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The Theatreguide.London Reviews

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL AND FRINGE 2008

The several simultaneous events that make up 'The Edinburgh Festival' - the International Festival, the Fringe, the Comedy Festival, etc. - bring literally thousands of shows and performers to the Scottish capital each August. Virtually all of these shows tour after Edinburgh, and many come to London, so the Festival is a unique preview of the coming year.

No one can see more than a small fraction of what's on offer, but even with a reduced reviewing team we were able to cover almost 150 shows. Once again, our thanks to Edinburgh veterans Duska Radosavljevic and Philip Fisher for contributing to these pages.

Because the list is so long, we have split it into two pages. The reviews are in alphabetical order (soloists by last name), with A-L on another page and M-Z here.

Scroll down this page for our review of The Magic Tree, Dan March, Married to the Sea, Dermot McMorrow, Meltdown, Mildred and Francesca in the Gobi Desert, Mime for Laughs, Justin Moorehouse, Motherland, The Mozart Question, My Grandfather's Great War, The New Electric Ballroom, Nocturne, Not Everything is Significant, Not Stalking David Tennant, Now Is The Hour, Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You..., On The Island of Aars, On The Waterfront, Out of Your Knowledge, Oxford Revue, Paperweight, The Patriot Act, Pebbles on the Beach, Pericles Redux, Phantomysteria, The Picture of Dorian Gray, P. I. E., Plague: The Musical, The Plan, Pornography, Potency, Potted Potter, A Real Humane Person, St Nicholas, Saving Tanya's Privates, Scaramouche Jones, Shakespeare for Breakfact, Shakespod, Shoppers Without Borders, Sister Cities, 66A Church Road, Slick, The Straight Man, Surviving Spike, Isy Suttle, Sword of Maximum Damage, Tailor of Inverness, Terminus, The Third Condiment, This Must Be The Place, 365, The Time Step, Tony, Luke Toulson, The Two Widows, Vincent, Vivien, War of the Worlds, Mark Watson, Weights, Which to Burn, Who's Afraid of Howlin' Wolf, Frank Woodley, Yasser


The Magic Tree Assembly
In what at first seems like a parody of bad horror movies, a girl being followed by a strange boy not only goes into a deserted building, but then lets him chat her up once they're alone there. It surprises her much more than us that he proves after all to be the danger he seems, the point man for a planned group rape. He repents at the last minute, saves her from the rapists, and the next thing we know the two of them are in Cambodia together, where she suddenly displays a death wish. It's a comment on the ineptness of Ursula Rani Sarma's play that your first reaction is that if she wanted to be harmed, the girl could have saved the airfare. The first scene plays like a schools production or TIE play designed to be followed by a classroom discussion of sexual safety, while the Cambodia section, which gets rather mystical, makes little sense at all. The author has directed the cast to play all the characters as standard-issue troubled teens, so that it comes as a surprise, and detracts even further from the believability, to be told near the end that they're a decade older.
Gerald Berkowitz

Dan March - My MySpace Baby Gilded Balllon
Although listed in the comedy section of the Fringe programme, Dan March's set is not a string of jokes nor a particularly funny monologue. Instead it is the true story of how, a little over a year ago, he was contacted by a one-night stand from his past and told he was a father. He met the woman and, more significantly, her baby, and immediately fell under the spell of fatherhood, so much so - and I don't believe either of these statements - that he didn't even read the results of the DNA test and he gave up the acting opportunity of a lifetime just to stay close to his daughter. And that's the story. March tries to make it entertaining, but his bubbling expressions of wonder and joy are likely to have the same effect as listening to any new father go on and on about his happiness. When the dramatic high point of your narrative is getting a baby to stop crying, you'd better either tell this in some extraordinarily inventive way or find a way to raise it to mythic or epic stature. March simply has not made art out of reality, or transformed his personal experience into something of more than passing interest to others. Gerald Berkowitz

Married to the Sea Assembly
It happens every year - a foul-up in my schedule means that I go to see something I hadn't planned on, just because it's there, and discover a real gem. This time another show's being unexpectedly sold out meant that I got diverted to Lorraine McCann's lovely little fable of childhood and change. McCann pulls off a terribly difficult feat by having us view the events of her play through the eyes of a child who sees everything clearly but understands nothing of what she sees. So, for example, when the daughter of a fisherman in an Irish village tells us about her home life, we spot the strains in her parents' marriage before she does. What she sees as normal behaviour in her mother we recognise as secret drinking, what she doesn't understand about her father's behaviour we see as evidence of an affair with a city woman. It is that double vision that carries the play delicately through both its small domestic story and a larger one of a whole way of life being supplanted by encroaching urban sprawl. The cast is impeccable, Siobhan Donneclan making the girl touchingly real and never too precious, Carla Bredin subtly underplaying the mother, and Fiachra O'Dubhghaill capturing not only the haunted father but a host of Everyone Elses. Gerald Berkowitz

Dermot McMorrow Gilded Balloon
To call Dermot McMorrow's style low key and laid back is to exaggerate the energy level of his performance. He stands there, staring blankly into space, until he rouses himself to deliver a one-liner or two, or to read them from his notebook. Most of the gags are pretty weak, though the sheer number means that an occasional one - perhaps the idea of a closet claustrophobic or surreal estate agent - will generate a chuckle here or there. Extended sequences, one built on images of bad luck and another on animal suicide notes, fall completely flat, though McMorrow doesn't seem to notice, plodding on with no change in manner or deviation from his script. He assumes the persona of a younger, slightly more Irish version of himself for some parts of the hour, though there is no difference in the type of material or its effectiveness, and one might guess that the role-playing is an attempt to distance himself from the failure and label it post-modern irony, except that nothing else in the act suggests that level of self-awareness or wit, except for one odd moment when he mumbles, half to himself, 'I'm no good at this.' Gerald Berkowitz

Meltdown: The Ultimate Gameshow Thistle
Rob Edmonds wasn't joking when he branded his show a 'killer comedy', as this creation attempts to fuse a parody of a TV game-show with a traditional whodunit. It is the turn of various divorcees to compete for an audience vote in this inspired Saturday night show, which introduces us to an array of presenters, guests and backstage staff. This gives an opportunity to his 10-strong cast to glam up and indulge in sparkle and shrieking as they intermittently spill over from their tiny stage and begin to mingle with the well warmed up audience. Cheesy lines and sleazy characterisations galore, the piece is a testament to just how well aware this young company are as to what awaits them in the show business which they evidently aspire to. And even though occasionally their acting skills leave just enough room for improvement, Edmonds' play has a solid shape and the wherewithal to arrive at a punchline by becoming a who'llsolveit. Duska Radosavljevic

Mildred and Francesca in the Gobi Desert Vaults
Retired vicar Lisa Wright offers this selection from the memoirs of Mildred Cable and Francesca French, missionaries who criss-crossed Asia in the 1920s and 1930s bearing the word of God in seven or eight different languages. Her presentation is modest in the extreme, with just a few music effects accompanying her talk, and frequent recourse to her script makes it more a reading than a performance. The material itself is largely made up of rather generic narratives and descriptions, and is likely to be of only intermittent interest. Virtually nothing is said about the actual missionary work, while the authors' generously-intended observations on people and places frequently expose their own unconscious cultural bias more than they illuminate the things described. Though the two women's adventures include encounters with Muslims and Buddhists, brigands and warlords, and though they themselves must have been far stronger and more interesting figures than Wright lets them appear, all is flattened by the speaker's bland presentation, and only the occasional colourful character - a village postmaster mixing officiousness with generosity or a poor schoolmaster unaffectedly dining off Ming Dynasty porcelain - is likely to stand out in a piece that will satisfy only the least demanding audiences. Gerald Berkowitz

Mime For Laughs Hill Street
Polish mime Ireneusz Krosny opens with what amounts to a combination of
hommage and dismissal of the Marcel Marceau school, running through all the staples of walking, carrying a weight, hitting a wall and the like, as if to say 'I can do all that, now let me show you my style.' That turns out to be the type of mime that relies heavily on music and sound effects, so that the humour frequently lies in the actor's reactions to noises or voices rather than in the reality he creates through mime. Thus, for example, a scene about having to listen to a child's attempts to play a viola leans as much on the sound of sour notes as on Krosny's mugging of pain, and a burglar sketch consists largely of his mimed clumsiness and the banging and crashing it generates. Of course there are precedents for this, too, and some will be reminded of certain music hall comedians or American physical clowns like Red Skelton. If one gets past the sense that Krosny is sometimes cheating by not doing it all himself, there are clever and inventive moments, like the quick fencing and basketball gags, a longer scene as an overeager bodyguard, and especially the silent direction of the audience in the mode and timing of applause. Gerald Berkowitz

Justin Moorehouse's Ever Decreasing Social Circle Pleasance
Since it is evidently no longer enough for a comic to stand there and be funny, but he must have a unifying theme to his set, Justin Moorhouse builds his hour on the premise that everyone should have five true friends. To achieve that aim, he started with the 641 people registered as friends on his Facebook account and began whittling the number down. He sent them a questionnaire and, with a screen behind him showing the lowering numbers, recounts how their replies disqualified them. Cutting all the Daily Mail readers got the number down to this, eliminating anyone who had ever bungee jumped brought it to this, and so on. Eventually he gets down to four, which means he has to poll the audience to find his fifth real friend. Frankly, the device is a pretty weak one, with not a lot of laughs along the way. But fortunately each elimination reminds him of some tangential anecdote or gag, and those are what carry the hour. It is in digressions like how Israel qualifies for the Eurovision Song Contest or being sponsored to do nothing at all for charity that Moorhouse's best material lies, and he might have been better off with an hour of random observations than with his theme. Gerald Berkowitz

Motherland Underbelly
That men die in war and women grieve cannot be news, but it merits constant retelling. A verbatim piece drawn by author-director Steve Gilroy from interviews with the wives, mothers and sweethearts of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, Motherland derives much of its undeniable power from the authentic and uncensored pride and pain being expressed. The voices heard, through the performances of four actresses, range from posh to working class, happy to grieving. Inevitably most of the voices are sombre, but there are lighter moments, like the quartet of army wives who admit with a giggle that they actually like some things about their husbands being away, or the mother and daughter who unconsciously jostle for the role of chief supporter of their son/brother. Most of the speakers encouraged their man (and in some cases woman) in the decision to join up, which leaves some of the grieving with the added burden of guilt. One revelation of the text is a particularly cruel military practice that accords only the legal next-of-kin the courtesy of a personal notification when a soldier dies, so wives are visited while mothers have to learn the terrible news from the television. The actresses playing several brief roles each are forced inevitably into a degree of stereotyping, but capture the essence of each woman. Gerald Berkowitz

The Mozart Question Assembly
Michael Morpurgo's story, dramatised by Simon Reade and performed by Andrew Bridgmont, is perhaps misleadingly listed in the Children's section of the Fringe programme, because its story, however delicately told, is a dark one. Bridgmont plays a concert violinist who refuses to play Mozart, and this monologue is his explanation why. As he begins with his happy childhood and his discovery of both a love and a talent for music, we only slowly piece together the hints eventually clarified for us, that his Jewish parents, both musicians, survived the concentration camps by being selected for the camp orchestra. The obscenity of when and why they had to play turned them against what they played, and their adult son has honoured their memory by continuing their boycott. The darkest sections of the narrative are told briefly and unsensationally, and children are likely to take them in stride, though some may need further explanation afterward. But both children and adults can respond to the rest of Morpurgo's story and Bridgmont's warm narration, particularly the evocation of a loving family and the wonder of the young boy's discovery of music and his parents' discovery of his talent.
Gerald Berkowitz

My Grandfather's Great War Baby Belly
It's not an original concept, but Cameron Stewart's presentation of his grandfather's war memoirs is one of the very best of the genre I've ever seen, the combination of Captain Alexander Stewart's vivid and eloquent writing and his grandson's passionate performance both illuminating the familiar material and making for an exciting hour's theatre. David Benson, himself a talented solo performer, has shaped the material so that Stewart constantly gives us a double view, his grandfather's immediate account and his own awe and horror. Captain Stewart miraculously survived some of the bloodiest and most futile battles of the War, and his descriptions embody all the horrors and absurdities, from the flies and mud to the matter-of-fact heroism of the soldiers around him, all of which the actor brings alive in his energy-filled performance. Cameron Stewart's position is one of unflagging admiration mixed with wonder that young men of a century ago could be so unquestioningly patriotic and the humble recognition that his own generation was not called upon to meet a similar standard. You come away not only reminded of the horrors of war but asking yourself how you would measure up against such heroes. Gerald Berkowitz

The New Electric Ballroom Traverse
Enda Walsh's 2004 play begins by sounding like Samuel Beckett, morphs awkwardly into Brian Friel local-colour realism and then shifts gears again, evoking Yeats-like fatalism - and yes, there are grotesque elements and linguistic flights that could only be by Enda Walsh. The play's strengths, in other words, lie in bits and pieces, its weaknesses in the difficulty of absorbing all these voices into one coherent whole. Two sisters in their 60s have become recluses after what in their small world passed for romantic disappointments a lifetime ago, and they have indoctrinated their fortyish sister through constant retellings of their misadventures that have taken on the form and power of ritual and myth. What seems like the chance of a modest break from this closed circle, in the form of a no-great-catch local man, turns out to be just the basis for a new myth and another empty life. It's a sad little fable that keeps reaching for more, be it in a recurring aria on the inescapable loneliness of life that is pure Beckett or the askew comedy of lines like 'I had a gift for sponge cake the way Jesus had a gift for suffering.' If only there were a way of making it all feel like one play, but director Walsh isn't able to hold together playwright Walsh's scattershot imagination. Gerald Berkowitz

Nocturne Traverse
Adam Rapp's solo play, performed by Peter McDonald, is for about half its length a powerful study in the ways memory can haunt and paralyse a life, reflecting that in a writing style that is so precise that every detail becomes hyper-alive, just as it does when dwelling on the past becomes obsessive. But then the play moves beyond the obsession and the dense and intense writing that had contributed so much to the psychological reality becomes cumbersome and heavy just as the subject matter is losing its hold on us. The speaker is an adult who, as a teenager, had an automobile accident absolutely not his fault that killed his younger sister and left the rest of the family emotionally crippled forever. In his case the memory, re-experienced and polished over and over again, has become more real and more fully known that the world he inhabits. Anyone who has ever obsessed over anything will recognise the syndrome and empathise with the burden the character is carrying. But as the narrative moves beyond the traumatic period to describe how his life since then has been empty and directionless, the writing, which should logically become emptier in parallel, remains as dense and detailed, and thus begins to jar with the material, call attention to itself and seem imposed on the narrative rather than growing out of it. The fact that the speaker's life is indeed not very interesting in this section dissociates us from it even further, and all the energy and emotional reality of the first half begins to dissipate. So, while the first hour of Nocturne has some of the best writing and intense psychological drama around, the play as a whole is likely to disappoint. Gerald Berkowitz

Not Everything Is Significant Pleasance
Part a rumination on the small details that make up a life, part a questioning of identity and fate, part a ghost story of sorts, and part just a collection of very funny one-liners and observations, Ben Moor's hourlong monologue is alternately - and sometimes simultaneously - hilarious and haunting. Moor tells of a man who discovers a diary for the coming year with his whole life plotted out and who then finds himself living to its dictates. This story is told by a later researcher whose detailed analysis of the first man's life leads to it being eerily mirrored in his own. The fable is a haunting one, enlivened by Moor's askew humour, which imagines in passing a musician named Handel who isn't talented though the name opens doors, a service you hire to hide your things so you can have the joy of finding them, and a roller coaster ride called Life that Buddhists keep queuing up to ride again. While much of the power and charm of the show lie in the writing, Moor's deadpan delivery lets both the thought-provoking concepts and the laughter-provoking inventions sneak up on you, making the hour a continuous string of delights. Gerald Berkowitz

Not Stalking David Tennant The Vault
Emma Hutchins uses the format of a one-woman character showcase with a fair amount of forethought. The characters she creates, using her accomplished verbal and non-verbal resources, represent a colourful variety of types, accents and personal quirks. From a successful childless businesswoman in therapy to a cabaret dancer who has discovered the art of butoh, Hutchins brings her diverse display together under the question of 'Can you have it all?' Money, career, family, looks and love are the five must-have items she identifies while at the same time demonstrating her own gifts of confidence, fun and artistic integrity. Slicker or more imaginative scene changes would further enhance her act, although much thought seems to have gone into the costume narrative of the piece too. And when she kicks her shoes off as Louise, the fugitive from her best friend's hen do, it will be the moment of revelation you'll have been waiting for ˝ at least the one concerning the secret behind the title of the piece. Duska Radosavljevic

Now Is The Hour Hill Street
David Walter Hall's play, based on the actual 1942 torpedoing of the troop ship Laconia by a German U-boat and on the memoirs of one of the survivors, follows a lifeboat full of men and women from the ship through the next harrowing weeks. The story is inherently dramatic and director Tom Cornford's staging inventive and evocative, but there is little in the hour that is not predictable once the situation is established. Someone takes charge, supplies are rationed, personalities become clear, secrets are shared, heroism and hysteria are both displayed, and people die off one by one. Along the way they cope with fear, death and despair in ways that distinguish and voice positions from the devout to the cynical. The biggest weakness of the play lies in its inability to move beyond the formulaic in plot or characterisation, the strengths in the solid performances, particularly of Catherine Cusack, Mark Katz and Scott Brooksbank, and in imaginative staging that evokes both literal reality and emotional truth, from the construction and moving about of the lifeboat set to the quiet dignity of the deaths and the wonder of life-saving rain.
Gerald Berkowitz

Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen Traverse
I must begin by saying that this devised piece ('play' would be a misleading label for it) from Belgium impressed many people as a high point of the Fringe. It's an attempt to capture the experience of adolescence through a series of unrelated scenes and sequences and, while some felt that its anarchic disjointedness captured the disconnected and uncontrolled energy of youth, I found it just chaotic and too frequently uncommunicative of anything. Predictably, there is a sequence of the thirteen teenagers in the cast dancing their hearts out at a club and one of them staggering home in varying degrees of worse-for-wear. It is witty to have the girls all leave the stage in the middle of a scene of romantic and sexual fumbling, leaving the boys frustrated, but that is about as far as any recognisable communication gets. A recurring scene has them all playing children's games, though in different moods each time, but its purpose is unclear and the repetitions meaningless. In one of the show's clearest moments a girl addresses the audience directly and says 'Everything has been done before. But not by me,' and as evocative as that is in capturing the adolescent need to rebel and experiment, it also applies too appropriately to the script by Joeri Smet and Alexander Devriendt. Certainly, by the time we get to an all-out brawl, with one couple covering each other in paint, others having a water fight and others moving around the audience covering people in lipstick, we have retreated to the world of 1960s Happenings with all their content-less sound and fury. Either the kids are unable to tell us who they are once and for all or, more likely, they have been failed once again by adults trying to speak for them. Gerald Berkowitz

On The Island Of Aars Pleasance
This thoroughly silly and delightful show is exactly what you want from the Fringe, the sort of small-scale thumb-your-nose-at-convention piece of quirky originality you just couldn't find anywhere else. By the creators of last year's 'Translucent Frogs of Quuup" (and don't you envy them that title?), this musical by Chris Larner and Mark Stevens is set on a remote Scottish island inhabited by a burnt-out former rock musician, a virgin whose greatest desire is to sample this thing called pizza of which she has heard, and two competing fiery preachers undaunted by the fact that they each have only the lass as congregation. Factor in a Dutch lesbian health-and-safety officer and a giant turtle, and you have the makings of total comic nonsense punctuated every once and a while by songs that set Larner's askew lyrics to Stevens' quite lovely melodies. It is possible that, if you lack the gene for silliness, you could find this incomprehensible and precious. But I and most of the audience around me had a hoot. Gerald Berkowitz

On The Waterfront Pleasance
It can not be surprising that this production, previously seen at the Nottingham Playhouse, is more polished and fully realised than the bulk of fringe shows. It is very pleasantly surprising that director Steven Berkoff has been able to filter one of the classics of film realism through his own highly formal and theatrical style and actually enhance the power and intensity of the story. Working from Budd Schulberg's screenplay and an abortive stage adaptation by Schulberg and Stan Silverman, Berkoff shapes the secondary figures of New York dock workers and mob hardmen into a chorus performing in the director's signature stylisation of slow motion, exaggerated frozen poses and broad mugging. Remarkably, this doesn't clash with the realistic playing of the central characters, but sets the story of a dock labourer slowly working his way toward informing on the criminal mob that runs the docks within an intense and atmospheric nightmare. (Substitute communists for criminals, and the film becomes a self-justification for writer Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, both of whom testified before the infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee in the 1950s.) In the role that is a cornerstone of Marlon Brando's mythic status, Simon Merrells quickly erases any memory of Brando by capturing the essence of a man of limited intelligence and depth constantly forced to operate at the very outer limit of his abilities as he strains to push himself into thoughts and feelings he's never had before. Vincenzo Nicoli is powerful as a fighting priest, and Robin Kingsland fully shows the oiliness of the hero's gangster brother. If John Forgeham makes the mob head a bit of a cartoon, he has clearly been directed to do so, and it works. The only weak link is Coral Beed's performance as the love interest, and it is a tribute to Berkoff's vision and the ensemble playing that she does not seriously harm the powerful overall effect.
Gerald Berkowitz

Out of Your Knowledge Pleasance
Your appreciation of this play, I suspect, depends largely on your interest in the 18th century poet John Clare, or alternatively the romantic idea of rural England. That said, playwright Steve Waters and actor Patrick Morris's passion for these subjects is possibly unrivalled. In 2006 the two even took a walk tracing Clare's footsteps originally taken in 1841 between Epping Forest and Northborough. Clare was on the run from an asylum to which he had been confined and was forced to sleep rough and eat grass to survive. Waters and Morris, on the other hand, appear to have been driven slightly to the brink by their walking experience itself. Their dramatic account of the walk in Morris's nimble rendition, accompanied by Denise Neapolitan's folksy fiddle, is laced with a sediment of anger, curiosity, romantic yearning and profound disappointment. At times the show seems as testing and tiring as the hikers' own pursuit. However, if you don't happen to share either of their passions even to the minimal extent, you are unlikely to be drawn into this piece. Duska Radosavljevic

Oxford Revue Underbelly
Hurrah! At last an Oxbridge revue fit to stand in the company of the golden years of two and three decades ago! After several years in the doldrums, both Cambridge (see our review elsewhere) and Oxford have come up with their best shows in ages, and Oxford is the better. For one thing, they're not afraid to assume that their audience has some intelligence and needn't be played down to. The opening sketch is entirely in French, as a couple turn a plume-de-ma-tante type textbook exercise (le hamster de ma mere) into a scene of Gallic passion. There's a Rudyard Kipling parody, a Sherlock Holmes sketch, a Shakespearean scene that keeps morphing into the lyrics of kids' TV themes. Of course it isn't all intellectual, as Harry Potter, radio phone-ins and the suspicion that Welsh is a made-up language get their look-in. If recent years have made you wonder why Oxbridge revues had such mythic status, this first-rate edition will show you. Gerald Berkowitz

Paperweight Assembly
A site-specific work that is almost a living art installation, Paperweight is a nightmarish look at office life set in an actual (disused) office in the Assembly building, with a small audience crammed into the corners of the room to watch as the two men played by Tom Frankland and Sebastien Lawson go through their brain-deadening routine until one of them finally snaps. Everything that happens is recognisable to anyone who has ever worked in an office, though perhaps not in so bald and concentrated a form - the entry in despair of facing another day, the small rituals of making your workspace your own, the grasping at any excuse to run an errand and leave your desk, the endless gossip about persons unseen, and above all the boredom. One criticism to make of this frequently very inventive and evocative hour is that the company (which also includes director Jamie Wood) have not fully solved the problem of staging boredom without being boring, and there are tedious stretches. Another is that the play rather clumsily shifts gears from condensed and enhanced realism to fantasy and absurdism as the nightmare approaches its explosion. In short, this is a case of many brilliant isolated moments in a show that cannot sustain their level, or even a continuity of tone and style, throughout. Gerald Berkowitz

The Patriot Act Gilded Balloon
A man of principle is pressured by a repressive society into saving his skin by selling his soul, but is strengthened at the last moment by the need to be true to himself and by a reconciliation with his estranged son. It sounds like a lost play by Arthur Miller, and this new drama by Lydia Bruce and Sandy Burns is openly a hommage to the American master, not just by making their hero a Miller-like playwright but by openly alluding both to Miller's own tangles with the infamous Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and to his plays All My Sons and The Crucible. Set in the present, this fictional playwright has run afoul of American antiterrorist laws by writing a play critical of the Iraq war. He's offered the chance to save himself from Guantanamo by writing a pro-administration play and letting himself be displayed as a reformed sinner who has seen the light. As directed by Adam Zahler, Will Lyman quietly underplays, letting us see the internal struggles with temptation but also the inner strength that will eventually triumph. Darri Johnson-Colton has some warm scenes as his wife, while Robert Pemberton as the temptor from Washington and Richard Arum as the right-wing son struggle to flesh out characters written as near-cartoons. Gerald Berkowitz

Pebbles on the Beach Pleasance
One big pleasure of the Fringe is the chance to discover talented writers at or near the start of their careers. Pebbles On The Beach is a flawed play, but Joanna Pinto is a real playwright, and you happily look past the moments of stumbling for the delight of hearing a fresh voice in the process of finding its full power. A young man stands on Brighton beach considering his past and future as figures from his thoughts and memories come alive in a stream-of-consciousness disorder. He finds himself having conversations with the mother who gave him up for adoption even though they've never met, and the memory of his first meeting with his girlfriend morphs for just a line or two into a parallel later encounter and then back again. As a painful memory of being hurt by another is frequently followed, without his willing it, by a scene he now sees as his own unconscious cruelty, the general pattern that develops is one of forgiving others and himself. There's ultimately an explanation for all this, and one of the play's small weaknesses is that it is telegraphed long in advance. (Another is that each scene takes a little too long to make its point and goes on a little too long after making it.) But the power of the play lies in Pinto's confident manipulation of time and levels of reality to reflect a believable thought process and an engaging and involving drama. Gerald Berkowitz

Pericles Redux Pleasance
You might be forgiven for mistaking the opening of this show for Macbeth. Three bald-headed figures clad in black robes accost and hoist up the apparent hero of our piece - a lone figure, standing before his sails and surveying the expanse ahead - and after a brief dancing overture, the threesome proceed to play a game of dice. They do in fact represent the ancient deities of the Fates controlling Pericles' odyssey through Shakespeare's Grecian narrative, which will also remind us of elements of Winter's Tale and Cymbeline. Adapted and choreographed by John Farmanesh-Bocca, this version of Pericles capitalises on the original's fairy-tale features and its potential for visual display. Particularly colourful are the tournament of the knights in Pentapolis and the brothel in Mitylene, although both verge on the burlesque rather than the balletic. Despite being marketed as a piece of dance - potentially reminiscent in its iconography of what we might have come to expect to be thoughtful, sombre and intense renditions of strong aesthetic values - this Californian physical theatre production opts for a fusion of muscularity, humour and verse of varying standards. Duska Radosavljevic

Phantomysteria Old College Quad
It may be that the title of this show sounds more exciting than the actual spectacle behind it, but then again last year's open air Macbeth on stilts at the Old College Quad is a tough act to follow. Phantomysteria too is a combination of pyrotechnics and movement-based theatre which opens with Carmina Burana and culminates with fireworks (although in this case the latter is confined to a single meaningful shot), which brings back memories of communist spectacles celebrating the post-WW2 triumph over evil. By putting elements of circus and dance into the equation, the internationally acclaimed Russian-Czech company Teatr Novogo Fronta manage to re-invent this form to a certain extent by creating an intriguing interrogation of the post-communist era and the new manifestations of injustice, disillusionment and continued suffering all around the world. Being an old piece of the company's repertoire, the show seems to have lost a bit of the zest it might have had in its heyday. Even though by the end hell appears to freeze over in this sporadically stunning production, Ale÷ Janik, Irina Andrejeva and Yurij Gertsman's creation will beguile and entertain but will never let you imagine that that's all there is to it. Duska Radosavljevic

The Picture of Dorian Gray Playhouse
Following a series of sensational reworkings of famous ballets in the 1990s, over the last few years Matthew Bourne has turned his attention to dance-theatre adaptations of other kinds of narratives, including even Tim Burton's cult movie Edward Scissorhands in 2005. This time Bourne picks the much beloved 19th century literary classic to explore ideas of physical beauty, moral ugliness and the destructive nature of celebrity in contemporary society. Seeing Bourne's slick, sophisticated and sexy creation one can't help wondering how nobody else has thought of the idea sooner. Small adjustments are necessary to make the narrative work within Bourne's chosen context of the fashion advertising industry, but Wilde's themes of narcissism, rapacity and eventual demise of a dazzling anti-hero are all effortlessly contained by this adaptation. Some interesting plausibility-enhancing interventions include the substitution of Lord Henry Wotton by Lady H - an ultra-elegant Anna Wintour-type figure - and the introduction of a male ballet dancer in the place of Wilde's Juliet-playing ingenue Sybil Vane. Apart from making a comment on the ever-evolving gender balance, these interventions also serve the requirements of the form. The obligatory dream sequence pas de deux is thus the result of Dorian Gray (Richard Winsor)'s fantasy while watching Cyril Vane (Christopher Marney)'s enticing performance as Romeo, before he proceeds to destroy him. The evening as a whole abounds in truly beautiful stage imagery, be it dancing, sets or designer underwear, all complemented by Terry Davies's funky, atmospheric and sometimes counterpointedly lyrical score. But in addition, Bourne's adaptation never lacks the wit of the original. Admittedly in this case, it is the non-verbal pacey satirical asides that replace Wildean literary puns, which are nonetheless equally effective. So, sex, drugs and Jonathan Ross form some of the quirky references in this piece which will delight by catching you unawares. The thing about Matthew Bourne is that he never puts a foot wrong, and this time he steps into an exciting new territory of sumptuous satirical dance-making which surely we've all been waiting for. Duska Radosavljevic

P. I. E. Pleasance
One of the first jokes in this private eye spoof is 'I was working on a case, because I didn't have a desk' and later there is a gag about taxidermy fraud. And those are the high spots in this thoroughly disappointing show by the previously reliable Moonhag. Writer-performers Emma Betteridge and Liz Hague meander half-heartedly through an underwritten and under-rehearsed hour whose plot twists are as random as they are unfunny, and neither their spoken dialogue, the recorded voiceovers of their thoughts, the attempts at playing second and third characters each, or anything that is said or done works as comedy, parody or satire. Betteridge and Hague have taken the idea for a possible bit of a sketch show and, instead of dumping it when they couldn't find five minutes of comic material there, instead stretched it to an interminable hour. Gerald Berkowitz

Plague - The Musical C venue
This is what you come to the Fringe for - a show that sounds like a really bad idea and then surprises you with its wit, inventive staging and all-round fun. A musical comedy about the plague, with characters including giant rats, the pied piper, a mad alchemist and Death herself ought to be a non-starter, but Matthew Townend and David Massingham capture exactly the right spirit of Panto-like silliness to make it a delight. Porl Matthews plays a country lad come to London, where he is befriended by Tim Frost's apprentice undertaker and falls for the dark beauty played by Catriana Sandison. Meanwhile, plots and counterplots by the undertaker, the alchemist and some mutant rats make the body count rise until the overworked Death has had enough. The songs are all witty and lightly self-mocking, from the opening salute to the glories and horrors of London through the mock-dramatic Nail Down The Coffin Of Your Past. Jill Hamilton's choreography makes a virtue out of a modest budget and small stage, Robert Massingham's colourful projections add to the cartoon feel, and everyone onstage actually seems to be having as much fun as the audience.
Gerald Berkowitz

The Plan Gilded Balloon
In this solo show Lynn Ferguson imagines Death to be a bored civil servant, stuck at a desk, marking down the day's count as news of accidents and killings comes over the radio. To fill the time and show us how boring her routine is, she picks entries at random and acts them out - an airheaded girl going in for a breast enlargement and wondering if she should have mentioned her problems with anaesthetics, a DIY guy sure he doesn't need to pay an electrician to fix that light. Balancing these comic turns are more touching ones, like the terminally ill woman peacefully letting go of life. The most extended piece is a potential play in itself, a woman whose life story quietly and inexorably leads toward a particular end. The hour is not only a showcase for the breadth and versatility of Ferguson's writing and acting, but also has moments - comic and tragic - that are likely to haunt the memory long after you leave the theatre. Gerald Berkowitz

Pornography Traverse
Simon Stephens' play is made up of seven independent scenes which he says can be played in any order, and director Sean Holmes has chosen to interweave them. He has also edited it to make less overt than in the printed text the element that the seven stories have in common - that they all involve people tangentially affected or oddly unaffected by the London tube bombings of July 2005. And so, as we watch the schoolboy gradually exposing how deeply disturbed he is, or the university lecturer making a fool of himself over a former student, or the office worker taking petty revenge on the job she hates, it is only as their stories approach an ending, and as we realise that the young man describing his journey into town is one of the bombers, that we realise that what we've watched means that someone is going to take a tube train she ordinarily wouldn't have and someone else is going to miss a train she usually would have taken and someone else is hardly going to notice because something much more personal and immediate is going on in his life, and so on. It is a skilled and sensitive way of dealing with a powerful subject indirectly, and if onstage it isn't quite as clear and coherent as I've made it sound, it takes shape as it lingers in your memory long afterward. Gerald Berkowitz

Potency Edinburgh Sports Centre
Performed in an actual squash court in a sports centre somewhere in the wilds of darkest Edinburgh, Michael J. Flexer's two-hander makes literal the oft-invoked equation of sport, war and macho posturing as the two characters score psychological and emotional points off each other as they play. A reporter interviewing a war contractor meets him on a squash court, where he makes her play as they talk. Unsurprisingly, he uses the implied and actual violence of the game to intimidate her, and unsurprisingly, she proves a more formidable player than he expected. Indeed, once the basic plot premise is established, the specific cause of his antagonism being an almost irrelevant McGuffin, there is not a great deal that is original about the play, whose strength lies in the two performances. Amanda Wright and Christopher Ashman not only meet the technical challenges of acting while playing squash, scoring and losing points on cue, and conquering the acoustics of a space not used to more than the occasional grunt. Wright makes the reporter's mask of uncertainty and revelation of hidden strength both believable, while Ashman embodies both coiled threat and open rage.
Gerald Berkowitz

Potted Potter - The Unauthorized Harry Potter Experience Pleasance (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
It's an absolute gift of a show: an hour's whizz through the first six of JK Rowling's Harry Potter books plus tantalizing preview snippets of the latest, seventh and final release. And judging by the delighted reaction of the packed house, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner are doing their subject justice, if ever so slightly irreverently. Dan (the clever dumb one) and Jeff (the dumb clever one) had planned a dazzling array of stars to come on and play all the characters for us. The problem is that Dan has spent all the money on creating the Dragon (Book 4). Jeff is incensed but decides to carry on with the show regardless. What follows is deliciously loopy as the hapless duo attempt to recreate key characters and scenes from Hogwarts using an endless supply of ordinary household props and assorted members of the audience. Is Dumbledore's prophecy (Book 5) really a scene from Little Britain? Are the Dementors (Book 3) and Snape (Book 6) good or evil? Will a basilisk fang kill Riddle's Diary (Book 2)? Will Ron stop talking like a bad rapper (Book 1) innit? Will Dan ever get his game of quidditch? How many puns can they get out of the word muggles? And will Jeff ever get to see the Dragon? The audience (mainly very grown-up kids over 20 it seems!) know the books back to front, and Dan and Jeff more than meet the challenge of finding an original take on the Potter oeuvre. Funny and gloriously unpredictable, this is one of those rare great nights out for all the family. Nick Awde

A Real Humane Person Who Cares And All That Hill Street
Adam Brace's short play is about culture clash, about responsibility, about the remnants of colonial thinking even in the twenty-first century, and about the romantic and marital problems of some of its characters. That divided purpose, along with some awkward dramaturgy and uneven acting, keeps it from being fully successful. In an unnamed country run largely by criminal gangs, a trio of British visitors are kidnapped, and both the embassy and a local British businessman seem unable to save them. The crisis leads to debates on cultural imperialism, differing definitions of loyalty and the greatest good for the greatest number, and it also puts strains on personal relationships. But Brace sometimes devotes more attention to the soap opera digressions - in addition to some essentially irrelevant love affairs, one character is arbitrarily made blind - than to the subject at hand, and he has clumsily built the play on flashbacks within flashbacks. The necessity of having three actors each triple roles adds to the awkwardness and confusion, especially as one of them plays all his three roles identically, so that it takes a while in each scene to figure out who's who and where we are in the chronology. Gerald Berkowitz

St Nicholas Assembly
He is a cliche of a theatre critic - conceited, opinionated, cynical, miserable, middle-aged and prone to alcoholism. He commands respect and enjoys a lease of guiltless wielding of power, until, that is, an innocent accident leads to his succumbing to an instance of a simple romantic infatuation with a young beautiful actress playing Salome. Conor McPherson's play about a critic rediscovering the price of having a conscience is by now a venerable classic of the solo show circuit. Capitalising on the writer's gift for traditionally captivating storytelling, the monologue is an interesting mixture of genres including romance, ghost story and parable, but with a modern twist evocative of several contemporary cult movies. Interview with the Vampire and Eyes Wide Shut both come to mind in relation to this story, which however in Peter Dineen's rendition remains conventionally theatrical. He might lack some of the zest that would have originally accompanied the account of such an inimitable string of adventures that our storyteller has got to impart, but the strength of the writing itself is still capable of carrying him through. Duska Radosavljevic

Saving Tania's Privates Pleasance Dome
'I'd love to see your scars' may be an unusual pick-up line, but Tania Katan's piece about a very young woman's battle with failed relationships and cancer certainly makes it into a most touching declaration of love. Without giving too much of her own story away, perhaps it's additionally illuminating to say that Katan is also lesbian, Jewish and a very talented writer and performer. Her solo show is peopled with an array of quirky characters from family members and former lovers to an impressive variety of doctors and nurses. What is more, this is also a fast-paced, energetic and consistently entertaining account of one person's story of survival, with the individual levels of humour, insight and poignancy subtly and masterfully pitched by Katan's director Carys Kresny. Confessional theatre as a genre usually mostly requires empathy and understanding from its audience. Not so with this show, for what Katan instils and inspires by the end of it is an incredible sense of courage and a faith in true love. And that's before she's even showed us her scars. Duska Radosavljevic

Scaramouche Jones Assembly
Justin Butcher wrote this monologue a decade ago to be performed successfully by others, but now he himself plays the 100-year-old clown on the eve of the Millennium, whose dark and comic memoirs are unforcedly a survey of Twentieth Century history. Imagining him born in the West Indies to a Gypsy mother and unknown English father alludes to the remnants of 19th-century colonialism, taking him to Africa and then the Middle East lets his path obliquely touch figures from T. E. Lawrence to Haile Selassie. As a Gypsy passing through Poland in the 1930s he ends up in a concentration camp, where his attempts to distract frightened children fulfil his calling as a clown. None of this is forced or heavy, and the character is so fully drawn, both in the lush and expressive writing and in Butcher's vital and rounded performance, that the imagined biography is engrossing even without the historical context. Employing many nice small touches, such as the way the veteran performer unconsciously transfers bits of comic business into his offstage behaviour or the way his natural movements have become fluid, almost balletic, Butcher captures both the man's inexhaustible energy and his pathos. Gerald Berkowitz

Shakespeare for Breakfast C Venue
It must be more than 20 years ago that a student group found themselves with an empty time slot and threw together a Shakespearean pastiche, luring punters in with free coffee and croissants. It's now probably the longest-running Fringe staple, new each year and always a delightful way to start a Festival day. The premise, as always, is throwing together characters from different plays and having them and their catch phrases bounce off each other comically. This year a bit of misdirected Prospero magic traps Romeo, Juliet and the Macbeths in TV hell, where their love lives are complicated on Eastenders, their pet quotations are inadequate answers on The Weakest Link, and Lady M proves a natural team leader on The Apprentice. And don't miss the game of Twister (Lady M, two hands red) at the start. It's all very silly, all very inventive, and all fun. And the croissants, as always, are excellent. Gerald Berkowitz

Shakespod C Venue
To make a collage with an entirely new storyline out of various scenes and lines from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets is by no means a novel idea. To fuse Shakespeare and rap or techno has already been done before. But to put together Shakespeare's verse, ipods and the 1968 student revolution in Paris seems really unexpected and relatively inspired. For a start, one can easily see how the street riots might have been conducive to such scenes as the fight between Romeo and Mercutio or how this might have led to a love across the divide. Jeffrey Bracco makes exactly this kind of fusion the centrepiece of his Shakespearean collage which also conveniently culminates with a court-scene at the end. Apart from Romeo and Juliet, his key sources are As You Like It and Measure for Measure, although he also raids A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet for their romantic potential. In fact over 20 plays and sonnets find their way into this ipod shuffle. With another four Lecoq trained colleagues from the English-speaking world, Bracco resolves to thus bring Shakespeare closer to younger generations and, judging by the reactions of his young audiences on the day of my attendance, he seems to have come a long way. Duska Radosavljevic

Shoppers Without Borders Gilded Balloon
American Erin Donovan writes and performs this solo show about the adventures of an American named Erin Donovan, a role that appears at times to be outside her range as an actress. The manic California airhead she creates never becomes real or funny and is something of a strain to be in the company of, and audience walkouts begin within five minutes.. Her story, which ultimately has very little to do with shopping, involves a few other characters, and the performer has trouble keeping the various voices consistent or separate so that, for example, her English boyfriend occasionally sounds Australian, occasionally New York Jewish and occasionally just like Erin, while the fictional Erin is likely to slip into his accent in their scenes together. It is their living together and plans for marriage that the monologue is really about, with her habit of maxing out all her credit cards merely a passing side issue while the central complication is what the author considers the hilarious problem of keeping from her parents the news that she was married and divorced before. Those who remain in the audience sit quietly and applaud perfunctorily at the end of this hour that was evidently a big hit in Los Angeles but has not travelled well. Gerald Berkowitz

Sister Cities Gilded Balloon
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is an illness which causes muscles to degenerate completely and rather rapidly while leaving the brain fully functional and intact. In her play about an ageing dancer afflicted by the condition, Colette Freedman uses a rather powerful theatrical simile for it by having a character pull the legs off a spider and see it suffer by not being able to move. The focus of the play, however, is on the collateral victims of the disease, the sufferer's offspring, and on their familial duties, bonds and issues of genetic heritage. Featuring elements of both Chekhov and sit-com - with the protagonists being four sisters named after their birth-cities, Sex and the City comes to mind rather easily - Freedman's play is intriguing but also self-consciously literary, witty and inherently open to many dramaturgical questions. My main one would be why, at a key point, it had to be razors rather than, say, sleeping pills. However, with so many one-person shows on the Fringe, and so few plays for women, it is certainly refreshing to stumble into a show brimming with so much lingerie. Duska Radosavljevic

66A Church Road Traverse
66A Church Road is a love story, featuring a man and a ramshackle flat in Crystal Palace. The metaphor works surprisingly well, best seen by comparing the property to an imperfect, married lover, on the basis that it is falling apart and rented. With his unkempt hair and beard and thick black-framed glasses, Daniel Kitson looks like an Open University lecturer from the 1970s. He talks like one too with a regional accent, lisp and occasional stutter that seem miles away from the average Edinburgh performer. His 90 minute performance is an epic of the ordinary, somewhere between a stand-up comic and a presenter on Jackanory, supported as it is by piles of luggage, adapted like mini dolls houses to illustrate voice overs about a real love story. Kitson develops the piece cleverly from the early attempts to find a home, through the acceptance of imperfections, battles with the flat's builder-owner and the agonies of trying to buy leading to a final departure. Eventually, the story lasts just a little too long but was greatly appreciated by a packed late-night Traverse 1 audience. Philip Fisher

Slick Traverse
Attempts to stretch the theatrical vocabulary fail more often than they succeed, so it is a delight to discover the company called Vox Motus, who not only do something new, but also generate a lot of fun doing it. Actually, you may have seen their basic device before, in very small doses - an actor's head placed atop a small dummy to create a kind of human puppet, with the performer manipulating the feet and another, standing behind him, reaching around to provide the little person's hands. The result is inherently funny and inherently fragile, and I would not have believed that the joke could be extended beyond a quick sketch. To tell the truth, ninety minutes may be beyond the device's limit, but for a very good part of that length Slick is both inventive and fun to watch. The plot has to do with a nine-year-old boy whose lazy and self-centred parents have no use for him until their toilet suddenly starts spouting crude oil and they can exploit him to do all the work of pumping and selling it, while also coping with their evil landlord and his obscene hag of a mother. With at least two performers co-operating in the creation of each character, it is up to the heads to mug, project and play very broadly. On that level Jordan Young as the resourceful and all-suffering kid and Cora Bissett as the dreadful old lady stand out. But the others - Angela Darcy, Robert Jack and Mark Prendergast - must also be credited, not just for their own characterisations but for their lend-a-hand contributions to each other's. Gerald Berkowitz

The Straight Man Pleasance Dome
In order to marry the woman he loves, young Jewish doctor Simon Kaye brings his flatmate Shaun to a Sabbath meal at his parents' home and introduces him as his boyfriend, in the hope that when he actually breaks the news of his engagement to a non-Jewish girl, the shock of it will be more bearable. The third show by the guy incognito writing partnership, Matt Greene and Darren Richman, is quite simply as exciting and fun-filled as its premise seems to suggest. Brimming with memorable quips and quotable one-liners, it is also plentiful in the unexpected twists department. Traditional stereotypes meet cartoon caricatures in and around the Kaye family, as they try to figure out the meaning of love, freedom and happiness. However, as the day of Simon's wedding comes near, things are very different from what he had hoped would be the case. Book your seats early as this show is selling fast, and judging by their promising talent, Greene and Richman won't be hanging around the fringe for too long. Duska Radosavljevic

Surviving Spike Assembly
The choice of Michael Barrymore to play Spike Milligan has certainly thrown the spotlight on to this new play by Richard Harris, best known for Outside Edge and Stepping Out. Barrymore has had his own problems but so did the man whom he portrays so well. Spike Milligan might have been a comic genius but he was also a manic depressive who could drive anyone to distraction. The one woman who survived the impossible treatment was Norma Farnes, first his secretary and then after yet another bust-up, his manager and agent too. This Yorkshirewoman combined great toughness with empathy in a 36 year partnership, being far closer to Milligan even than his "tall and statuesque" wife, Paddy (portrayed by the tiny Elizabeth Price). That may be in part because she was detached from the womanising and the worst of the antics. Jill Halfpenny from Simply Come Dancing plays Norma on whose book Spike: An Intimate Memoir the script is based. This is a warts and all portrait that shows an unbelievably generous man who loved his (legitimate) children but also made irrational decisions and when life got too much retreated to an asylum in Friern Barnet. By the end, Barrymore, who perfectly catches the Goon's gaunt look and mannerisms, persuades his audience that they know a little more about a man whom it is reasonable to assume they idolised anyway. Richard Harris's play pulls some punches but that is to be expected and he allows his star to tell a few jokes and present a brief Spike routine to endure that the punters go home happy. Philip Fisher

Isy Suttle Pleasance
Like the shy girl at the party who picks up a guitar and surprises everyone by singing not all that badly, Isy Suttle presents a low-key hour of character comedy and songs that is quite nice, actually, but not memorable. A loose narrative lets her introduce several characters, each of whom does a song or two, the contexts and juxtapositions being part of the joke. A posh lady of the manor attempts a song on safety for schoolkids, a Liverpool hairdresser sings her mother's advice on marrying well, a grizzled jazz guitarist sings a cooking recipe. In between, Suttle reads part of a romance novel she wrote at age twelve, reminds us how boring other people can be when they tell you their dreams, and imagines a young boy who quite wrongly believes himself an all-round talent. Her range as a singer is limited, particularly in the higher notes, and her comic material is not inherently strong. The fragile hour is carried over its weak moments by the quirkiness of her characters and Suttle's own hard-to-resist cheery charm. Gerald Berkowitz

Sword of Maximum Damage Underbelly
Adam Riches' short play examines the world of obsessive (is there any other kind?) fantasy game players with a sometimes uneasy mix of satire and serious melodrama. At a national championship of a Dungeons-and-Dragons-type game, the reigning champion is beginning to have the blasphemous thoughts that this is just a game and having a real life might be nice. This shakes up the other players just enough that they begin to notice the world outside the game, a couple making tentative steps toward a sweet little romance. It also weakens the champ's concentration enough that the fully-committed challenger gets the game advantage until a last-minute burst of inspiration and some lucky dice throwing gain the victory, enraging the loser to the point of real-world madness and mayhem. The play's wavering tone, from ironic distance to serious regard for the characters' psychological health and real-world emotions, weakens the effect a bit, so the violent climax may be too abruptly shocking or taken as over-the-top comedy. But at its best, the play does give some insight into the temptations of game playing for players who are not necessarily the stereotyped nerdy losers. Gerald Berkowitz

The Tailor of Inverness Assembly
Meet Mateusz Zajac. Gentle yet dynamic, bright and cheerful yet explosively temperamental, ponderous yet given to singing and dancing, he is a spinner of yarns and a tailor with a difference. A Polish immigrant, settled in Scotland since 1948, he is also a devoted husband and father and a successful businessman - by all the standards of his own time, a respectable and honourable man. But is he who he says he is? Nestling between such classics as Sophie's Choice and Secrets and Lies, Matthew Zajac's story of uncovering the truth about his father is full of contradictions: both familiar and unpredictable, challenging yet funny, epic but also profoundly moving. Immersed at the deep end of raw emotion, family history and life-changing discovery, Zajac is at times overly ambitious with how much he can fit into 75 minutes, but he has a fine collaborator in Grid Iron's director Ben Harrison, who helps to shape his creation. As a result, at present, their own tailoring is more about the stitching than the cutting, but even though at times their piece comes across as a patchwork quilt-dressing coat rather than a piece of catwalk couture, it is warm and comforting and colourful and carries heart-rending poems in hidden pockets, and you should definitely try it on. Duska Radosavljevic

Terminus Traverse
Like Conor McPherson, playwright Mark O'Rowe creates a world out of essentially unrelated monologues, only not as well. Like Martin McDonagh he creates a kind of poetry out of almost comically excesive gore and violence, only not as well. And unlike either, he employs the rhythms, internal rhymes and near-rhymes of rap poets, though without the accompanying music to give them energy. The result is a frequently impressive tour de force of writing that is less successful as a piece of theatre, unable to sustain its strengths through what feels like an excessive length. Under O'Rowe's direction, his three speakers never interact or acknowledge each other, even though their separate stories will become intertwined. A Samaritan worker's impulse to seek out one of her callers takes her into a world of frightening casual violence. A lonely man sells his soul in a typically unsuccessful bargain that leaves him a remorseless serial killer. And a girl falls from a high place only to be saved by supernatural intervention that introduces her to the ecstacies of true love. Insights are offered about the power and limits of love, the inescapability of fate and the dark ironies of life, though they could almost certainly have been made more efficiently. Andrea Irvine, Karl Shiels and Eileen Walsh succeed far greater than you might expect in creating living characters out of monologue. Gerald Berkowitz

The Third Condiment Zoo
In this clever satire by Ben and Charlie Brafman, one of a trio of vaguely nerdy blokes stumbles on a cheap-to-make flavour-enhancing ingredient, and rather than setting out to make millions, they decide to commit themselves to Fair-Trade and ploughing the profits back into third world projects. But bringing in a team of foxy female PR experts and a millionaire investor complicates their humanitarian instincts. Inevitably they discover that their partners have somewhat corrupted their vision, and they are left with the quandary of exposing them or carrying on with the less-than-perfect but still significant good works they're accomplishing. The play's serious criticisms are its weakest aspects, and it scores best in its satire of PR and corporate jargon and in the light comedy of the romances that develop among the partners. Polly Keane does more than you might think possible with a dumb blonde character, while Clare Salter finds softer humour in her more sensible sister. Ben Bloom, Tom Pinny and Sam Morris distinguish nicely among the three blokes while making each comic, and Charlie Eccleshare accepts the fact that the millionaire is a cartoon and runs with it. Both comedy and satire peter out before the end, and some judicious cutting could only strengthen the play. Gerald Berkowitz

This Must Be the Place Roxburghe Hotel
If you happen to be an insomniac, you might be well advised to go and see this piece. Not only does it bring together three characters suffering from the same affliction, but it might actually succeed in sending you to sleep. Donnchadh O'Conaill's explicitly literary piece concerns a novelist, Richard, a 'metaphysical hypochondriac' who has spent six years on the same story only to discover that he 'wrote in order to find something to say'. As self-involved as that, indeed, and delivered in an unhelpful and dislikeable monotone. The monologue, which features brief appearances from two other characters, seems to encapsulate a very naive view of what constitutes a dramatic text - one that is most likely derived from bad radio dramatisations. Despite Oscar Blustin's attempts to elevate the piece to some level of significance to an outside audience, featuring an interesting use of reading lights for example, a lot of it leaves us entirely in the dark. Duska Radosavljevic

365 Edinburgh Playhouse
David Harrower's new play for the National Theatre of Scotland attempts to depict the complicated and danger-filled experience of children raised in care as they approach adulthood and independence, but it is unable to do justice to its worthy subject or provide a coherent and satisfying evening of theatre. A programme note brags that Harrower delivered less than a third of the script in July and that the rehearsal period was filled with writing and rewriting. While sometimes this might produce immediate and vital theatre, in this case the end product, despite occasional effective moments, is shapeless, repetitive, generally uncommunicative and sometimes opaque. The problem is that the play has one thing to say - that the kids are all damaged in unique and different ways that a system built on labels and pigeonholes can't fully cope with. It says that quite effectively in the first few moments as we watch a string of young people enter their first independent living - a nervous and frightened boy, an angry and demanding girl, and so forth. But then, faced with another two hours to fill, the author can find little to do but say it again (yet more examples of unhappy kids) and again (a questionnaire they all answer differently) and again, while director Vicky Featherstone resorts to staging inventions that seem designed more to distract than to illuminate, and choreographer Steven Hoggett stages dance sequences that are lovely to watch but opaque in relevance. Some moments do resonate, as when two girls seek out the mothers from whom they were taken as children and find answers that only pain them more, or when a boy being jerked about by the system is literally jerked around on a wire like a drunken Peter Pan. It may be that the subject was too big to be encapsulated in a play, or that these were not the people to attempt it, or that David Harrower really should have finished his script a little earlier. In any case, what could have been the theatrical high point of the International Festival is a disappointment.
Gerald Berkowitz

The Time Step Pleasance
Grandma was an amateur performer, proud of all her third places and honourable mentions in local competitions. Daughter is even less successful at singing and dancing, and now the three-year-old is being groomed to follow in the family obsession as a performer in the Shirley Temple mode, despite the complication of being a boy. Matthew Hurt's new play (which also includes the man in both women's lives) seems to be striving toward psychological insights and philosophical observations - there are as many references to Nazi torturers as to Shirley Temple - that it just doesn't deliver, and the result is a far-too-thin story that rarely rises even to the level of soap opera. Directors Linda Marlowe and Josie Lawrence have been unable to flesh out the material, giving the effect of leaving their cast - Marlowe herself, Marnie Baxter and Gavin Marshall - stranded on an empty stage with the occasionally panicked look of actors who really hoped at the start of the project that there would be more to this script than there has turned out to be. The one inventive touch has the child played by a puppet manipulated in turn by the live actors, but playwright, directors or performers would have to dig a lot deeper to find the study in obsession and fantasy that the play wants to be. Gerald Berkowitz

Tony! The Blair Musical Pleasance (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
Tony Blair can retire secure in the knowledge that there are two musicals in town celebrating his rise and fall at Westminster. This one promises 'ten years of Labour rule in just one hour'. Tony has a vision (Lady Di with angel wings) that he's going to be a star. Like Evita Peron, he meets various people along the way who help him to the top, only to neglect, betray or fall out with them. Aside from the usual Downing Street crew, George W Bush makes a couple of appearances as do Jeremy Paxman and that sexed-up dossier. As Blair, James Duckworth looks and sounds the part down to the smallest tic and proves this is no surface impression by creating an unexpectedly sympathetic figure on all counts. Strong-voiced Ellie Cox avoids any unnecessary caricature of the already uncaricaturable Cherie and so convinces as the discarded wife with touching ballads such as 'Haven't We Done Well' In strong support, although perhaps less so in voice, are Jethro Compton as Tony's new love Peter Mandelson, Ed Duncan Smith as Alastair Campbell - cue their celeb duet 'I Want You to be a Man of the People' - Mike Slater as Gordon Brown and Alex Stevens as John Prescott, who all acquit themselves well. Despite the four-piece band, the arrangements are low key, which is probably a good thing since any more would detract from the songs, which are more lyric-based (by Chris Bush) than thumping melodies (by Ian McCluskey). The highlight has to be the barber shop quartet of forgotten Tory party leaders, and it's amazing how many words rhyme with 'Blair'. Despite its relative complexity, as with its model Evita - hardly the most perfect of works - the show over-concentrates on the central character of Tony and reduces the interesting personalities in his life to near cyphers solely to provide colour and contrast. While that makes for some great torch songs, it robs the show of the chance of a resounding climax as well as any real connection with the hurly-burly world of politics. Nick Awde

Luke Toulson Pleasance
With surprising good cheer, Luke Toulson bewails the fact that a life that includes dyslexia, a period in hell as a supply teacher, and a six-year-old son with a more interesting romantic life than his now culminates in performing in an Edinburgh cellar. Toulson may not be a star, but his unflaggingly upbeat delivery and audience rapport make for a pleasant hour. His best material takes familiar topics into unexpected directions, such as his theories of why hoodies cause trouble, what happens to all the confiscated toiletries at airports, how the Fringe got started and, having been slated by a critic for one too many rape jokes, just how many are the requisite number. A Scot-off, in which he challenges audience members to beat his impressions of Connery and Connolly, is funny whether he wins or loses, and he has a nice line in self-depreciating ad libs to carry him through slow moments. Toulson has not yet found the voice or material that will make him stand out from the crowd, but his personality and natural ease may carry him until he does.
Gerald Berkowitz

The Two Widows Festival Theatre
The Scottish Opera's production of Smetana's light romantic tale captures all the comedy and adds some of its own, while doing full justice to the music. Smetana's final version is used, with recitatives and the peasant couple, and is performed in English with surtitles, which only the extraordinarily precise diction of David Pomeroy's Ladislav make redundant, everyone else suffering to a greater or lesser degree from opera singer's vowels. In this fable of a jolly widow tricking her more staid counterpart into rejoining life and accepting a wooer, it is Kate Valentine as Karolina whose sprightly good humour sets the tone and carries much of the evening, while Jane Irwin's Anezka gets most of the musical highlights, notably her lovely 'Loving words and tender' duet with Pomeroy and particularly her later aria of loneliness and jealousy. So strong, indeed, is the latter and such a contrast to the light comedy around it, that it almost seems to come out of a different opera. Stage directors Tobias Hoheisel and Imogen Kogge add to the comic tone with inventive bits of business including a mirror whose reflections take on a life of their own, a dance that gives one of the lighter quartets a Gilbert and Sullivan feel, and a lot of sly touches to Nicholas Folwell's clownish Mumlal. Their only failing is in squeezing the overlarge chorus onto the stage in any attractive or coherent way. Francesco Corti conducts the Orchestra of the Scottish Opera with a light but energetic hand. Gerald Berkowitz

Vincent Assembly
This monologue in the voice of Vincent Van Gogh's brother Theo was written by actor Leonard Nimoy around 1970 for himself to perform in the days he was trying to break away from his Star Trek image. For the past dozen years Jim Jarrett has toured with the show, bringing to Edinburgh a highly polished and fully developed characterisation and presentation. Inspired by the fact that Theo oddly did not speak at Vincent's grave, Nimoy imagines him too overcome by grief then but driven to make up for it later, at an event that is openly a celebration of the artist's life and work. Theo's portrait of his brother is unabashedly adulatory, finding joy in all of Vincent's foibles, interpreting everything as a product of the intense experience in life that made him a great artist, and absolutely denying, notwithstanding all the evidence, that he ever was mad. Where Nimoy originally played Theo as a rather formal man lecturing sternly on the facts of Vincent's life, Jim Jarrett's Theo is defined by the joy of loving his brother and of having the opportunity to share that love. He has a smile on his face throughout, and roams the stage, delightedly picking up fragments of Vincent's letters here and there to illustrate the artist's total immersion in everything he did and felt, good or bad. Jarrett allows us to sense a state of denial in his speaker, as Theo brushes past the ear-cutting episode or Vincent's stay in an asylum a bit too glibly and tries to put a positive spin on the darkest periods in his brother's life, but that makes even stronger our sense of the brotherly love that is the real subject of the play. Jarrett is backed by projections of dozens of Vincent's paintings and drawings which, being undeniably works of genius, constantly threaten to upstage the actor, but his willingness to run that risk is a measure of his confidence in the power of his story and his performance.
Gerald Berkowitz

Vivien Radison Hotel
Writer/director/producer Samantha German's play follows film star Vivien Leigh from her height - Gone With The Wind and her marriage to Laurence Olivier - to the depths of her bipolar disease and broken life. The focus is throughout on the wreckage of her personal life, the drain her wild mood swings and neediness imposed on Olivier, leading him to welcome her open affair with Peter Finch, and the pain of long-time friend and final lover Jack Merivale. A serious flaw of the play is that we get no sense at all of Vivien the star, no hint of the qualities that made her radiant on screen but significantly weaker on stage. The cast of four make no attempt to imitate the originals or, with the partial exception of Ian Wych's Noel Coward and Peter Finch, even to hint at the right accent or body language. Maeve McClenaghan tends to play the manic Vivien closer to total hysteria, though she is stronger and quite touching in the quieter scenes of depression. Orlando James shows us nothing of Olivier's passion or hard-edgedness, and so comes across just as an anonymous businessman dealing with a minor annoyance. With Merivale the least known of the characters, Tom Copley can play generic devoted friend and make it work. But the play might just as well be about three nameless characters dealing with an equally anonymous troublesome fourth for all the insight or reality it brings to the portrait of Vivien Leigh. Gerald Berkowitz

War of the Worlds Baby Belly
This is the play of the album of the film of the book. Thirty years ago musician Jeff Wayne and adaptor Doreen Wayne turned H. G. Wells' Martian invasion story into a concept album with narration by Richard Burton. Now Fringe regular Pip Utton replaces both Burton and the album's singers in a fast-moving and intense solo performance to Wayne's musical track. Staging might be too strong a word for what Utton and director Jeremy Taylor have done, since Utton does move about the mainly bare stage a bit but mainly relies on his voice and body language to create the narrative and the narrator's emotions. The veteran of many solo shows, most self-written, Utton holds the stage with easy authority, and the fact that he is an actor-who-sings rather than a trained singer gives the songs a rough edge wholly appropriate to both the music and drama. I compared notes with others who saw different performances, and it seems an ongoing problem that Utton is badly served by his techies, with sound imbalance making the background music too frequently drown him out and light cues too often out of synch. Gerald Berkowitz

Mark Watson Pleasance
For the first few minutes of Mark Watson's show, you'll be faced with visibility issues. He's lurking at the back of the auditorium, warming up his audience by means of mumbling a protracted introduction and attempting an unnecessarily complicated clapping orchestration across the huge expanse of Pleasance Grand. He quickly reassures you, though, that you're not missing out on much, describing himself as a 'gangly unimpressive person to look at'. Once it starts, much of his show comes across as a string of associations produced by a hyperactive imagination and punctuated with a self-confessed tendency to blurt out inappropriate though painfully obvious statements. Welshman Watson is funny and likeable and capable of observational originality, which is why he is selling out massive houses already. To paraphrase the line that got me sold - he talks so much and so fast that you either feel you are getting value for money or if you don't happen to like a joke at least it's not long before the next one comes along. In every case, he is a real pro and a truly safe bet, and although his departure is equally protracted as his arrival, it is because he is indeed here to stay. Duska Radosavljevic

Weights Assembly
It is said that everyone has a story in them. Few though could be as dramatic as the life of Los Angelino, Lynn Manning. This man is clearly a tough nut and almost 30 years ago, at the age of 23, he beat a weaker man in a bar room brawl who returned with a gun. The would-be artist was blinded and had to re-evaluate his future. His past life was hardly smooth. The second of nine children whom his mother bore by four different fathers before she was 30, he faced a childhood marked by adult abuse and alcoholism. When he was nine, his mother finally went completely off the rails and Manning spent the remainder of his childhood with foster families, often getting into trouble. Within weeks of the shooting, our storyteller was defying a useless social worker and setting off on a new career as a writer. This is one of those inspiring tales of those who overcome adversity, related by a man whom you do not realise is blind until well into the performance. This is not the Hollywood with which we are familiar. It is however a fine achievement delivered with great assertiveness but also a high degree of charm. Philip Fisher

Which to Burn? Gilded Balloon
Written as a series of short scenes with compelling cliffhangers, Racherl Ogilvy's monologue wouldn't be out of place in a Radio 4 short story slot. Expertly delivered too, the story of Rose, a lonely supply maths teacher obsessed with the Forth Rail Bridge, is often quite amusing and touching all at once. Weaving through her account of a series of coincidences over a few rainy days are her poignant recollections of her father and his untimely suicide. Stuck in a world of memories and mathematical equations, Rose is ostensibly unable to establish a positive human contact with anyone around her, from a classroom of disruptive school kids to a stranger who takes a liking to her. Even though her carefully conceived story meets a quick Mills and Boons type of ending, Ogilvy is a kind of performer with an instinctive understanding of dramatic pace and timing who can easily hold an audience on the palm of her hand, which she does all the way to the end. And then she opens the other to reveal a bag of sweets and see her audience out. Duska Radosavljevic

Who's Afraid of Howlin' Wolf? C Soco
A tale of love lost or foolishly thrown away, Dave Fargnoli's new play strives for an evocation of life-changing passions it doesn't quite reach, leaving instead the sense of a touching small story inventively staged. As a late-night radio DJ tells his bored engineer about the woman who got away, his memories come doubly alive, not just in flashbacks but in interaction with the present. The woman conjured up in his narration repeatedly breaks away to argue with his version of history or offer her own comments on both past and present. The story of a meeting and a promising romance ruined by jealousy is simple and familiar but no less real for that, and the play's only weakness lies in trying to make it seem larger and more mythic than it is. Megan Maczko does infuse the woman with the smoky mystery and sexiness of reality filtered through memory and regret, and onstage blues musicians add to the atmosphere. But James Scott is too boyish as the DJ and Ashley Hunt too blokeish as his mate for the emotional temperature to rise very high.
Gerald Berkowitz

Frank Woodley - Possessed Assembly
A rubber-limbed physical clown worthy of mention in the same breath as Buster Keaton or Lee Evans, Frank Woodley presents a plot-driven hour whose high points are all in his physical slapstick. He plays a clumsy loner in the mould of Mr. Bean whose comical domestic routines are disrupted when he suddenly finds himself sharing his body with the spirit of an Irish woman, and must help her find a way to peace and escape. The story, which predictably finds him falling in love with his new body-mate, is actually the weakest element in the hour, as working it out requires slowing the pace and draws Woodley away from the physical comedy that is his strength. A sequence of trying to climb some stairs is the purest Keaton (and that's the highest praise possible), while bursts of Irish dancing, acrobatic pratfalls, and a chase after a mouse show him off at his best, though his verbal humour also displays a quirky freshness, from the opening exhortation 'On the count of three, lower your expectations" to instructions on how to train a moth. Gerald Berkowitz

Yasser Assembly
Unusually, a solo play about what it means to be a Palestinian has been written by a Moroccan-born Dutchman and directed by his fellow-countryman. For whatever reason, the combination of Abdelkader Benali and Teunkie van der Sluijs manage to get under the skin of their protagonist, who shares far more than merely a first name with the non-country's former leader. The very accomplished William El-Gardi plays Yasser Mansour, now settled in the UK and making his way as an actor. We meet him in a Harrogate dressing room preparing to take on the unlikely role of Shylock. Talking to himself, his wife-to-be Lucy and backwards to his mother and childhood friends, Yasser attempts to combine three different subjects. The biggest issue is the past, present and future of Palestine and particularly Yasser Arafat's attempts to give it nationhood. There are also the struggles to persuade his English fiancee to embrace his country and, equally difficult, his mother to take in the concept of her son playing a Jew. Somehow, despite making some telling points, the strands of Yasser get lost in each other and what should be a coherent piece comparing Shylock's experience with that of Palestinians doesn't have the impact that one might hope for. Philip Fisher

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(Some of these reviews appeared first in The Stage.)

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Reviews - Edinburgh Festival - 2008