you might expect to see put on in schools, with the students led off to discussion groups afterward. It is his refusal to dodge the complexity of the emotions and motivations of all the characters - acknowledging, for example, that the Irishman and the Muslim recognise themselves in each other, but only up to a point , and that the woman's faith may not be a match for her grief - that raises it above the level of classroom exercise. Performing in a small hotel room imposes a quiet naturalism on actors Shane Nestor, Daniel Naddafy and Maeve Fitzgerald that is wholly appropriate to the inward-looking material. Gerald Berkowitz

Township Stories Traverse - The opening scene of a terrified woman chased by a maniac is just one of a string of unsettling moments that make violence seem normal without losing its ability to shock and nauseate. Certainly later, when a hoodlum kicks his heavily pregnant girlfriend around the stage, the stylised, exquisite choreography of the scene can't stop your urge to jump up and kneecap the bastard. At first sight, Lion's Den's epic sweep through life and death in South Africa's townships is a complex thriller that hails back to The Threepenny Opera or Fritz Lang's movie M in throwing up a mirror to ourselves by questioning the nature of evil. And yet, in parts echoing Australia's Cloudstreet, it is also a celebration of a community that carries on regardless. Of course there are psychotic hoodlums, alcoholism, bad sex, rape, teenage pregnancy and Aids, but that's the daily reality of life in much of the South Africa of today. There also happens to be humour, love and hope. Corrupt cop Rocks Motshegare (Boitumelo Shisana), a brooding man mountain not averse to torture, is on the trail of a serial killer, known only as the G-String Killer because of his method of strangling his victims after raping them. Rocks interrogates local hood Dario (Thato Moraka), and, in so doing, he unwittingly connects up every character who will subsequently appear. Meanwhile, Dario's teenage girlfriend Matlakala (Koketso Mojela) moves in after a row with her ill-matched parents, still dressed in her school uniform, and in a shebeen Rocks' estranged son, the intellectual Thabo (Zenzo Ngqobe) falls for the landlady's graceful daughter Thuli (Irene Chale). All of this proves an explosive mix as a washing line keeps a grisly toll of mementoes as the killings continue. Paul Grootboom's direction squeezes every last drop of light and shade from the powerful script he has written with Presley Chweneyagae, ensuring that this 16-strong cast gives a magnificent performance like no other, with every role, large or small, absolutely spot on and convincing. Strong support also comes in the form of Declan Randall's versatile set and lighting and Phumelele Dlamini's inventive array of costumes. It is a tribute to one and all that they throw such complex storylines up in the air only to gather them all together by the end. There is also a blistering soundtrack of songs including Norah Jones, Paul Simon and Tracy Chapman. They are mostly ballads and all the more disturbing for it. Certainly Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years will never quite sound the same after listening to its achingly fragile verses as a father rapes his son. Nick Awde

True West   Assembly Rooms - Sam Shepard's tight little play is, as its title suggests, an exploration of reality, fantasy and myth. It is also, being a Sam Shepard play, about a dysfunctional family -  in this case two very different brothers, a strait-laced Hollywood screenwriter and a petty criminal. What is more 'true', the play asks - the ordinary work-a-day world, the life of the outlaw, the lies and fantasies of Hollywood deal-makers, the dreams they put onscreen, the myths of the Old West, or one man's imagining of what another's life is like? The thief  comes up with a movie idea that impresses a producer more than his brother's, but then can't write it, and in the final seconds of the play, the reality before us seems to morph into his fictional scenario. The play is much less cerebral than that may make it sound, and frequently very funny, and this production by the new Comedians' Theatre Company hits almost every note exactly right. My only cavil is that director Maggie Inchley has encouraged or allowed Tom Stade as the crook to play on a single level of shouting throughout, but Phil Nichol finds a mix of colours in the nerdy brother, and Dave Johns  provides solid support.Gerald Berkowitz

Twinkle Little Star  Gilded Balloon Teviot - A variant on the Fringe staple of the actor-autobiography solo show, Philip Meeks' script looks, not at a specific star, but at a type, the panto dame. (Pause for those unfamiliar with the context: the Christmas Panto is a British theatrical institution, a family variety show usually based on a fairy tale plot, with interpolated songs, guest stars, and a string of conventions including an older woman role - Aladdin's mother, Cinderella's sisters, etc. - always played by a man.) Meeks shows us a veteran Dame in his dressing room, remembering his glory days, moaning about how no-talent TV personalities are warping  and debasing the genre and, casually acknowledging his sexuality, recalling the naughty pleasures of cottaging in his youth and the happiness of a long-term relationship. The script takes on extra colours with the casting of Tim Healy, best known for hardman roles, bringing a north-of-England gruffness to the part that counters any hints of feyness. There may be little news here, though there is a nicely dark plot twist at the end, but a good vehicle for the actor and a nice peep behind the curtain. Gerald Berkowitz

The Tylwyth Teg Underbelly - The Tylwyth Teg is a play of two very distinct styles and it takes some time to realise why. The opening shows the three actors in physical mode, apparently playing shy four-year-olds, caught play acting on stage and not knowing where to hide. The same actors, in more normal clothing, then tell a very dark fairy tale rooted in Welsh folklore. This is the story of kind-hearted Jenny Gill. Life is hard for this spinner and her weaver husband and things only get worse when she falls pregnant and then hubby is taken by the fairies. Soon, the widow notices changes in the baby and we discover that he too has been captured by The Tylwyth Teg or mischievous fairies. This mix of physical theatre and spoken word is unusual in that the two are so divorced. This leads to a lot of rather slow costume changing between scenes as the normal family life in the spoken parts switches to the fairy land of voiceless movement. The whole builds to a satisfying denouement and is recommended as a rather quirky piece that, apart from a few longueurs, charms in both styles. Philip Fisher

The Umbilical Project: Uncut  (Geronimo)    Bedlam Theatre - Lucy Kirkwood's play is an ambitious attempt to capture the barely-definable experience of emotional ambivalence but, despite some striking moments, it labours under the handicap of being written in a private metaphorical language known only to the author and perhaps, since she directed the production, the actors. What is clear is the basic situation - at almost the very moment a woman discovers her husband's infidelity and throws him out, he has a massive stroke, making him dependant on her constant care. Feeling nothing for him but unable to abdicate the responsibility, she finds herself slipping into fantasies that themselves drift out of her control. But why her fantasy companion should be the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, what the connection is to the Grimm-ish bedtime story she tells her child, why the play opens with a long scene about advertising, the significance of either of its titles, and what most of what anybody says actually means all remain opaque mysteries. There are some good black comic moments and even some touching ones, as when the husband, unable to speak, tries to communicate by sampling love songs on his computer. But there is simply too much gratuitous mystification, giving the effect of being held off by the author rather than invited in. (This play is part of a novel Fringe experiment, this author-directed version paired with another with a different director in a different venue. Those who find the play more intriguing can see if the alternate staging illuminates it further.) Gerald Berkowitz

The Umbilical Project: Cut (Geronimo) Pleasance - As a play entitled Geronimo, Lucy Kirkwood's creation is an inspired exploration of the kind of loss and loneliness felt in a long term relationship gone wrong. The slightly iffy but effective conceit involves a husband who suffers a stroke on the same night when his adulterous affair is discovered by his wife. Caught up in dutifully looking after incapacitated Ben when in fact she wants to leave him, Theo descends into a world where the only adult conversation she can have is with an imaginary version of Thomas Hobbes munching on Kit Kats. Kirkwood's story becomes genuinely enthralling and, in this production, Catherine Ireton as a fragile looking lead adds an interesting complexity to her interpretation of the bewildered carer. Matt Addicott's minimalist and highly stylised version of the play forms part of a new writing experiment where two different companies are putting Geronimo on without any awareness of each other. At the time of writing, I am still looking forward to seeing the one with the umbilical cord uncut, directed by Kirkwood herself. Duska Radosavljevic

The Unattended  Gilded Balloon Teviot - Daniel Maier's modest little three-hander starts as light workplace comedy of character, moves into psychological drama, and ends as metaphysical mystery - and it is to the credit of playwright, director Robert Wolstenholme and the actors that it does not lose its way in this journey. Two night watchmen at a shopping mall are joined by the new kid on the job, whose irreverent attitude toward their rules and rituals first discomfits them and then, when they spot an unattended bag that might be full of money, tempts them. I won't give away any more of the plot except to say that we surprisingly move into J. B. Priestley territory as the boy proves not what he seems and the play's real subject is not what we thought it was. Solid performances by Dave Johns and especially Peter G. Reed as the old-timers and Brendan Patricks as the newcomer carry the hour smoothly through its shifts in focus and tone. Gerald Berkowitz

Virgins Assembly Rooms - This is an inventive, witty look at the complexities of life under one roof where a family confronts several carnal challenges. A mum and dad find themselves driven barmy by their teenage son and daughter's sexual awakenings while grappling with their own stalled reawakening. Jack stays at home looking after the kids while Suzie goes out to work every day. Putting the passion back into their marriage becomes the last of their worries when their son Nick loses his cherry but bites off more than he can chew, and daughter Suzie finds an older boyfriend. Events lead to a chain of confrontations plus rather more revelations than the quartet would like to hear. Stefan Butler is edgy yet endearing as the loving father who just can't seem to keep his mouth in check, while Tilly Fortune finds a soft centre in the hard-nosed working mother too tired to keep up with developments on all three home fronts. Emily Woodward's Suzie is equally bubbly and serious as her honesty unwittingly creates friction with her cocky sibling Nick, played with the appropriate level of hormones by Peter Machen. Their different accents, however, erode reality a touch. With finger firmly on the family pressure gauge, John Retallack's script elicits many a laugh and gasp of recognition from audience members of all ages. Two areas however let down an otherwise vibrant production. Firstly, the father, the key trigger for the disintegration in relations within his family, ultimately does not convince. Surely a sympathetic 'stay at home' father would never allow things to explode without warning if only because he would never allow himself to become so blind to the needs and development of his children. Secondly, the dance interludes, routinely choreographed by Fleur Darkin, seem randomly inserted and have the effect of destroying the carefully built-up emotional tension of each preceding scene. Nick Awde

The Visitor Hill Street Theatre - There is something refreshingly old-fashioned about this piece of theatre, and it's nothing to do with the carpeted set and meticulous costuming. Although written in 1993, it actually taps into the kind of theatre that had long gone out of favour with the British audiences by virtue of being contemplative rather than strictly speaking entertaining. As a matter of fact, this new translation of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's unashamedly philosophical play - its subjects are Freud himself and a mysterious visitor who could be a madman or a god - is so delightfully witty that it brings to mind the effortless mastery of Wilde and Shaw. Demonstrating the ways in which the best humour and supreme intelligence share a making of connections, this piece is also a perfectly easy introduction to the essentials of Freud beyond the confines of popular knowledge, and a means of examining one's own beliefs. Duncan Lumsden's exuberant performance as the mysterious visitor helps to some extent, but this beautifully written play is also brimming with quotable lines and such pearls of wisdom which you would want to collect and relish for a long time afterwards. Duska Radosavljevic

Waiting for Romeo  Hill Street Theatre - In a war zone an airheaded romantic woman awaits the appearance of her dream lover while her more practical sister betrays her own susceptibility to blind romanticism by sentimentalising what we see to have been nothing less than a rape by a faceless opportunist. A runaway soldier enters, quickly susses the situation, and then skilfully plays to each sister's fantasies in order to use them as refuge.  Sarah Grochata's play can't quite decide whether to be a romantic comedy or a satire of sexual politics, and finally settles on psychological horror as one of the women proves unwilling or unable to give up her fantasy. Described as an update of Hedda Gabler, its only tenuous connection to Ibsen lies in the picture of women romanticising an undeserving dream man, which could equally warrant its being called a variant of All's Well That Ends Well, Jane Eyre or Snow White. Gerald Berkowitz

Wasted  Pleasance Dome - This new play written and directed by Henry Filloux-Bennett raises the morally dubious claim that the life imprisonment of 1960s 'moors murderers' Ian Brady and Myra Hindley was a greater crime than their torture and murder of five children. Of course authors have the right to make morally dubious statements, but they also have the obligation to make them well, or at least interestingly, and Filloux-Bennett's play is neither convincing nor theatrically involving. He has the aged Hindley reminisce about the period of the murders and the trial, and then gives both her and the aged Brady the chance to make the case that they have been misused. Neither part works. The 1960s scenes rely overly on the device of newscasts to fill in the facts, while we see Brady lecturing Hindley and a friend on his Ubermensch theory that murder is the ultimate proof of superiority. The present scenes are marred by the fact of two young actors pretending very badly to be in their 60s. Everything the play has to tell (or remind) us about Brady and Hindley serves very effectively to argue against what it wants us to feel about them. Gerald Berkowitz

We Are Klang - Klangbang   Pleasance - Everyone is entitled to be out of step sometimes, so I openly admit that, after seeing them last year and this, I just don't get We Are Klang. The three-man troupe is widely praised for reinvigorating sketch comedy, but all I see is very familiar material - a Tommy Cooper-like bad magician, the World Insult Championship, and the like - performed with the confidence that comes from knowing the audience will laugh at anything you do. Their appeal is more dependent on personality than material - the tall one does a good turn as energetic compere too often disappointed by his colleagues, and the bald one does dim-witted patsy well, (The needs-a-shave one doesn't seem to have a consistent persona, though he does get many of the smuttier lines.) The impression that they're having as much fun as we are is generated in large part by constant corpsing, the giggling fits so neatly timed that they have to be scripted and rehearsed. But as I said, everybody but me thinks they're hilarious and innovative, so maybe I'm missing something. Gerald Berkowitz

The Whale and the Bird Underbelly - Greta Clough's short play is an attempt to raise a banal story with a dubious moral to the level of fairy tale and myth. A burnt-out therapist falls in love with one of his patients, and the troubled girl's death signals the liberation of both their spirits. In addition to the girl's recurring dreams of escape through death, the author invokes the titular fable, of lovers unable to live in each other's element, along with Edward Lear's poem of the thwarted courtship of the Yonghy Bonghy Bo. In each case the idea is that liberation of the spirit is preferable to unhappy and unconsumatable love on earth, and a successful application to the characters just might colour their story with a kind of tragic beauty. But the author does not make the connection, and the actors are unable to raise their roles beyond cliche - Clough as the free spirit whose mental turmoil we are to find more beautiful than upsetting, and Hamish Gray as the empty man whose reawakening is to be seen as well worth the price of the girl's life. Gerald Berkowitz

Wheeler's Luck Assembly Rooms - Welcome to Bell End, a small village on the New Zealand coast. Here lives a remote community of middle-class citizens, content in their sleepy community. Until one day when the dreaded developer from Auckland turns up, sniffing around the spit of land where they hold their traditional horse race each year. Rumours start to fly, and the developer finds he has quite a hornet's nest on his hands - if the residents could be bothered to get out of the pub and actually do something, that is. What follows is a funny, action-packed shaggy dog story that is simply awesome for the amount of detail and energy that is packed in. Without costumes, wigs or props - aside from a pair of gum boots and a bell -Toby Leach and Nigel Collins dip in and out of their characters (a whopping 55) as if they had Rolodexes whizzing in their heads. Meanwhile, director Damon Andrews ensures the pace never slips in the permutations of exchanges between the play's protagonists, even when Leach and Collins create a four-way conversation between riders in a horse race while throwing in observations from commentators, police and onlookers all at the same time. Satirical, uproarious and anthropological - echoing Whisky Galore in parts - they also let you know that it's fun to do. Nick Awde

Why the Long Faces? Holyrood Tavern - This two-woman sketch show is a throwback to earlier years on the Fringe when a modest revue with a few good chuckles was all one really asked for. And though it is well out of its league among the more polished and high-powered competition these days, it does still deliver those few legitimate laughs. Among the fresh comic ideas are a credit card machine that requires pin noises rather than numbers, wedding vows with added clauses and one-upmanship among the holy. In other bits, writer-performers Sally-Anne Hayward and Vicky Frango fall into the all-too-common revue trap of coming up with a potentially comic concept but not actually finding or developing a joke in it, and the mad fun mum, the binge drinker, the aged typist and others are all ideas looking for a gag, though some of them are carried by the personality or quirkiness of the performer. It is actually the incidental throwaway bits that are most likely to stick in the mind, like the businesswoman who thinks the sandwich shop is called Pret Manager or the bit of between-sketches backstage humming later identified as a musical interlude. Gerald Berkowitz

Luke Wright, Poet Laureate Pleasance Dome - Jam-packed full of poetry, prose and pictures, Wright's multimedia stand up show in verse has the added value of being able to draw in a wide variety of audiences. The thing is, this 23-year old wunderkind, who already has the history of a poetry boy band career behind him, excels in almost every medium he touches. His one-liners are sharp and his material carries a flair of originality quite aside from his facility with the meter and rhyme. As a performer, his timing is excellent; he has a fair deal of healtthy self-awareness which allows for effective irony and also peppers his narrative with cleverly planted idioms that he then picks up on and turns into winning punchlines. Exploring the history, the function and the job description of a poet laureate in this show, Wright gets to make digs at some past and current literatti while also displaying his own credentials for the post. However, if he ever happens to be in the running for it, one fears it would be a greater loss to the world of the performing arts than it would be a gain to the royal household. Duska Radosavljevic


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Reviews - Edinburgh Festival - 2006