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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL AND FRINGE 2009

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 our dedicated reviewers covered close to 250 shows. Once again, our thanks to Edinburgh veterans Duska Radosavljevic and Philip Fisher and the rest of our expanded review team 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 this page and M-Z on another.

Scroll down this page for our reviews of Accidental Nostalgia - After Circles - After the Bomb - Almost 10 - And Bosnich Is Off His Line - Angle of Incidence - Art House - A-Team The Musical - Austen's Women - Auto Da Fe -

Baba Yaga Bony Legs - Baby - Balloon Boutique - Bane - Barbershopera - Barflies - Beachy Head - Beast - Becoming Marilyn - Been So Long - Beggars Belief - Be My Eyes - David Benson - Billy Budd - Aidan Bishop - Des Bishop - Bitch Got Owned - Bite-Sized Breakfast - Borges and I - Boy in Darkness - A British Subject - Bully - Burn -

Cambridge Footlights - Cardenio - Cardinal Burns - Nathan Caton - Catwalk Confidential - The Chair - Changing The Wheel - Chatroom - Chortle Student Comedy Awards - The Chronicles of Irania - Chronicles of Long Kesh - A Clockwork Orange - Colin Hoult's Carnival of Monsters - Jason Cook - Cool Cutz - Crave - The Critic - Crush - Curtains -

David Leddy's White Tea - Destination GB - Dirty Love - Doctor Whom - Domestic Goddi - Double Art History - The Doubtful Guest - Durham Revue - East 10th Street - Ernest and the Pale Moon - The Event - Everything Must Go -

Facebook Fables - The Fall of Man - Fascinating Aida - Faust - Faust in a Box - A Fistful of Snow - Five Characters In Search of Susan - Mickey Flanagan - Flanders and Swann - F.L.O.W. - Forever Young - Francis the Holy Jester - Frank - F**ked - Funny - George in the Dragon's Den - Rhod Gilbert - The Girls of Slender Means - God - Stefan Golaszewski - A Grave Situation -

Hangover - Her Yellow Wallpaper - Heyton on Homicide - Bec Hill - His Ghostly Heart - Hooked - The Hospitable - The Hotel - Hugh Hughes in 360 - Icarus 2.0 - If That's All There Is - Il Ritorno d'Ulisse - The Importance of Muffins - Improverts - In A Thousand Pieces - The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church - Internal - Jane Austin's Guide to Pornography - Janis - Simon Jenkins - Pete Johansson - Jumpers -

Russell Kane - Katakio - Shappi Khorsandi - Killing Alan - King Arthur - King of the Gypsies -King Ubu - Kit and the Widow - Knuckleball - Lady Bug Warrior - Land Without Words - Last Night Things Happened - The Last Witch - Andrew Lawrence - Micaela Leon - Lilly Through The Dark - Little Gem - The Lost Letters of Mr. Corrigan - Love Letters on Blue Paper -


Accidental Nostalgia Traverse
Subtitled 'An Operetta about the Pros and Cons of Amnesia' and the first in a trilogy that has been going great guns in the USA, this is a feast for the eyes and ears told via a darkly comic concoction of gothic Americana. Flanked by a four-piece band and a brace of IT gurus, neurologist Cameron Seymour launches into a lecture on amnesia and the self-help book she has written that links into her own problem with the condition. Seymour admits to possessing a disturbingly selective memory, meaning that she does not know if she killed her father or not. Concluding that the secret is locked in her Deep South past, she abruptly ups sticks and heads for her hometown where things get murky and dangerous. As the neurotic neurologist, Cynthia Hopkins is utterly compelling, changing costume, modifying character or breaking into expository song all at the drop of a hat. Amplifying her journey of self-discovery is a huge backdrop screen across which march the images that punctuate her life, manipulated by her local computer nerds. Gimmicks galore propel this oddball odyssey, underpinned by Hopkins' resonant voice and powerful songs. A nagging afterthought is that all this hi-tech trickery and dark frippery don't quite hang together, that this absurdist universe doesn't make as much sense as the cast would have us believe. Still, an undeniable highlight of the Fringe. Nick Awde

After Circles Underbelly
At 26, Irish playwright Henry Martin might be forgiven for taking inspiration from dark Pinteresque settings and dramatic situations filled with hidden menace. He might even be applauded for wishing to deal with such pressing issues as child soldiers and the treatment of women in war. To that end, director Antonio Farrara's production of the play has assembled a cast of capable actresses. Martin's writing also has a good sense of poetry to match such serious themes, however, he is yet to be coached in the fine art of managing audience expectations. Despite an inspired approach to structuring the piece retrospectively - which does at times seem intriguing - the overall effect is still excessively mean and introverted, requiring hard work on the part of the audience who are given very little by means of a hook into the story or the characters' lives to begin with. For the most part the piece is bleak, indulgent and unappealing and it definitely seems that Martin could do well to also take inspiration from Pinter's sense of humour for example. The good news is that he still has plenty of time to get there. Duska Radosavljevic

After the Bomb Zoo Southside
It is 1957 and two Soviet spies are repeatedly sidetracked from their mission of hitting Western capitalism at its heart, the Glasgow bus system, by bickering over the relative merits of the Albanian and Ukranian KGBs. Meanwhile, the future of democracy is somehow in the hands of a philologist sacked for having a taste for carnal knowledge of small kitchen appliances, an alien robot can't remember whether her cover story has her coming from Scotland or Walesland, and one actress plays two separate sex-starved Miss Moneypenny types. Actually, four actors play everyone, which means that we have all the ingredients of a Penny Dreadfuls-type farce, the kind in which the quick changes, dodgy accents and impossible-to-follow plot are part of the fun. Or we would have, if things moved at twice the speed of this languorous Cicero Productions staging, or had twice as many jokes. As it is, the slow scene changes, rhythmless direction, very uneven acting and long gaps between jokes leave you more aware of the laughter-less stretches than of the few moments that score. Gerald Berkowitz

Almost 10 Pleasance
You may not believe for more than a few scattered moments that the speaker in Raphaele Moussafir's solo play is nine years old - eleven seems a closer guess - but if you forget the question of age, she is a delightful creation, here played to sparkling perfection by Caroline Horton. As she tells us about the highlights (riding a train without an adult for the first time, making prank phone calls with her best friend) and low points (everyone choosing a competing birthday party rather than hers, coping with her au pair and adults in general) in her life, we live them fully with her and fully understand the level of importance she attaches to each. Some of the moments that do ring true for her assumed age provide the purest joy - playing sexual games with her Barbie and Ken without really knowing what she's doing, being embarrassed by adult displays of emotion, discovering that lying to grown-ups is sometimes the simplest option. And when she encounters death for the first time, her remarkably complex and mature responses seem absolutely right. Even the fact that the monologue jumps about without transitions becomes part of the character's wholly real thought processes. Throughout, Caroline Horton communicates a wide-eyed intelligence and indomitable spirit that take everything in and process it in ways that make at least as much sense as what our adult perceptions tell us, so that we come to adore the child, whatever her age, and leave with absolute confidence that she will grow up to be wiser and kinder than any of us. Gerald Berkowitz

And Bosnich is Off His Line... Free Fringe
With the Fringe festival costing so much every year, increasing amounts of people are turning to the Free Fringe as a way of seeing theatre and comedy, often from less established acts. This collection of young stand-ups demonstrates that any negative conceptions about the quality of the Free Fringe are unfounded, as it is more than on a par with many of the shows at the Fringe proper. Compered by the jovial Liam Williams, the four student comics do exceptionally well to entertain the small crowd. Keith Akushie has a nice line in observation and with a little more confidence in his delivery, could really impress. So You Think You're Funny semi-finalist and A Level student Rhys Jones is also highly amusing and it will be interesting to see how his material progresses post National Curriculum. Highlight of the show is Rob Carter who, armed with guitar, offers some witty singing that deals with such subjects as love and having a friend called Pizza Face. Rounding up the event is remarkably genial Cambridge student Daran Johnson with some hilarious one-liners. All the performers show real promise and the show is a very worthwhile alternative to the increasingly commercial Fringe. Christopher Harrisson

Angle of Incidence Zoo
Lux Lucis Productions play with optical illusions, reflections, mirrored surfaces and glass boxes in this oddly fragmented piece about loss of identity and human isolation. The show opens with a character, Latimer, trapped in a mirrored glass box, his image ricocheting into infinity on three sides. Dialogue is muffled, the pace is slow. Concept-driven, a little too enamoured of its main stage device, the production tries to capture a certain diffuse, digressive mood of urban alienation but is not always effective in doing so. Cello music creates a melancholy heartbeat to the scene changes from the more abstract ones to tiny vignettes of domestic life in which a couple talk about nothing and everything while brushing their teeth or preparing for bed. The piece is visually strong, containing some powerful theatrical images, especially the play with surfaces, transparency, mirrors and physical echoing. But overall it lacks a strong sense of direction and one is left perplexed about what the company were trying to achieve. William McEvoy

Art House Zoo
An artist fakes her death in order to boost her prices, virtually guarantee a posthumous award, and give herself the freedom to work undisturbed. Her sister, hitherto overshadowed, serves as her dealer-publicist, and begins to blossom in the role, while the artist learns that her hermit-like existence doesn't inspire as much as she had hoped. Rachael Cooper's one-hour play sets up an interesting premise but, perhaps because of time constraints, the characters never come alive and so their conflict never goes beyond textbook pop psychology. Unsurprisingly, grudges held since childhood reawaken, and unsurprisingly the artist is as jealous of her sister's burgeoning sex life as of her tending of the flame. Meanwhile, we are told too much, either in soliloquies or exposition-crammed dialogue, and shown too little, the play's several short scenes generally devoted to reporting on events that took place offstage between them. Caroline Horton as the frustrated artist and Emily Randall as the vengeance-achieving sister make the most out of each moment but have difficulty connecting the pieces into fully-developed characterisations. Gerald Berkowitz

A Team The Musical Gilded Balloon
This nostalgia-fest borders on the pantomimic, and calling it a musical is something of a misnomer, since songs are few and far between. But if your heart leaps at the sound of Mr T's catchphrases, and there's a wavy-lined flashback to the blue-eyelinered 80s every time you hear the theme tune's opening bars, then this could be the show for you. The plot is wafer thin. Young female hick is threatened by local yobs when she doesn't hand over protection money. That's it. In come the A Team, Hannibal (old), Face (vain), Murdock (potty) and BA Baracas (angry), and justice overcomes corruption. The extremely low-fi production values are turned into a running joke, with cars and the famous A-Team black van as cardboard cut-outs, and a helicopter becomes some tinfoil on a stick. So far, so tacky. But the audience loves the nostalgia, and still has a soft spot for this motley array of ex-Nam freedom fighters. From Hannibal's trademark cigar, to BA's odd haircut and Murdock's imaginary pets, this ticks all the boxes. But where are the songs? A couple are performed well and with gusto, but actors have been cast for their looks rather than their voices. Scratch's production is not without its laughs, but there's a fine line between laughing at it and laughing with it. William McEvoy

Austen's Women Assembly
What could we have in common with Jane Austen's characters, you might ask, when those girls married at 17 and guys were considered 'old men' at 'two and thirty' years old? Give this show a go and not only will you get plenty of answers to the question, but might even run home to blow the dust off one of the novels again. Rebecca Vaughan's loving homage to Austen's words and characters includes fourteen short sketches of some of Austen's famous ladies such as Lizzy Bennett, Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse, but also some lesser known ones, such as Diana Parker from Sanditon and Miss Elizabeth Watson from The Watsons. Petulant, prudent, silly or sophisticated, these wives, daughters, young lovers and sisters will have all of our own strengths and weaknesses, and could still teach us a thing or two about how to get on in life. Vaughan's one woman show has hints of Sex and the City as well as Catherine Tate in it - showing us the way in which Austen may well have laid the foundations of observational comedy too. Under Guy Masterson's direction, the piece is tightly corseted but frilly, flowing and flamboyant in all the right places. Duska Radosavljevic

Auto-Da-Fe Space on the Mile
One of a string of one-act plays Tennessee Williams wrote just before his breakthrough Glass Menagerie, Auto-Da-Fe is a brief study in repression and denial, a point that seems to have escaped director Ryan Bourne and Fired Up Productions. An upright and churchgoing mother and grown son live in New Orleans' raffish French Quarter and tut-tut over the shockingly improper goings-on that surround them. The discovery of a pornographic photo tests their ability to cope, as they struggle over whether to report or destroy it. This production satisfactorily captures that much - although Jeanne Graham as the mother can't move past caricature, Jeff Alan-Lee nicely underplays the mama's boy who would really prefer that the world out there stay far away. But where he wavers and she falls completely is in letting us see that a part of him is excited by that (presumably homosexual) photo and that she is trying not to notice that because it would threaten the denial she has been in about him all along. A hesitantly moving, rhythmless pacing destroys any sense of building tension or forward movement and makes a violent ending appear too abruptly and out of nowhere. Worth seeing for the play itself and what you will sense could have been done with it, more than for what has been achieved. Gerald Berkowitz

Baba Yaga Bony Legs Sweet ECA
This company should be highly commended for their skill at making strangers trust them enough to follow them into a pitch-black room for forty-five minutes - unfortunately that is where the praise must cease. The decision to stage the play in darkness creates, as is frequently the case, more problems than it solves. Without the support of visual images, the performers' underdeveloped vocal technique is totally exposed. Rather than being immersed in Little Masha's epic journey through the fearsome forest, the over-riding sensation is the rather frustrating one of being shouted at in the dark. Making use of ambient sounds that attempt to transport the audience into a specific time, location or emotion is a sound concept but it has been poorly executed in this case. These are a repetitive, garbled and ultimately confusing distraction from the story, drowning out the narrative voices. Moments of physical contact between the performers and the audience are similarly repetitive. Occasionally, the actors move in torchlight, another good concept that falls flat because what the torches highlight has not been carefully thought through. Katrina Marchant

Baby George Square
Six vibrant young voices from Cambridge University easily fill a simple space with enough energy for each audience member to thrive off. Baby explores the effects of pregnancy on three different couples through live music, dance and powerful performances, introducing a talented comedy duo in the shape of Alan (Oli Hunt) and Arlene (Miri Gellert). Of course, in this carefully balanced score, rather than detracting from moments of sincerity, the humour aids the ensemble, bringing rhythm and pace to the musical. With song themes ranging from the heartbreak of a miscarriage to the surprisingly entertaining journey of sperm, it is difficult not to lose oneself in the characters' tales. The audience are shown the highs and the lows of having a baby in contemporary times, yet unfortunately, the editing means the plot seems slightly disjointed which disrupts one's enjoyment of the story as a whole. Whilst the accents are occasionally questionable, this is soon offset by catchy tunes superbly sung by performers full of vitality and exuberance. This slick and focused performance hit no bum notes with me. Georgina Evenden

Balloon Boutique C
Do any of us still remember the awe experienced by the first ever sight of a dog emerging out of a sausage shaped balloon? This is not strictly speaking a children's show - although it is about a childless couple's desperate desire for a family - but you are almost certain to experience again the childlike awe and wonder felt at discovering just what is possible to do with a piece of latex. Using masks, balloons, rockabilly music and a 1950s radio, the two actors take it in turns to play the aged couple as they go back in time remembering their courtship, love-making and shared loss. Directed by the Trestle and Told by an Idiot founder John Wright - the piece has a characteristic sense of craftsmanship and non-verbal lyricism. A particular moment of genius which has the young couple helplessly entangled forever after their first balloon kiss, is alone worth seeing the whole 50 minutes for. Even though the subject matter isn't exactly light - and the actors' performances are a lot more timid than expected - this is a piece about the importance of having fun in life, and if you don't love it for that, you'll love it for its balloon motorcycle. Duska Radosavljevic

Bane Pleasance Dome
Bane is a hard-boiled detective story, with a typically broad and colourful cast including snitches, baddies, assistant baddies, molls, opera singers, a mad scientist and of course the lone wolf hero himself - all played by Joe Bone. The result is simultaneously a salute to and send-up of the genre, as the solo performer plays both sides of every conversation or shoot-out, not to mention a raft of sound effects and mood music. The fun of a show like this lies in the accuracy of the parody - that is to say, in having every comic moment or absurd plot twist vaguely remind us of some film noir precedent or at least seem true to the genre. And of course we enjoy the inventiveness and versatility of the actor jumping so seamlessly from role to role. This is in some ways the solo version of the sort of quick-change, multiple-role-playing almost-lose-control-of-the-juggling farce that has long been a fringe staple, and just about the only criticism to make of Bone is the seemingly perverse one that he is too much in control, not allowing us the added fun of watching the story and performance complications threatening to overwhelm him.
Gerald Berkowitz

Barbershopera II Pleasance Dome
Esteve is a very confused matador. He has journeyed to a tiny Norfolk village to claim his inheritance only to learn that it is his late father's hairdressing salon. Quite how a matador swaps his sword for scissors fills the rest of one of the most fun-packed musical hours at the Fringe where ancient rivalries in sleepy Shavingham stir - as do the Matador's loins on meeting the feisty town-crier Vicky. And somehow it all leads to a Wild West-style climactic coiffeur 'cut-off' between Esteve and sinister snipper Trevor Sorbet and his Miracle Mousse. Unlikely hairdos and accents punctuate the zippy four-part harmonies that range from barbershop (obviously) and opera via hiphop and G&S
. Stand-out numbers include the Voluptuous Vicky duet, the Mousse rap, and a beautiful hymn to Shavingham, with even a nod to Prince in between the pink rinses. As the motormouth matador Rob Castell combines bravura with hilarious bafflement, matched by the sensuous charms of Lara Stubbs as the prickly Vicky. Tom Sadler brings a dark edge of humour to Esteve's arch-rival Trevor, while Pete Sorel-Cameron manfully holds the whole thing together as solid chappy hairdresser Rod. Writers Castell and Sadler and director Sarah Tipple have created a fast-paced technical tour de force that manages to be sheer entertainment at the same time. And thanks to the efforts of this dazzling cast, the combination has created a subtle slice of cutting edge comedy. Nick Awde

Barflies Traverse
There was a time when Charles Bukowski's prose was the main means of sexual awakening of teenage boys around the world. Alcohol fuelled, arrogant, animalistic and brimming with aphorisms, it easily translated into many a culture's youth cult material. It is hardly surprising therefore that Bukowski's work sits comfortably in a bar in Edinburgh, even decades after its heyday. Grid Iron's adaptation - based on three stories from the 1967 collection The Most Beautiful Woman in Town - is even smoothly rendered into the Scottish vernacular. Any flashes of the post-war American angst and disillusionment are gently and skilfully glossed over with a kind of artistry uniquely characteristic of this particular company. Producer Judith Doherty and Director/Adaptor Ben Harrison have picked a site laden with ornate chandeliers and the deep red and gilded New Town pub gorgeousness which they enhance with atmospheric fake smoke, some most exquisite live piano music courtesy of Silent Dave - David Paul Jones, and a magnificent display of the bar centre-piece itself. However, their greatest feat is a glorious theatricalisation of their chosen material - both textual and textural. Keith Fleming is the lazy, constantly dishevelled sharp-tongued bohemian Henry, complemented beautifully by the fiery Gail Watson who unfurls a whole range of moving and memorable portraits of the unfortunate women associated with him. To call their performances visceral would be rather an understatement when these guys actually 'rip' their vital organs out and fling them across the bar towards each other. Their sex scenes too are totally uncompromising, both in their tenderness and crudity. And when they are not leaping across the furniture, screwing and unscrewing, swilling and spilling bottles of various beverages around their stage, the two engage in some thoroughly enchanting fox-fur and bottle opener puppetry. Grid Iron have yet again pulled off a marvelous success - easily one of the best shows this year and quite possibly a winner within the company's own repertoire. And they have shown that just like the subject of their fitting tribute - they mature extraordinarily well as they line up effortless, unpretentious, penetrating modern classics one after another. Duska Radosavljevic

Beachy Head Pleasance Dome
As a company, Analogue combine detailed research and an almost documentary accuracy in reportage with inventive staging and employment of multimedia. With Beachy Head, though, they don't seem to have gotten the balance quite right. The reportage sometimes seems undigested or unabsorbed into the fiction, and the media effects imposed on the material rather than growing organically out of it. At the core of the story, a pair of filmmakers accidentally capture the moment of someone throwing himself off a cliff, and decide to search out his story. This connects them to his widow and her grieving process, and to doctors and pathologists and their professional distance. There is drama, and a beautifully nuanced performance by Emma Jowett, in the young widow's emotional journey, and in the moral ambiguity of the filmmakers' position. But the pathologist interviews make their points - essentially, that the person is no longer there after death - at unnecessary and drama-interrupting length, and making us view some scenes through video projections, even with the live performer onstage, adds little
. Gerald Berkowitz

Beast The Vaults
In the testosterone-fuelled festival that is Edinburgh, it is a joy to discover the lyrical love story that is Beast. Bookshelf's engaging two-hander tells the tale of a prostitute and an artist whose first paid encounter marks the beginning of a lifelong relationship where business turns to pleasure and more. Clips and pre-recorded passages punctuate the scenes, reflecting the changes in the couple's life over the passage of time and the parallel shifts in their relationship. Often they face the audience as they speak, a device that reveals the smallest flicker of emotion on their faces. As the poignancy of the tale grows, exploring the truths to be found in love, so too does the intensity of their romance. Graham Edwards' laidback, almost laconic delivery forms a bedrock for Aine O'Sullivan, who convincingly and expressively travels through the four emotional seasons of their love. The premise, however, is hindered somewhat by failing to depict a realistic muse-artist relationship, yet the simplicity of the connection between the protagonists more than compensates, to the point that you can sit back and let the poetry of Elena Bolster's script wash over you. Nick Awde

Becoming Marilyn Assembly
Norma Jeane Baker was a chubby teenage bride who escaped Hicksville thanks to being spotted in a photoshoot. With peroxide hair and a name change to Marilyn Monroe, she graduated from studio party escort to bit-part player in movies to mega-superstardom. But Marilyn never left Norma Jeane behind, as this thoughtful one-woman show reveals. In the bedroom where she was found dead of an overdose, Marilyn reviews her past and brings to life the characters and events of the remarkable times that moulded her. She pauses occasionally for edgy asides as Norma Jeane demands her own perspective and opinions and Marilyn starts to question how far she has journeyed from her old self - a subject on which, understandably, her alter-ego begs to differ. Issy van Randwyck neatly captures the star's legendary pout, baby voice and those legendary curves. Handily, she also possesses a versatile voice (memorably used in a previous incarnation of Fascinating Aida) and delivers impeccable versions of classics such as 'I Wanna Be Loved By You' and the (in)famous 'Happy Birthday' sung to President Kennedy. While Bernie C Byrnes' bubbly script tells us little that is new about Marilyn it does shed light on Norma Jeane, particularly her mother's insanity and harsh foster-home life. Pace-wise Gareth Armstrong's sensitive direction keeps the energy and humour going right up to the poignant finale. Nick Awde

Been So Long Traverse (Reviewed in London)
At its core a thoroughly old-fashioned musical, Been So Long is made current and alive by its fresh milieu, clever writing and attractive and energetic performers. Set in the bar-and-club scene of easy sex and easy betrayal, it finds two players discovering the unexpected experience of actually falling in love, being scared brainless, and almost blowing it. And so we get the familiar dance of the couple attractively played by Naana Agyei-Ampadu and Arinze Kene as two people who don't know what is obvious to us - that they are each deeper than they realise themselves, and that they're made for each other - made new and emotionally resonant by a setting in black south London that we know to be littered with failed relationships and missed opportunities. With their romance providing the emotional core to the play, much of the fun comes from the characters around them. Cat Simmons plays the heroine's ever-randy friend with enough comic sexual fire to wilt any man at thirty paces, and her song I Want a Fella is one of the evening's high points. Meanwhile, there's a nerdy little guy determined to avenge an imagined slight from the hero three years ago, and Harry Hepple plays him with such attractive bravado that you cheer him on even as you know his character's quest is doomed. And Omar Lyefook provides another emotional anchor to the play as the bartender pining away for love of the heroine, who looks right through him; he opens and closes the show with a pair of strong blues numbers. Actually, Arthur Darvill's music, mainly blues-based with an occasional funk beat, is never especially interesting, with the power of the songs coming from the alternately witty and evocative lyrics by Darvill and playwright-director Walker. And even they are merely the raw material for the inventive and engaging performers. Gerald Berkowitz

Beggars Belief C cubed
Will Lawton's play combines elements of typical romantic comedies, nerdish bloke comedies and the kinds of philosophical debates that are rites of passage in the first year at uni, and somehow ends up as a rather sweet little drama about religious faith. While his friends are busy working out their failed or not-quite-ready-to-begin romantic lives, the biggest misfit among them has a dream about God and begins to wonder whether he's as confirmed an athiest as he's always assumed. In between games of Power Puff Girl Monopoly, he tentatively and comically tries reading the Bible and asking his believer friends about their faith. While the tone and the focus of the play waver, and some of the characters are undeveloped, it is frequently lightly comical and has at least one sequence, when each of the characters, for their own individual and not always admirable reasons, attempt to pray to a God they're not all sure is there, that is quite lovely and touching. The play never quite escapes the feel of Theatre-for-Church-Groups, to be accompanied by guidelines for aftershow discussion leaders, but there is clearly more to it than that. Gerald Berkowitz

Be My Eyes Radison
This piece from Fine Chisel Theatre Company is an interesting find. It's tautly directed, the performers are very strong, and there is a confidence and commitment throughout the entire cast, a rarity in many productions in the Fringe. The problem is the crux of the material. The play boasts its play on perspective, and whilst the exploration of story-telling is skilfully done, it is difficult to engage in the plot. The story of a missing boyfriend and the traumas and dilemmas it projects for those who knew the man and met him indirectly doesn't have enough depth to make you care about the characters, and sometimes the more serious dialogue is too predictable to create the emotional arc the play seems to want to achieve. So it is welcome when a bizarre but intriguing nightclub sequence is played out to break the structure. The piece unravels itself tidily by the end, commenting on how one person's loss is another one's gain, and the sensitivity the cast show in their work is admirable. The most impressive aspect is its comedy, which involves an erratic, insecure woman seeking solace in her Sat. Nav. system, and a couple at the beginning of their relationship. The awkwardness that is played out in their dates at a restaurant and cinema is brilliantly played by both actors, whose expressions during the silences are as entertaining as the excruciating attempts to make smalltalk. This is a good show, but I wanted to invest myself in it more than I did. Benedict Shaw

David Benson Sings Noel Coward Assembly (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
Like it says on the label. David Benson, Fringe veteran best known for his solo shows incorporating music into his monologues and for playing Noel Coward in several episodes of the TV series Goodnight Sweetheart, offers a straightforward (no pun intended) concert of some of the Master's best- and least-known songs, from Parisian Pierrot and I Am No Good At Love to the inevitable (and no less welcome for that) Mad Dogs And Englishmen and I'll See You Again. This is Benson singing Coward, not Benson as Coward - a few brief moments aside, he doesn't try to imitate Coward's voice or singing style. But Benson has a pleasant voice and the absolutely essential precise diction, and as an actor-who-sings he brings out all the wit and sentiment in the wide range of Coward's songs. By-play with his pianist Stewart Nicholls sometimes gets a bit arch and strays into Kit and the Widow territory. But anyone who loves the songs or needs an introduction to Coward the songwriter will find a thoroughly satisfying and enjoyable hour. Gerald Berkowitz

Billy Budd C Too
Billy Budd is impressive. A twenty strong cast, top to toe in immaculate eighteenth century naval get-up, prowl the smoke filled theatre with a confidence and assurance that is held throughout by all. The set is simple yet striking - a sunken area onstage creates focus and contributes to the claustrophobic feel of the whole piece, a claustrophobia that is maintained by Philip Swan's brave directorial decisions. The effect? A beautiful and perfectly crafted portrayal of the chaotic order that we can only assume existed on such naval vessels. Although the quality of acting is greatly varied throughout the cast, the effect of the ensemble as a whole is an imposing and powerful one and several performances stand out among the ranks. Most notable is that of Julius Colwyn Foulkes whose portrayal of the ship's Captain is subtle, commanding and, most of all, poignant. It is unfortunate that at times the play loses the clarity and focus that drives it so strongly at other points. However the production as a whole acts as a sensitive discussion of the morality of war and the repression of homosexuality in the military, themes that are as relevant to us today, as they were to Herman Melville at the time. Samuel Caseley

Aidan Bishop: No Sissy Stuff Gilded Balloon
Women, they say, like men who make them laugh. They also like a bad boy. Aidan Bishop gamely attempts to bridge the two but ironically, as he confesses, having originally set out to give us 'No Sissy Stuff' his show is in fact morphing into a (highly entertaining) Sissy Fest. The Ireland-based New Yorker is healthily red-blooded in his wide-ranging analysis of men, women and how they get it together - and yet he seems unable to prevent his sensitive side from jumping out where he least expects it. Bishop grew up streetwise in tough Queen's but in Dublin the muggers stay away from him because they think he's gay. Conversely, his summary of women's romanticism creates a warm glow of lurve until he feels compelled to convert everything into the male equivalent where porn and green apples feature prominently. Meanwhile the subject of things never to say to girls strikes a chord with both sexes for entirely different reasons as it becomes a wild litany of serious no-no's. Making neat use of a lo-tech flipchart where other comics might use a voiceover, Bishop jumps quickly from subject to subject. Juggling comedy in this way can be a bit hit and miss (and the Catholic ramble probably belongs to another show) but he clearly likes to live dangerously onstage. He visibly warms up as the show progresses and connects on a personal with the entire audience - admittedly it might take Bishop a while to warm up the guys, but he has the girls right from the start. Nick Awde

Des Bishop Assembly
Although he is big in his adopted country, comedian Des Bishop still seems more American than Irish, not just in what he admits is a marginally less repressed emotional life, but in his ability to observe behaviour and mores 'on this side of the Atlantic' with some objectivity. Repressed emotions are the theme of his show, as he explains that Irish Americans don't express themselves openly lest they appear too self-absorbed, while the native Irish tend to feel things and then apologise for the presumption and the English just think it is all in bad taste. Bishop's stories about growing up among less inhibited Italian-Americans in New York, about discovering how to stop a brawl in an Irish pub, or about revelling in the emotional openness of a visit to Australia all illustrate these national patterns of inhibition. Other topics include jogging, post-coital conversations and masturbation. He's in favour of all three, unsurprisingly, and the audience's strong response to his arguments for their uninhibited embrace may well be generated as much by their enthusiastic agreement as by the comic quality of the material. Gerald Berkowitz

Bitch Got Owned! Laughing Horse @ Espionage
Sajeela Kershi is not your usual comedian, but she certainly is a natural. She has Bollywood, Josef Fritzl and real life stories about the BNP and the Taliban all in one set - and you'll still be happy to eat cut up fruit out of her hand. You'll even forgive her for drying up occasionally as all the incidental digressions, sharpness of wit and ad libbing in her Joanna Lumley cut-glass vowels will be more than worth it. And that's before I've even mentioned her own take on Loreal... She'll flirt with you and remember it and come back to remind you at just the right moment, without ever making you feel uncomfortable. And you might also just find yourself an innocent passer by, watching her show from afar, and getting drawn in without realising it. Because - and this is the best bit! - her show is absolutely free and taking place in a busy but delicately chosen bar: the oriental-looking Kasbar at Espionage. Be quick to discover Edinburgh's best kept secret as she won't stay that way for too long.Duska Radosavljevic

Bite-Sized Breakfast in Bedlam Bedlam
White Room Theatre offers a rotating programme of ten-minute plays in its morning slot, including what it calls its Best Bites from previous seasons, the selection I saw. While the five short plays on my menu were all of a high order, they were unsurprisingly uneven in effectiveness. The weakest, Paul Randall's Mind The Flak, is a character sketch of an impatient London tube passenger that, like the frustrated character, ultimately goes nowhere. David Bulmer's Suspicious Minds, about cops ineptly handling a grieving widow, is a funny review sketch stretched just a bit too long. More successful as short but complete plays are Jonathan Gavin's Sleepless Nights, a nice variant on the rom-com formula of the couple who at first dislike each other on sight, and Adam Gelin's Tangled Net, a comic tale played out entirely in e-mail messages and given an extra layer of absurdity by being done in Victorian dress. But the playlet most fully developed and satisfying despite its brevity is Philip Linsdell's sweet and comic Quiet Table For Four, in which a nervous couple on a blind date are accompanied by actors playing their confidence-destroying inner voices. Gerald Berkowitz

Borges and I Zoo
This dreamy, unusual celebration of writer Jorge Luis Borges, who died in 1986, is a little gem that uses the frequently startling motifs typical of the Argentinean's writings to illustrate the story of his life and aspirations. Created by Idle Motion, this poetic and visual feast neatly criss-crosses between a book group and the world in which Borges grew up. As the members of the book group discuss fiction, network, bicker and even fall in love, parallel stories develop when one of their number applies for a job at the Bodleian Library as another starts to lose her sight. Interleaved are scenes from Borges' childhood in Europe, his problematic schooldays, the slow process of going blind. Irony of ironies, as he himself acknowledges, is that he finally loses his sight just as he is appointed director of the National Library. Linking to that, in a deeply powerful scene based on one of his best known short stories, Borges describes existing in a ghostly library made of identical hexagonal rooms that stretch away into infinity. The economy of Borges' words contrasts with the piece's lush images. Subtle costume changes, balletic rearrangements of chairs and the hundreds of books piled around form a world of limitless imagination where old tomes become crumbling roads, airplanes, even the tigers of Borges' childhood imagination. A true ensemble piece, Borges and I is a magical piece that deserves to be developed further to tour to a wider audiences. Nick Awde

Boy in Darkness Zoo
Dark, haunting and uniquely inventive, Curious Directive's adaptation of Mervyn Peake's story is nothing short of phenomenal. This play is everything you came to the Fringe for: visually striking and astonishingly creative theatre, brilliantly acted across the board - special mentions going to Bertrand Lesca as the Hyena, and Lydia Rynne's bright-eyed, inquisitive Goat. The whole production burns with collaborative energy. Kim Pearce's skilful and artful direction not only brings out the best in each performer, but also creates a remarkable atmosphere of tension, wonderment and fear throughout. The ensemble - spread out and moving not just across the stage, but into the vacant seats and behind the audience - bring about a very unsettling experience and an aura of constant menace envelops not just the young Boy at its centre, but each audience member as well. The nightmarish quality of this production never lets the audience out of its grasp until the closing moments. Everything about Boy in Darkness shines with quality and imagination: the two ordinary armchairs turned into hidden passages and chimneys, the several clever comic touches (watch out for Sellotape), the incredible make-up, the eerie, distorted music. This is extraordinary theatre. James Hamilton

A British Subject Gilded Balloon
A few years ago Daily Mirror writer Don Mackay reported on the plight of Mirza Tahir Hussain, a British citizen who had spent almost two decades in a Pakistan death row on trumped-up charges. Mackay and his wife, actress Nichola McAuliffe, became active in the ultimately successful campaign to free Tahir, and now McAuliffe has written this play about it, in which she also appears, as herself. As a docudrama, a lightly fictionalised version of the facts, the play has a special immediacy and emotional power, but it also suffers in purely structural ways. Had McAuliffe been free to write the play as pure fiction, she would probably have involved herself and McKay much earlier in Tahir's story, rather than making them latecomers to the campaign, and she would not have had to rely on the deus ex machina of Prince Charles getting involved at the last moment and, against all political advice, doing a bit of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting with the Pakistani President. Other problems arise from the little fictionalising that she does - surely Mackay couldn't have been as shocked as she makes him that the downmarket tabloid Mirror wouldn't publish the 37-page article he wrote about Tahir, and while the former prisoner may indeed be the saintly Gandhi figure she paints, it plays as a bit of a dramatic cliche. Still, there is a built-in power to the story, and to the strong performances by McAuliffe, Tim Cotcher, Kulvinder Ghir and Shiv Grewal. Gerald Berkowitz

Bully Gilded Balloon (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
The title of Richard Fry's monologue is misleading, since the character he plays is not a bully, but rather a man who spends his life in fear that he might become a bully, only to discover that he has become a victim instead. He tells of a childhood with a violent and abusive father, and the conviction that textbook psychology requires history to repeat itself, not realising that it was equally possible that he might replicate his mother's role when he grew up, came out and found what seemed to be the man of his dreams. That dark twist, and its tragic results, come fairly late in the hour, much of which is devoted to the lighter memories of childhood happiness stolen from the shadow of the father and some of the more comic aspects of a young man's introduction to the gay scene. The whole is written in unobtrusive and frequently witty rhymed couplets, and indeed the whole tone of the hour is understated and unsensational, Fry's performance consisting of little more than sitting in a chair and telling the story, when more in the way of acting it out or investing it with emotion could have enriched it.
Gerald Berkowitz

Burn Underbelly
Andy McQuade's variation on a theme from Sartre's No Exit moves the damned trio to a kind of desert island, makes them strangers to each other, and changes the details of their earthly crimes, but otherwise makes the same point that hell is being in the presence of others who will eternally remind you of your damnation. One of the women, as in Sartre, is a lesbian, who drove her lover to suicide, while the second killed her child because it made her feel too old. The man is now an international banker who single-handedly destroyed the world economy with his fund manipulations. That particular bit of updating has the paradoxical and unintended effect of trivialising things by making this just another credit crisis play, while McQuade's vision of hell as a constantly repeated cycle of discovering one's damnation afresh (rather than being stuck with the awareness forever) actually seems a charitable gift to the damned. Nika Khitrova, Lucinda Westcar and the author fight the bad acoustics of their playing space, along with their own inclinations to speak either too quietly or too loudly, in an ongoing struggle to be heard and understood.
Gerald Berkowitz

Cambridge Footlights Pleasance
The implicit annual competition of revues between Cambridge and Oxford (with Durham frequently topping both) has been won by Cambridge this year. Though rarely fall-down-laughing hilarious, their sketches are all marked by a delightfully skewed sense of the absurd, so that some twist or throwaway bit will catch you by surprise. The punchline of a beachcomber sketch may be a letdown, but before then the idea of a beachcomber able to find only sand and water is funny. A lifeboat sketch somehow morphs into group therapy, a sketch about not-very-bright drug dealers suddenly starts footnoting Othello, and typical wedding party chatter somehow develops into the conviction that the bride is a witch. Surrealism is all, and it happily carries the hour over the occasional low spot or more conventional gag. Gerald Berkowitz

Cardenio C Cubed
It is the Holy Grail for theatricals and academics alike: Shakespeare's lost play, The Tragicomicall Historie of Cardenio. It was omitted from the First Folio of 1623, for unknown reasons. Dr. Bernard Richards' reconstruction of the script is eminently watchable and, for the most part, charmingly performed. This is particularly true of the deft and nuanced performances given by Benjamin Blyth (Henriquez) and Katie Alcock (Violante). The decision to present the players as a travelling band, replete with wagon, is an intelligent one. Playing in a small space, to an audience on three sides, produces an intimacy that, on occasion, the cast plays to beautifully. However, the vocal power and clarity of movement required for this arrangement are not always achieved, causing certain moments to become obscured. TACT are taking up a gauntlet with this production and, for the most part, doing so successfully. The recreation of this script is an academically admirable exercise, but it is through the class and verve of this company that Cardenio finds new theatrical life. Katrina Marchant

Cardinal Burns Pleasance
Seb Cardinal and Dustin Demri-Burns, formerly two-thirds of the comedy group Fat Tongue, offer a collection of sketches notable not only for their funniness but for the ability of the two writer-performers to extend their comic material to unusual length. With only a half-dozen pieces in the hour, each develops and sustains its premise beyond the point at which most other comedians would have started to flag or lose focus, and the delight in watching them skilfully keep the imaginative ball in the air so long becomes part of the fun. A couple of the sketches, like the guys considerably less cool than they think they are, or the actor desperately trying to follow his director's instructions, are clever variants on familiar comic premises, while the idea of a shop with only one product - here, potatoes - is invigorated by being played entirely in French and Franglais. Meanwhile others, like the singing minicab drivers and especially the chat show guest who is an ordinary store clerk, open unexpected new comic territory and find a lot to explore and develop there.Gerald Berkowitz

Nathan Caton Pleasance
Dear family of Nathan Caton, you have very many reasons to be proud of your boy. Not only is he clearly a highly intelligent, talented, sensitive and witty young man, but he has painted a beautiful loving portrait of you all in this show which only appears to suffer from the lack of your approval. Please don't think that his study of architecture has gone to waste when he has constructed such a beautiful home in his heart for you all and created such a warm and happy place for his audience, even if for just an hour of their time. The soft interior however is well supported by a sturdy and cool exterior - the kind of bearing that spells out 'don't mess with me'. Yet he will not use a single swear word before he has properly excused himself on account of his grandma. OK, he does have a bit of a go at his little brother, but that too is because he cares. And what more could you ask for when he gives the last word of the show to his dad! And it's a punchline at that. Quite perfect really. Duska Radosavljevic

Catwalk Confidential Assembly
Robyn Peterson is not the first former model to be re-packaging her life story into a theatrical monologue. A career in the fashion industry is after all a fine source of rags-to-riches stories as well as juicy tales of cunning, envy, gossip, destruction and self-destruction. It's all cattiness galore in Catwalk Confidential, and there'll also be some pictures to jog your memory with or simply marvel at if need be. Peterson delivers her story with panache, keeping it light, though not too bubbly, and certainly betraying no unprofessional sentiment at all. She only occasionally indulges in sending particular lines in the direction of teasing innuendos and then rescuing them back to innocence before they get there. Interestingly too, she knows where to cut her story short in order to rescue it from any suggestion of a faded career, or the triumph of time and age over her dream. So, unlike some of the other similar stories I have heard there is no condemnation of her industry's inherent sleaziness or a celebration of wisdom and a new lease of life in the aftermath of a modelling career. No, Peterson ends on celebrating her Vogue cover, at all costs. Duska Radosavljevic

The Chair Zoo
Set in the 1940s, this choreographed piece explores one character's relationships with his partner and mother through powerful, explosive bouts of physicality. Nasae Evanson gives a fully committed central performance as a prisoner, athletic and agile, with excellent support from the other female dancers. The problems, though, are manifold. The music, for a start, is often repetitive and grating, while the choreography can feel blurred and overly jerky. Sometimes it tries to illustrate a narrative, but it's hard to work out what is going on. Themes of sexual conflict and abuses of authority by a female prison guard do emerge but there's a troubling lack of coherence. Stubs of ideas, such as the man and woman communicating through tapping on a desk, could have been taken much further, but when the choreography does not have a distinctive performance vocabulary, things start to unravel. That said, Kimberly Clarke, Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster and Raquel Gaviria support Evanson with intensity, and despite all the flaws, the show ends up leaving a strong impression. William McEvoy

Changing the Wheel - Bert Brecht and Me Spotlites at the Merchants' Hall
Peter Thompson's solo show attempts five things - a lecture on the life of Bertolt Brecht, a reading of about three dozen Brecht poems, an exploration of how Thompson's own life relates to Brecht's, a voicing of Thompson's own political beliefs, and an integration of all these parts into a unified performance. The last is not at all successful, as the various parts remain separate without illuminating or resonating against each other. Thompson's life proves to have nothing in common with Brecht's, and that strand is quickly dropped, while he is unable to make his politics seem any more worthy of our attention than those of the person in the next seat. Brecht's life story might be of interest, though those who choose to see this show would be likely to know much of it already. Which leaves the poems. Brecht's poetry is not his strongest suit, and only a very few of those Thompson reads, like the one in his title, seem to be of real merit. Thompson's presentation is amiable and low key, much like a particularly entertaining university lecturer, and he thoughtfully lets us know when he is being Brecht by picking up a cigar. Gerald Berkowitz

Chatroom The Zoo
With the rise of social networking sites a whole new arena has opened up for anonymous and malicious cyber- bullying. Chatroom follows the online conversations of a group of middle class teenagers, exploring their motivations for seeking contact online and offering touching insight into issues of depression, suicide and the urge to manipulate and damage others. Exeter University Theatre Company's production presents these interactions as a series of conversations with the characters seated on stools, foregrounding the text and allowing for interesting character development through reactions and facial expressions. This form, however, conveys little about the disjointed nature of internet communication or how the language used online affects the identities constructed by users. Although the space is used well, changes between scenes sometimes lack the unity of movement needed to make them effective and slick. The delivery of text is excellent, with some subtle and layered performances, but more could be done to explore the vocal/ physical presence of teenagers as opposed to the slightly older university age of the performers. Overall, Chatroom is a thought-provoking and surprisingly humorous drama that highlights some important issues, hinting at what is lacking in online communication whilst unpicking the complexities of how and why some teenagers engage with it. Alex Brown

Chortle Student Comedy Award Final Pleasance Dome
Edinburgh is awash with stand-up comedy during August, and most festival goers will have sat uncomfortably through some kind of dire attempt at humour in a near empty room. Thankfully, the talent on display at the final of the Chortle Student Comedy awards was a world away from this familiar scene, with a packed house at the Pleasance Dome presented with some genuinely funny material by the 12 finalists. Many of them would have comfortably stood their ground alongside professional comics, and a few in particular are clearly names to watch in the coming years. The panel of judges, made up of agents and critics, chose 21yr old Joe Lycett, an English student from Manchester University, as their winner. Instantly likeable, with a keen eye for witty observations, his intelligent humour had the audience in stitches. Runner-up Ian Stirling, an Edinburgh local, possesses the kind of gleeful charm that makes stories hilarious in the telling. Tom Rosenthal's inventive and quirky comedy is definitely worth checking out, and Nicola Bolsover's extended love song to Sean Bean was a delight. Sam Gore's biting sarcasm will no doubt prove popular on the comedy circuit, and Mat Ewins and Max Dickens both have the potential to be very funny comics indeed. MC Elis James kept the energy up throughout the near three hour show, and a dark surreal short story from last year's winner Jack Heal was packed full of clever and giggle-inducing word play. The audience appreciated intelligent humour and were patient and supportive of acts who seemed less at home on stage or whose material fell short of the generally high standard on the night. There was a refreshing lack of the reductive jibes and small minded quips that are the bread and butter of inferior comics. Alex Brown

The Chronicles of Irania Pleasance
On the surface this seems a deliciously kooky hour celebrating traditional hospitality and the myths of Iran, a nation still proud of its ancient (and distinctly non-Islamic) origins. You certainly get a traditional welcome as Maryam Hamidi's cheery Iranian housewife alter-ego offers cup of tea around the audiences and politely inquiries if anyone's a state spy. From the outset however, her cute Aladdin's cave of cushions, kilims and storytelling props throws up a harsh mirror on not only Iranian society but also our own in an unexpected two-way process. Hamidi's infectiously cheery delivery is aided by model moons, suns and finger puppets as she tells tales of the world's creation, the first man and woman, chronicles of Iran's ancient kings and viziers. Woven into all this in are contemporary accounts by Iranian women such as an acid attack by a husband and watching a son die, hanged for being gay. The message emerges that such a combined onslaught on the status of woman drags down all of society - ironic to say the least, given the idealisation of women in the stirring myths Hamidi relates. The mix of saccharine traditional storytelling and hard-nosed current affairs may seem odd bedfellows but Hamidi makes it work via her character's charm. The script and direction need a great deal more focus to make things less devised while the accent needs fixing for clarity. Nevertheless this remains a thought-provoking yet entertaining piece that should be seen across the country and beyond in any form. Nick Awde

Chronicles of Long Kesh Assembly Hall
It will be hard to find a better ensemble performance than that of the six Irish actors who together take us to what was more perhaps commonly known as the Maze Prison (on this side of the Irish Sea at least) with its notorious H Blocks. The story starts in 1971, when the Westminster Government introduced what was known as Internment, holding primarily IRA prisoners for indefinite periods without charge. The actors play prisoners from both sides of the political divide with equal commitment and also Prison Officers stuck in the middle. Indeed in a chilling scene, one of them is told all about the daily routine of his family, prior to some minor blackmail. In the end though, the worst enormities are perpetrated on the prisoners, men who are loyal to their respective causes and so quickly returning to prison after their release. Chronicles of Long Kesh builds through the relatively relaxed early years (all things are relative) to the Dirty Protests when prisoners refused to wear uniforms and decorated cells with their own excrement. This led to hunger strikes and the play's most moving moments, as first Bobby Sands and then nine of his compatriots starved themselves to death for the IRA cause. Chronicles of Long Kesh works impressionistically, using short scenes and can be very effective, as the actors play numerous roles to inhabit the prison with believable characters. This could be irredeemably grim but is leavened with a capella hits of the 70s and some excellent gallows humour. Playwright Martin Lynch directs with Lisa May and if there is a criticism, the material could have been cut a little to sharpen the overall impact. However, this should not detract from a powerful script and fine performances from every member of this excellent cast. Philip Fisher

A Clockwork Orange C
Chelsea Walker's ambitious and imaginative production of Anthony Burgess's dystopian classic is visually fantastic, with excitingly choreographed ultra-violence and engaging flourishes of physical theatre. The first half suffers from a lack of the macabre menace that underpins the tale. Too much in a rush to proceed to 'real horror show' set pieces, it sacrifices narrative exposition and character development. Placing actors amongst the audience is effective at times, unconsidered at others. This confuses our position between experiencing the cleverly conceived, institutionalised and immoral futurescape with Alex, or judging him for his part in it. Inexplicable stylistic decisions such as the use of a window-frame or the appearance of a Kubrick-styled alter-Alex have little narrative function, and tend to undermine the production as a whole. Good performances from Jacob Taee and James Corrigan - as Alex and Pete/The Doctor - stand out, but suggest nevertheless that the cast would have benefited from more rehearsal time spent on the text. Poor projection makes it a struggle to keep up. This is a little too blunt for an effective re-examination of the controversial content of a well-known piece. Oliver Kassman

Colin Hoult's Carnival of Monsters Pleasance
If we admit it, everyone can be a bit of a monster... sometimes. But there are those who walk amongst us who possess something seriously sinister inside that seethes away, gnawing at their sanity. It could be the neatly turned-out gentleman beside you on the bus, the respected teacher, the well-meaning activist - all of whom, be warned, feature in this Carnival of Monsters. For openers, a cloaked carnival henchman, hunched Igor-like and with an appropriate fear of fire, emerges with a frightening plea to become friends before the ringmaster bids us welcome to the dark visions that await. Loping from character to character, we meet the man who after 20 years of Greenpeace has decided that the answer to life's ills is to exterminate all baboons, a faded star of the stage bullies us into listening to tales of her golden years, while there is a cringe-making tour de force in the shape of the karate instructor from hell. A lasting image is that of the hoodie penguin who plays on the disbelieving audience with astonishing cheek. The true horror or course is that these are dreadfully normal people, brought to life by Colin Hoult's slick, edgy writing and the acting talents of Zoe Gardner, Stephen Evans and Dan Snelgrove. Every few years Edinburgh produces the buddings of comic genius - League of Gentlemen, Dutch Elm Conservatoire (mostly poached for The Office), Flight of the Conchords - and here surely is the latest. Hoult is a mere step away from creating a hideous, hilarious universe in which to perch his characters - and for that he needs a TV series of his own. Nick Awde

Jason Cook: Fear Stand
Jason Cook's show has got everything one would want in a stand up: wit, originality, attitude, Geordie accent, excellent material and a fantastic audience rapport. To top it all he also has that vital ingredient for a performer which so many of his colleagues shy away from - vulnerability. He puts himself on the line every step of the way as he works through a list of commonly held fears and phobias, not neglecting of course to share his own deepest secrets and irrational anxieties. And he hasn't had it easy living next door to a dentist's surgery as a boy, or spiraling into alcoholism in his early twenties as a result of a stint in a Middle Eastern prison. He never fails to recount these memories with characteristic light-heartedness and self-irony despite any residue of trauma. What's more, he'll throw in a film of his attempt at overcoming his fear of heights by doing a 600 feet freefall jump in Auckland. And in case that doesn't make you laugh, film footage of his left foot will. There is an ultimate punchline to the show, but you'll have to wait for it, or better still - go and enjoy it personally. Duska Radosavljevic

Cool Cutz C
A quartet of hairdressers gossip, bicker and discover darker sides to themselves as they cut, highlight, primp and perm. Dreams of haute coiffure stardom beckon in this energetic comedy but the reality of snipping for a living is to be an agony aunt for the customers' tiresome gossip. Maggie (Wendy Tenbeth) is the kindly but tetchy boss whose sexless marriage is a constant reminder of her unrealised ambitions. Her staff are no less complex: Monica (Laura Lowndes) exasperates the whole salon with her lurid sexual exploits, Verity (Natalie Reed) bores them with reports of her kid and seemingly absent husband, while dark horse Susie (Jody Williamson) struggles to keep everyone on good terms. Whenever the tension rises, the girls break into gloriously Old Skool songs (and yes, the hairbrushes serve as mics) and there's a thumpingly good 'Mickey' routine. Original numbers include a heated rap between two customers: a pensioner and a teenager oblivious to the fact that they're both getting blue rinses. Gags abound of haircutting and smalltown life and, under Dawn Richmond-Gordon's careful directorial eye, the cast work hard and keep things well paced. Scripted by Lowndes, Williamson and Stephanie Doyle, with more work on the characters this should easily expand to a successful full-length show. Nick Awde

Crave C Soco
Sarah Kane's plays present directors and performers with unique and potentially very productive challenges. It was therefore an exciting prospect to see how as reputable an institution as Royal Holloway Theatre would approach Crave, Kane's beautiful, tragic outpouring of human desperation and isolation. The set looks great. A dim cafe - with four tables in front of a red and black chequered counter - situates the tortured characters firmly within the wretched everyday. Sadly, the set is the most creative thing about this production. Once we have got used to the difficult confessional mode of the writing and the confusingly de-individuated characters, static delivery and unimaginative use of space make for an increasingly monotonous second half. While EJ Martin and Steve Wickenden give engaging performances, they seem to be in a separate play, entirely usurping the other two actors with their finely drawn characterisation. Unvaried, tormented delivery, particularly from the waiter, becomes increasingly difficult to listen to. This is a shame as the character has the most beautiful monologue of the whole play, yet the performance manages to render it utterly meaningless. The relationships between the characters, or lack thereof, are haphazardly dealt with, resulting in an awkward half naturalism that sits uncomfortably with the lyrical style of the writing. This production seems to consist of a string of observations about the text which, although perhaps interesting in themselves, are not developed enough to justify the creative decisions they have informed. Eleanor Williams

The Critic C
Sheridan's 18th-century satire takes the mickey out of theatre buffs, theatre critics and theatre practitioners, some of whom you might well encounter, in their modern equivalents, in your wanders about Edinburgh this month. The scenes of luvies effusively praising each other's work and taste, only to express their real opinions in asides, might well be set in the Pleasance Courtyard, and the rehearsal of a particularly awful play, with enthusiastic commentary by the author, may be the funniest play-within-a-play since Pyramus and Thisbe. The actors from the University of Lincoln should be encouraged to play even more broadly and over-the-top than they did at an early performance, since excess and high camp are big parts of the fun, and once they've loosened up a bit this will be a thoroughly delightful antidote to any temptations you may feel to take the Fringe too seriously.
Gerald Berkowitz

Crush Underbelly
Paul Charlton has written a two-hander, made up of alternating monologues, that pieces together the portrait of a marriage in deep trouble. Sam and Anna are 29 and past the first blush of passion, though there is no question that they love each other. But their sex life is almost nonexistent, and Sam's energy is distracted by his new job, a slowly growing gambling problem and a cyber-flirtation with a younger woman. Hating herself for thinking in these terms, Anna decides to lose weight, to re-attract him, but he perversely leaves sweets and pastries lying about. And then he makes a very big bet on the day she makes a very big discovery. The challenge for a writer of monologues is to create a sense of the relationship even when the two never relate, and Charlton is certainly successful there, dropping little clues in one speech that may only resonate later in another (as when she casually mentions a second mortgage that has boosted their bank account). As Sam, Neil Grainger starts slowly, seeming a perfectly ordinary guy and only gradually exposing his anxieties and danger areas, while Claire Dargo's Anna peaks earlier, giving us the character in a rush and then letting us anticipate the effects of his actions on her. It's not a major work, but there is a real writer here, and two sensitive performers.
Gerald Berkowitz

Curtains Church Hill Theatre
Curtains is the final collaboration between Broadway stalwarts John Kander and Fred Ebb, produced after Ebb's death, with Kander and book writer Rupert Holmes filling in some additional lyrics. Curiously, its British premiere is not in London's West End, but on the Edinburgh fringe, by students from Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains New York. And let us begin by admitting that the kids are far from professional, though they are also far closer to it than I remember my American high school theatricals approaching. The main attraction is the show itself, a spoof murder mystery set backstage during the out-of-town tryout of a Broadway musical, and the central joke is that the detective is a closet theatre buff who keeps interrupting his investigation to offer suggestions for restaging problem numbers. The songs are a bit of a disappointment for those hoping for echoes of the hard-edged music and lyrics of Cabaret and Chicago, as many of them are pastiches for the musical-within-the-musical and therefore have to be self-parodies. There is a nice acerbic song about critics and a mock dirge for an unloved murder victim in the spirit of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Poor Jud Is Dead ('The skies are blue. Her lips are too.') In fact, you're likely to be reminded of other shows as much as of K&E's own - Show People is openly a salute to Irving Berlin, the mockingly sexy Thataway recalls A Little Brains, A Little Talent from Damn Yankees, and only the cynical It's A Business has a bit of the Chicago flavour. The show is not especially strong, and would depend on star performances the schoolkids obviously can't provide, though Julian Amato as the cop and Jillian Sayegh as the brassy producer give some hint of the personality and energy their roles want. Gerald Berkowitz

David Leddy's White Tea Assembly
A rather ordinary melodrama of family secrets uncovered and troubled relationships somehow resolved is given a freshness and even beauty through a production that literally clothes it in freshness, purity and exotic otherness. The audience of perhaps 20 is ushered into a small all-white room and dressed in white kimonos, to sit against the walls mere inches from the story being enacted by one Western and one Japanese actress. The European was the adopted daughter of a famous Japanese woman from whom she has long been estranged, but the mother is dying and an intermediary has been sent to bring the daughter to Tokyo. They're too late, but the two younger women bond and together uncover facts about the mother that allow the daughter some emotional closure. The story itself is close to banal, and full of red herrings and loose ends, and evocations ranging from Hiroshima to Yoko Ono seem arbitrarily imposed on it. But the pure blankness of the setting, along with the grace and respect given to the depiction of Japanese customs, holds interest and emotional involvement, as do the impeccable performances of Gabriel Quigley and especially Alisa Anderson.
Gerald Berkowitz

Destination GB Pleasance
I'm of two minds about this show. On the one hand, it is a 'must see' satire of racism and cultural stereotyping, created by a company with an original voice and excellent comic timing. On the other hand, their own treatment of the subject is a bit unsure of itself, and therefore appears dangerously close to the bone. It's not so much the conclusive - and a bit too seriously angry - rant about immigrants that gives cause for concern. It is rather their underlying anxiety to match every reference to England with a reference to Scotland and their Benetton approach to additional casting that betrays a lack of confidence in the show's inherent innocence. That said, Lost Banditos create an hour of uninterrupted fun, exhilarating role-play and the kind of joy found only at a children's playground. As a result, their show about a group of Night Shift Dover workers on a secret mission to Azerbaijan - is rough at the edges and occasionally a bit too cramped on the stage. Still, your journey will be worth every penny and every minute, and it might just take you places you never even knew existed. Duska Radosavljevic

Dirty Love C
Looking like a duet between a 1970s porn-star-wannabe and a die-hard nerd, Guy Combes and Dan Lees predictably have a musical repertoire featuring subjects such as masturbation, porn, beans, bad knickers and pretending to be lesbians. While they also have a regular comedy show in town, Dirty Love is an Edinburgh version of their London-based comedy club featuring different line ups of every night. Despite their decidedly sleazy or just plain awkward demeanour, Lees and Combes manage to achieve a surprisingly effective rapport with willing audience members. The success of the evening will also depend on their chosen guest acts, and on this occasion they had a perfect counterpart in goofy but cool Eric Vampire and silly but handsome Dave Florez. As Combes and Lees progressively descended into the self-made hell of sexual frustration, no amount of enthusiastic audience banter could really save their act. But their guests did - which might well have been the point of Dirty Love, for all I know. Duska Radosavljevic

Doctor Whom - My Search for Samuel Johnson Assembly
Many Fringe shows are works in progress, and a reviewer must consider both the shape they're in now and their potential as they are developed further. I ran into David Benson just before the Festival, and he admitted that he had not yet written his Samuel Johnson show, due to open in Week Three. Well, he still hasn't. Benson has a lot of respect and enthusiasm for the eighteenth-century writer, lexicographer and wit, and he has amassed a lot of research and memorised a lot of Johnson's aphorisms and longer quotations. But he hasn't quite made a show out of them. He meanders through his material trying to communicate his delight in it, but the effect is something like the friend who spends an evening playing you bits from his favorite musicians, trying to get you to share his conviction of how great they are. What Benson needs is a hook, some angle that will provide a structure for the show and a core idea to hang the anecdotes and quotations on. Certainly there's a lot of great material here, and Benson is an attractive and personable performer. What there isn't, yet, is a show. Gerald Berkowitz

Domestic Goddi 2: How to Cope Pleasance
Rosie Wilkinson and Helen O'Brien must have a lot of time on their hands. Their show - fittingly entitled How to Cope - is a catalogue of numerous but often under-developed sketch comedy ideas ranging from cheerleading songs, inarticulate school-girls' spats, female-slant parodies of Top Gear and Radio 4 programmes, Spanish ads and various leisure-time activities including am dram Shakespeare, Irish folk singing and Wii fit. The problem is that I have probably just given most of the show's best bits away by merely listing some of the Domestic Goddi numbers. When they do get down to it and begin to scratch the surface of some of their more interesting characterisations, they often run the risk of inadvertent ambiguity - such as the hotline-girl/nanny of indistinct 'European' origin, or the slang-talking school dinner ladies who could be mistaken for farmers. Wilkinson and O'Brien could clearly do well to apply some home economics to their repertoire and spend more quality time baking their characters and layering their routines, than just churning them out one after another.Duska Radosavljevic

Double Art History Udderbelly Hullabaloo
If hype were the guiding principle, this would be one of the best shows in Edinburgh. As director of the Tate Galleries, Will Gompertz clearly has friends in high places. This show does what it says on the packet but not too much more. Mr G is an eccentric in big glasses, who clearly enjoys the chance to wow an audience. His chosen subject in Modern Art, 1870 to the present day, covering 25 or so genres in 45 minutes showing his 'class' no more than 60 representative images to make points. Audience participation is the norm, from the initial request for each pupil to draw a penis in any style they wish to a final quiz to test memory of the illustrated lecture. Will Gompertz runs quickly through his topic but in doing so reveals deep knowledge and the ability to impart this in plain English, not a trait normally associated with experts talking about the visual arts. This show might well return, as it has sold so well and if so, do catch it. You will have some light-hearted fun, learn something about art and a great deal about the man in charge of the Tate. Philip Fisher

The Doubtful Guest Traverse
Edward Gorey's thin book contains fourteen drawings, each accompanied by a couplet, succinctly telling the story of some thing (It looks a bit like an auk in tennis shoes) that invades a stately home, does some occasional minor vandalism, but mainly just Won't Go Away. The couplets are witty, and the drawings are the sort that make you want to look in all the corners for small comic details. It is, in short, a beautiful piece of black comic minimalism. Hoipolloi, by turning it into a 90 minute stage version, do just about everything wrong to violate the spirit of the book and spoil all the fun. (To be fair, the one thing they get right is costuming and posing the actors to resemble the family members in the drawings, though surely you'd expect them then to have a stage set that resembled the drawings as well). Every scene is introduced at ponderous and generally unfunny length, played at ponderous and generally unfunny length and then followed up at ponderous and generally unfunny length - and then Gorey's couplet is projected on a screen, instantly putting what we've just seen to shame. Meanwhile, although the concept of a cartoon Something terrorising cartoon people makes some sense, real actors pretending to be afraid of a Something represented variously by a drawing, a stuffed toy or one of the other actors just doesn't work. It is possible to put Gorey onstage successfully, but what we have here, I fear, is a textbook example of adapters who Just Don't Get It.
Gerald Berkowitz

Durham Revue Underbelly
I've always had a great deal of affection for the Durham Revue. Almost alone outside Oxbridge, they've continued to fly the flag for student sketch shows, once a backbone of the fringe. And in recent years they've consistently outshone both Oxford and Cambridge in writing sketches that were not just potentially comic concepts but were actually funny. But this is a down year for them, I fear. Too many of their pieces are the ideas for comic sketches but not the sketches themselves. Wouldn't it be funny if obituary writers killed people for the material? Well, no, as it turns out. How about parodies of The Secret Garden or Crimewatch? Not unless you find something actually funny to do with them. Mac users bullying a PC user? There's just no joke there. And so it goes. Some bits, like the Argos blackout, have absolutely nothing. Others may have a bit of surreal humour in passing or around the edges - a policewoman who walks around making siren noises - but not enough to save the otherwise lifeless sketch. Let's just hope they're back in form next year. Gerald Berkowitz

East 10th Street Traverse
Performance artist, professional wanderer, friend and fellow eccentric to Quentin Crisp, Edgar Oliver found a small room for rent in New York's East Village thirty years ago, and has lived there ever since, despite - or, indeed, because of - the primitive facilities and deeply odd neighbours. He tells his story in a very mannered and sonorous voice, enunciating and elongating every syllable, with broad gestures and from-below lighting that suggest a slightly demented and more than slightly camp scoutmaster telling ghost stories around a campfire. There are ghosts in his story, amiable sorts who like to lie around on the floor of his landlord's office. But mainly there are the neighbours - the 90-something woman who commandeers the communal bathroom, the alcoholic postman whose life purpose lies in harassing her, the homicidal midget caballist, and Oliver's own sister, who paints the walls of her room under the artistic direction of the I Ching. His tale touches in passing on the giant rats of Paris, cats named after Roman emperors, and his own propensity for walking for hours through the most deserted streets of whatever city he's in. (His producer told me in the Traverse bar that Oliver almost didn't make his first show because he was meandering around Edinburgh.) Your enjoyment of the hour will depend entirely on your taste for eccentricity but, as directed by Randall Sharp, Oliver does tell his story engagingly, and may well lure you into his skewed and undeniably colourful world.
Gerald Berkowitz

Ernest and the Pale Moon Pleasance
Oliver Lansley's new play with Les Enfants Terribles is a highly atmospheric piece of gothic storytelling. Channelling Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James of the Turn of the Screw period, the company produces a compelling and macabre account of obsession, immurement and murder. Directed by Emma Earle, the show has a beautiful, simple set composed of an assymetrical metal frame, figuring a world out of joint. This warped image translates into the story of three characters in a building whose desires turn deadly. Accompanied by accordion music, the sounds of a metronome and cello, the piece is strong on atmosphere, gloomy, beautifully lit and rich in texture. The performers create sound effects onstage, much like companies such as You Need Me and Filter Theatre, demystifying stage illusion at the same time as weaving a narrative spell over the audience. There's a sense of deep traumas contained in some of its images. With some stunning coups de theatre and clever shifts in perspective, text and theatricality intersect in the work of a company very adept at showing how physicalized storytelling is at the heart of some of the best theatre around. William McEvoy

The Event Assembly
John Clancy's monologue play is, for at least three-quarters of its length, a brilliant piece of self-reflexive metatheatre. Taking and holding the stage with quiet authority, David Calvitto explains that the titular event is what we are experiencing right now, with strangers sitting in the dark watching a man in the light speaking words written by another man for him to memorise and rehearse. The monologue continues in that key, describing itself as it happens, and even allowing for deviations from the script which are, we are assured, all scripted. Beyond the cleverness, though, the event is effortlessly expanded into metaphor, the audience passivity reflecting a larger inclination to let others think and speak for us, the anonymity of both speaker and listeners hinting at urban isolation and lack of social bonds. It is there, roughly at the point Calvitto sits down, that Clancy's writing weakens its hold and the metaphor almost collapses. Rather than continuing to comment on and through the event, the speaker mounts a soapbox and lectures the audience directly on the failures of modern society, becoming merely a mouthpiece for the author. Perhaps sensing this lapse, playwright and actor struggle to re-establish the original mode, though never fully succeeding. David Calvito's performance throughout is a tour-de-force of control and complexity, sustaining the speaker's reality while simultaneously commenting on it from outside. Gerald Berkowitz

Everything Must Go Augustine's
Kristin Fredrickson created this solo show as a love letter to her father, but as inventive as it frequently is, it does not succeed in making him come alive. Despite a performance mode that ranges from narrative through dance and gymnastics to lip sync, and stage effects including films, puppetry and larger-than-life cut-outs, and despite the fact that her father was a soldier, PE teacher and part-time transvestite, Fredrickson's story never transcends the specific and never convinces us that this man should be of as much interest to us as he quite properly is to her. Her fictional premise, of trying to find some key to her father while clearing out his house, is almost immediately forgotten, and nothing is put in its place to give shape or meaning to what never amounts to much more than a collection of someone else's home movies. The show originally borrowed much of its limited emotional power by having the man himself appear onstage in the final seconds, and now, with dubious taste, ends with the announcement that he died in June. For all her artistry, Fredrickson has not made art out of her personal story. Gerald Berkowitz

Facebook Fables GBT
Apparently based on personal experience, this ultra-relevant and very watchable show combines elements of character comedy, revenge tragedy and some slick dance routines to deliver a seamless cautionary tale of just where our Facebook obsessions may lead. Andreya Lynham, Amber Noble and Samantha Lyden are the brains and bodies behind the piece which took just over a year to develop and which intertwines the fates of three women around one man. William Desburgh's spurned girlfriend Isabelle hatches a plan to discover who her rival might be by secretly setting up her ex-boyfriend's Facebook profile. This nets her a former school-friend Keeley - a feisty wannabe model, and a delusional acquaintance Fiona he flirted with during a telemarketing call. And since 'hell hath no fury like a woman scorned', Isabelle spares no one in avenging her broken heart... Nine deftly observed characters are woven into this story of mistaken identities, and that's without the invisible lover-boy Desburgh and a certain Mr Seely. Even though the narrative loose ends are all tied up a bit too neatly to be believable, this is the kind of comedy show that will go down extremely smoothly and leave you ever so slightly concerned. Highly recommended. Duska Radosavljevic

The Fall of Man Pleasance
The co-authorship of The Fall of Man is somewhat unusual, with John Milton on whose Paradise Lost the play draws, taking second billing to Red Shift's Jonathan Holloway. To be fair, the 45 minute long plot is all Holloway. It tells an old, old story of co-director Graeme Rose's Peter, a happy businessman and father of Constance and Toby and his not very undying love for the Slovenian au pair. Stephanie Day plays Veronica, every husband's dream but also inevitably a nightmare in waiting. The unusual twist is that as the affair flames and then expires, the protagonists quote highly appropriate, generally diabolical (in the Satanic sense) extracts from Milton's classic. By doing so, they render what might otherwise have seemed gratuitously graphic depictions from the storm-lit bedside something rather more artistic and on occasions beautiful. With two good performances and intensity that never diminishes, The Fall of Man is among the better Fringe offerings. Philip Fisher

Fascinating Aida Pleasance
This may be their third or fourth Absolutely Final Farewell Tour, but who are we to complain? The mistresses of comic song are back. If you know their work, you'll be delighted; if you don't, you have the opportunity to become a fan. Dillie Keane, Adele Anderson and, in the current incarnation, Liza Pulman channel the spirits of Gilbert and Sullivan, Flanders and Swann, Noel Coward, and Tom Lehrer into a wholly new collection (Sorry, fans, no sequin song) of witty and frequently telling lyrics. Regulars might sense a slightly stronger political bent than usual this time around, with a couple of songs on the monetary crisis, a calypso set in post-warming Scotland, and a running gag of Bulgarian folk songs skewering public figures. But other topics include middle-aged dogging, the unexpected hazards awaiting Girl Guides, and a hymn to the Church of Tesco. Longtime fans know that Dillie (the pianist) was there from the start, Adele (the tall one) joined soon after - and, with Dillie, writes all the songs - and that there have been a string of Third Ones over the years. Most took on the persona of being befuddled to find themselves in this company, but bouncy Liza Pulman joins enthusiastically in the fun, keeping the energy level high whenever her colleagues (who admit to being in the general vicinity of 50ish) feign flagging stamina. Gerald Berkowitz

Faust Lowland Hall, Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston
It is easy to see how the programming of Purcarete's Faust within this year's Edinburgh International Festival fits in with Jonathan Mills' chosen theme of the Enlightenment. To tell the story of the man trading his soul for greater knowledge, the Romanian director chooses Goethe's text - the version of the myth which in itself constitutes a radical departure from its predecessors and stands as a major masterpiece of the epoch. Unlike many before him, Goethe's Faust is redeemed by the power of human love at the end of his quest, offering hope and reassurance that it is never too late to take risks - or at least that is what fifty nine year old Silviu Purcarete seems to suggest. In tandem with his long-term collaborator - designer Helmut Stuermer, Purcarete places his aging Faust within a barren, clinical and unstable landscape of academic knowledge, a massive school room whose walls will be pulled down to usher us into an exhilarating world beyond. Courtesy of Ofelia Poppii's sinister, sprightly and shape-shifting Mephisto - this Walpurgisnacht will be an affair to remember. Witches dangling off the top of a fork-lift truck are flying over spectacular processions, while others are dancing and cavorting before an awe-stricken audience. A person standing next to me remarked that this was far better than any of the raves he used to attend at this same site - a former aircraft huger, now used as a conference centre. Originally staged in Sibiu in one of many disused factories of the communist era, this two hander with a hundred-plus member chorus is unlikely to have much of a tour anywhere else. Its brief visit to Edinburgh was therefore a unique opportunity for some of the more traditional Western European audiences to have their attitudes towards theatre making shaken up and potentially enlightened. Duska Radosavljevic

Faust in the Box Underbelly
Bridge Markland is a Berlin-based dance-theatre-performance-artist specialising in transgender performance. In this particular show she lends her androgenous looks to a series of characters in Faust as well as manipulating a number of hand puppets while standing in a cardboard box. Her particular twist on what would otherwise be an elementary puppetry show is that she interlaces the voice-over of the English translation of Goethe's verse with a collage of famous pop music tunes. To make matters worse she lipsyncs to it all through the entire show. Looking like a bad parody of puppetry made by a teenage Rocky Horror Show fanatic, the show is mildly amusing for the first ten minutes but then descends into an interminable stint of what could only be seen as self-gratification. The cut up tunes and radio voices evolve into an unmitigated audio nightmare in which you might find yourself fantasising about packing Markland's box up and sending it back to Berlin. Duska Radosavljevic

A Fistful of Snow C Soco
This is what I come to the Fringe for - a play that may be imperfect in itself but that is clearly the work of a real writer - or in this case, two. Indeed, the cooperative authorship may be one of the play's handicaps, since it suffers, not from lack of invention, but from a surfeit of material and some trouble in focussing its many thematic and theatrical ideas. At its core is a sympathetic portrait of the one-hit wonder, here a writer whose first book was a fluke hit and who knows in his soul he will never be able to repeat it, though he must devote immense amounts of energy to sustaining the denial of that awareness. Authors Danny Alder and Chris Hislop set this not-uncomic internal drama in a comic exterior, as the guy takes a job at an Arctic outpost to recharge his creative batteries and slowly goes crazy from the isolation, arguing with a stuffed moose head ('I'm a reindeer, damn it.'), placating a doorbell-ringing polar bear and submitting his book ideas to a critical budgie. While the guy-going-crazy comedy sometimes threatens to displace the blocked-writer-in-denial drama, both are inventively imagined, well written, engaging and thought-provoking, so that one feels almost ungrateful in complaining that there is too much of a muchness here. Directed by Hislop and performed by Alder (with recorded guest voices for the animals), it's more fun than a barrel of polar bears.
Gerald Berkowitz

Five Characters in Search of Susan Underbelly
Here is a character comedy showcase with a difference. Although not particularly ground-breaking for its concept - whereby a show that doesn't go on is being populated by random passers-by - Susan Harrison's collection of passers-by is indeed a real treat. The first to grab the limelight is of course the Underbelly usherette Shakira who takes us through accounts of her failed X Factor auditions and her disturbed family life. Other intruders upon the stage include a 16 year old latecomer JBS - an MC from Tunbrdige Wells and premature university student in maths and science, and a neurotic pill-popping theatre critic with a secret and a foul mouth - Lynne Scrupples. Slightly more fanciful portrayals are given to a wayward mermaid in a wheelchair and an Australian teddy bear therapist on the run from the police. Nifty and nimble Susan Harrison introduces us to her alter egos with remarkable ease, brilliant comic timing and a sense of authenticity - creating suspense and raising the exciting question of just what she will be capable of in a few years time? Duska Radosavljevic

Micky Flanagan: Spiel Pleasance
You can easily see Micky Flanagan becoming the voice of the nation - or at least a newly-middle-aged section of it. The fortysomething comic is a late starter who has only recently settled down with baby and mortgage. By virtue of being (technically) middle-aged, he has a lengthy life experience to help him pass comment on the effects of the transition which many younger comics simply don't have. And that's lucky for us since this is one of the funniest spots of the festival, even for those not blessed to be under 50 and over 39. Flanagan puts his life into perspective by setting out to compare how he changed from a seventies punk teenager to a noughties vest-wearing suburbanite. It's the cue for a steady stream of funny and wickedly accurate observations on posh South London of today and the East End of yesteryear: building a hierarchy of neighbours worth talking to, flashing a commercial caller at the front door, how his dad disappeared each weekend as all dads once did, booking sex into the family's weekly diary, walking around the house to the strains of Radio 4 and the skills of doing sweet f***-all. On paper it all seems pretty ordinary stuff, but when seen from Flanagan's socially warped viewpoint even the lowly bath tap has unlimited comic potential. His laid-back laconic Cockney tones are infectious and lull you into rambling stories before the punchlines spring out of the blue and catch you unawares. Flanagan effortlessly tops my laughometer for this festival but of course that might just be a sign of my advancing age. Nick Awde

Flanders and Swann Pleasance (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
This salute to the duo who pioneered genteel song-and-patter comedy in the 1950s is a delight that does not rely on nostalgia or even knowledge of the originals for the fun, though I must admit I was surprised that everyone in the audience, young and old, could join in the chorus of the Hippopotamus Song ('Mud, mud, glorious mud...') without prompting. Perhaps it's one of those things, like the Goon Show voices and the Dead Parrot sketch that have entered the British DNA. Duncan Walsh Atkins, quietly droll at the piano, and Tim Fitzhigham, boisterously welcoming at the microphone and singing in an attractive baritone, take us through a dozen F&S classics, from the aforementioned Hippo through Have Some Madeira M'Dear, Transports of Delight and I'm a Gnu. Tim's intersong chatter is new but fully in the F&S mode, taking on the blimpish persona of a Kensington Tory deigning to work alongside his south-London accompanist, and the moment in which he plays a french horn concerto by blowing into one end of a music stand is truly remarkable. All together now, 'I'm a gnu, a gnother gnu....' Gerald Berkowitz

F.L.O.W. Bedlam
Performance artist Neel de Jong evidently gives a different half-hour show each time, depending on her mood and inspiration. I saw her in a bedraggled puffball dress, slowly rotating and swaying drunkenly for several minutes before inching forward on the stage and dropping the single shoe she was carrying. At one point she lifted her dress, at another she removed her sunglasses and leered at us, suggesting a deranged woman suffering under the delusion that she was graceful and seductive. Eventually she spoke, platitudes like 'Don't do what they ask you to do' and 'Only when I like it.' But another reviewer saw her dance more conventionally to the onstage pianist who was silent at my performance, while a third reports her dressed in a suit coming down to accost audience members individually. I suspect that, consciously or not, there is a strong element of aggression toward the audience in her art - she looked at us and said 'Look at all the boring faces. Not mine.' Strictly for those who collect bizarre performers with no clear evidence of talent, and if you care, it's 'Fabulous lucky outrageous world'.
Gerald Berkowitz

Forever Young Augustine's
Using poetry, songs and personal writings from the First World War, the Yvonne Arnaud Youth Theatre have achieved what they set out to. Adam Forde has edited these historical sources into a script that acts as a testimonial for those who lived and died during the Great War. The idea itself is not particularly original since both source materials and staging strongly evoke the 1963 stage musical Oh! What a Lovely War. Despite this, the show ably reanimates the voices of history. The performances are all beautifully delivered; subtle, sincere and precise. The cast's clear talent for both song and storytelling is enviable, especially given their age. They are mesmerised by the history they are enacting, shocked by such an enormous loss of life, determined to do it justice. They do. As an audience member we are being granted a privilege that is normally reserved for the most successful teachers - we are seeing the powerful moment when learning grips a young mind. We are being allowed to watch the results. Only a dyed-in-the-wool cynic would not be moved by that! Katrina Marchant

Francis the Holy Jester Pleasance
Veteran Dario Fo associate Mario Pirovano delivers Fo's characteristically folksy monologues about Francis of Assisi with a verve and informality that closely resemble Fo's own performance style. There is one animal story, but the emphasis is on Francis's democratic and pacifist impulses. His 1222 'harangue' to the war-loving citizens of Bologne ironically praises them for their skill and efficiency at killing both their foes and themselves. Describing the miracle of the water into wine, Francis plays Mary, Jesus, the Cana caterer and a passing drunk, effortlessly domesticating the tale, while a high-ranking Cardinal is described as knowing the Pope so well he can call him Innocent, without the number, and even the account of Francis's death is lightened as the saint auditions singers for the mourning choir. This is the first performance of the monologues in English, in a fluid and colloquial translation by Pirovano himself, that even manages a few jokes and puns, as when a tipsy Cana guest tells Jesus 'You are de wine.' Pirovano performs with enthusiasm and high energy, accompanying every line with movements, facial expressions or gestures that sometimes approach the manic style of Robin Williams but that, like his stories, are rendered friendly and unthreatening by his obvious pleasure in sharing with us. Gerald Berkowitz

Frank Spaces
Frank brings something of a fresh take on the murky tale of how Frank Sinatra sold his soul to the Mafia, revitalised his career and guaranteed him an eternal place in the pantheon of world superstars. The string of historical vignettes created here to chart his highs and lows is a handy device that throws up an unholy array of the characters who populated the crooner's turbulent life. It's the early fifties and Sinatra (Sean Cook) is washed up, dumped by his record company with not a movie role in sight. In desperation he becomes bagman for the mafia, taking millions in cash to hoodlum Lucky Luciano (Robin Kirwan), on the run in Cuba, or using Marilyn Monroe to 'fix things' with sexual-fuelled President Kennedy. Faust overlays Sinatra's own story and so his Mafia godfather becomes the Mephistoclean Mr Fixit Momo (Neil Jennings) and the deal is done for the singer's soul. And there's a lot to be sorted: Sinatra argues with second wife Ava Gardner (Laura Murray) over the role he wants in the movie From Here to Eternity (he got it and won an Oscar), he fights indifference to get back into the concert and recording business, while forced to appear before official investigations into organised crime. The cast works hard, although David Keller's direction and AR Cox and Simon Rae's script could be tighter. And just as I am honour-bound to mention the epithet Ol' Blues Eyes at least once in this review, I must also mention The Voice. Although Cook captures Sinatra's fifties era swagger, his admittedly pleasingly rich baritone captures neither the star's mood nor phrasing that is not helped by an eclectic selection of songs. Nick Awde

F**ked Assembly
Penelope Skinner has written a sad little portrait of a young woman whose life did not turn out anywhere near what she might have hoped, and underlines the irony by telling the story in reverse order. (I should say at the start that I have almost never seen this device work, and I don't think Skinner's story would have been hurt, and might have been helped, by being told in normal chronology.) We encounter the 20-something played by Becci Gemmell as an unsuccessful pole dancer reduced to trading sex for drugs and then move backwards a year or two with each jump to see how she got to that point, ending as the teenager planning her obligatory loss of virginity on the way to university. What is clear at each stage is that the character defines herself entirely in relation to her man of the moment or the one she's carrying a torch for, and that her expectations are so low - she takes it as a particular honour that her first boyfriend uses a condom, and accepts another's casual abuse as no more than her due - that there is no motivation for the men to treat her any better than they do. These elements, more than the ironic backwards movement, are the core of the story, and it is to Gemmell's credit that she makes them clear and touching even while the author's attention seems to be elsewhere. Gerald Berkowitz

Funny Assembly
Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em talk. In the war against terrorism, a number of suspects are reported to be resisting our interrogators. Their weapon? Meditation to blank out psychological and violent techniques. The Ministry of Defence's solution? To send in the comedians. Purportedly based on fact, this fast-paced drama looks at a bizarre episode in the theatre of war. Accordingly, a British Army interrogator tries out comic routines in preparation for questioning a major suspect who has just been captured in the Middle East. Such is his dedication that he runs through the A to Z of comedy from corny music hall ('kids blow up so quickly these days') to the Borscht Belt to in yer face stand-up. He knows the material is corny but his mentor, a civilian comedy writer, is at hand to help. The problem is that the mentor knows nothing of the interrogator's motives and this sparks a deadly chain of confusion as their partnership provokes the suspicions of another soldier on the interrogation team. Interpreted by this focused cast along with Katherine Morley's tight direction, Tim Nunn has written a highly ambitious play that hits most of its objectives and, with a bit of extra care, wouldn't look out of place on any major theatre stage. What needs fixing however is the yawning gap in logic where we are asked to believe that anyone can slip into the military intelligence machine unscreened - this totally shots in the foot any credibility in the play's climactic conclusion. Nick Awde

George in the Dragon's Den Zoo Southside
In this inventive and ambitious satire, Las Productions takes the legend of St George and the Dragon and uses a traditional mummer play to transpose it into our modern today where the monster-slayer ventures into the lair of TV's venture-capitalist reality show Dragons' Den. Within the den lurks a many-headed monster whose fiery breath punctuates never-ending financial motormouth musings. The update is a thoroughly contemporary: St George appears in the guise of an immigrant Polish workman whose lowly status cannot hide his lofty morality. Inevitably he encounters the Princess and, at first suspicious of her intentions, the unlikely knight finally falls for her charms and is cajoled into becoming a contestant in the Den. There he slowly ropes in the fat cat dragon to his doom via the commercial allure of an eternal food production device. Told entirely in verse with entertaining rhymes aplenty, Louise Seyffert and Bart Vanlaere swap costumes and accents in a show that is in the direct tradition of British agitprop and Theatre Workshop - the sort that was once the bread and butter of past festivals but has become lost in our Mammon-obsessed present. So only one criticism: more songs please. Nick Awde

Rhod Gilbert and the Cat that Looked Like Nicholas Lyndhurst Pleasance
The far from snappy title, Rhod Gilbert and the Cat that Looked Like Nicholas Lyndhurst takes a long time to explain. It doesn't really matter, but to give Wales' top comedian credit, he gets there in a satisfying final flourish. Rhod Gilbert is now a TV star but still obviously relishes his time on the Fringe, lager as always in hand as he chats but more often rails against the constant vicissitudes of his life. Gilbert ignores the many highlights of the last year, exemplified by his presence at Pleasance 1 in front of 400 delighted fans every night (and fiery argument with the Prince of Wales at the Royal variety show). His aggressive style works far better in a bigger space and there is no doubt that the stand-up has hit the big time and deserves it. His topics seem diverse but determinedly inconsequential. Battles with inanimate objects and those who sell them are always favourites. This year, he had the misfortune to need a new washing machine and Hoover, much to the amusement of the audience. His friends also persuaded the Welshman to try Anger Management and hypnosis but thank goodness, they fuelled his comedy rather than killing it. And the Cat? If anyone cares, this was a childhood memory chosen to frustrate a gent in Canterbury. Rhod Gilbert and the Cat that Looked Like Nicholas Lyndhurst is by far the best show that the popular comedian has ever delivered in Edinburgh. If you can't get in, put the promised DVD on your Christmas list. Philip Fisher

The Girls of Slender Means Assembly
Muriel Spark's novel and Judith Adams' stage adaptation follow the inhabitants of a London hotel for women over a few months in 1945. The young women are a predictable cross-section - the glamourous one, the deep one, the older one, the overweight drudge, and so on. Generating a plot is the appearance of a Byronic anarchist-poet, who sleeps with the glamour girl but is most drawn to the poetry-reciting deep one. Much of the play version is told in flashbacks from a what-happened-later perspective, and some who didn't know the novel coming in have had trouble following things. But the shifts in time and place are clearly central to the production's vision, and the slight disorientation is actually underlined through designer Merle Hensel's projections and sliding translucent panels, which not only move us fluidly from one time and place to another, but hint at the paper-thin walls separating the residents and our own voyeuristic position as observers. Jamie Lee is appropriately dashing as the hero and Melody Grove coolly enigmatic as the poetry lover, while Teresa Churcher smoothly carries much of the narrative burden as the drudge. Gerald Berkowitz

God: A Comedy by Woody Allen Pleasance Dome
As the subtitle makes clear, the strongest presence throughout this production is Woody Allen himself. The one act comedy concerns the struggle of ancient Greek writer Hepatitis and actor Diabetes to find a suitable ending for their play. The ensemble - almost all of whom sport Allen's trademark thick-rimmed glasses, and deliver their lines in usually consistent New York accents - deal with the madcap intricacies of the piece very well, keeping on top of the constantly flipping locations and time periods as the play-within-the-play hurtles onwards toward an undecided end. Dan Pick's direction makes brilliantly versatile use of a simple set, and the rapid pace keeps the audience on its toes. Much use is made of planting actors in the audience, and having them unexpectedly join the action on stage. While on one level very effective, on another this highlights the main problem with the production. Those actors who emerge from the audience speak with the same accents as the onstage cast, removing any feeling one may have had that we are a part of that same audience. Metatheatrical references to this all taking place in 'some theatre on broadway' are rendered meaningless by our firm knowledge that this is not at all the case. The production seems to assume that we are the same audience Allen may have opened to on Broadway in 1975. Whilst this keeps very true to Allen's brand of humour, a few updated and production-specific references would have been welcome. The entire cast are essentially impersonating Allen to varying degrees, and though this serves to remind us just how good he is, by keeping the production so very 'Woody', Runaground miss opportunities to localise the comedy and really engage with the audience. That said, strong performances all round and confident, effective direction ensure that while Woody Allen's voice and influence may be pervasive, he certainly isn't the only star of the show. Joseph Ronan

Stefan Golaszewski is a Widower Traverse
In 2008 Stefan Golaszewski wrote and performed a monologue about a girl he may have known years ago and the life they might have led. This year he projects himself into the future, imagining a fictional Stefan in 2056 thinking about the wife he lost after forty years together. As the widower grieves and relishes the warm memories, hints creep in - activities not shared, dislike of her friends, resentment of an old boyfriend - that things were never as rosy as he likes to believe, or wants us to believe. Sustaining that double vision is the core of Golaszewski's monologue and, though it occasionally wavers, the portrait of a cold and bitter man that ultimately emerges is chilling, as when he actually gets satisfaction from her terminal illness because it means she is completely dependent on him. Surrounding this central picture are other pleasures, as the speaker makes casual topical references to what is to us the future, demonstrating that the author has imagined an entire world around his characters, and as he creates verbal images of striking beauty or power - recalling the bride's entrance at their wedding, he says 'Like birds surprised by a gun, everyone stood.' As a performer Golaszewski does full justice to his writing, maintaining the cheery, confident image of the public man while guiding us behind the facade to glimpses of the ugliness beneath. Gerald Berkowitz

A Grave Situation Pleasance
This is Young Pleasance's 25th anniversary show. Five grave digging brothers from Huddersfield find themselves shipped off to Dunkirk where they spend a week drinking and flirting in a local brothel until they miss their ship home. The sizable but shabby Pleasance 2 space is transformed into a 1940s England, perfect down to the last blue-rimmed tea cup and complete with immaculate costumes. There are some wonderful World War II stereotypes on display - a ruddy-faced, curly moustachioed colonel and a group of cocky RAF boys in blue. On the downside, there is not much original about the story and the musical numbers are too few and far between. Despite this, the energetic cast work incredibly well as an ensemble, led by the talented five brothers, and creating some wonderful visual images, in particular a human spitfire from which the brothers skydive to safety. You can end up enjoying the predictability of a play like this, ignoring the plot holes and delighting in the ending. Anna Coghlan

Hangover Zoo
David Elliot's play is given a visceral performance by two strong actors. It is about moral consciences, the excesses of alcohol, and the damage it can do. Yet the script gets overly didactic as the piece progresses, and too obviously signposts its final revelation. Daniel Flynn (David Elliot) wakes to find himself with an almighty hangover. His dingy post-session bedroom is created onstage, pictures cut from girly mags on the wall, and a bed centrestage. He is soon greeted by an aggressive, bullying friend called Hangover (Stuart Nicoll) who interrogates him about the previous night's drinking. The play is set in Edinburgh and local references abound, but this character seems to be from another world. The text is sometimes crude, and because the characters are not as strongly developed as they could be, unpleasant references to female genitalia and other things do not feel integrated. The show is rather too one-note in its tone, and its culmination can be spotted a mile off. That said, Elliot and Nicoll give sometimes intense performance but the script's clumsy monologues and crude plotting leave them with a hard task. William McEvoy

Her Yellow Wallpaper Sweet ECA
A first person account of patriarchal dominance and the common 19th-Century diagnosis of hysteria, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story (published in 1892) is excellent material from which to devise theatre. Confined to a room in a rented house, the protagonist becomes increasingly obsessed by the pattern and colour of the room's yellow wallpaper. A sense of claustrophobia, from the room itself and from the society outside the door, is captured well by the five cast members. But ensemble movement sections are sometimes laboured and are at their weakest when they attempt to represent directly what is being said. The sometimes sentimental music evokes the sadness and isolation of the woman but not her inner turmoil. Key issues from the book - that writing is a release denied to her, that her husband is (ironically) a physician - are skirted over and too much attention is paid to the mannered and vapid nature of society ladies of the period. The central importance of her terrible fascination with the wallpaper itself is not fully captured in a production with interesting moments and some good ideas that doesn't quite deliver the full impact or nuanced message of its source material. Alex Brown

Heyton on Homicide Spaces at Royal College of Physicians
The wife of a scientifically-minded Victorian criminologist is fascinated by spiritualism, and when their neighbours seem to become prey to a poltergeist, solving the mystery becomes a competition between husband and wife, science and mysticism. Things heat up with one murder, one report of an earlier murder, and a couple of attempted assaults, and there's an exotic South American plant involved, and the curse of a murdered witch doctor, and a medium who somehow knows more than she should, and some hallucinogenic seeds that may be driving one or more of the characters mad. All the elements are there for a satisfying Sherlock Holmes-ish mystery melodrama, or even for an ironic parody of the genre, but in either case it would really have to be a lot more fun than it is in this fairly stodgy play by J. M. Golder, which can't quite decide whether it is serious or parody, and also makes the mistake of wrapping everything up neatly, when a little ambiguity about the solution would have been more satisfying. Although all involved have professional experience, neither play, direction nor performances are able to rise above the sweet earnestness of community theatre. Gerald Berkowitz

Bec Hill: If You Can Read This, My Cape Fell Off GBT
What do you get when you cross an IT professional and a librarian? Well, at least this is how the Australian comedian Bec Hill tries to explain the origins of her show about superheros, and her inherent geekiness. But, you also get lots of charm and warmth, harmless fun and - cheese on toast. Aware of her cuteness, she beams a big dimpled smile all the way through her routine consisting of regular banter as well as video footage and her very own comic-style paper puppetry. Unsurprisingly, there is a clear journey through the show taking us through the four chapters of what makes a superhero, including superpowers, costume, sidekicks and transport. There is even some interesting internet research resulting in an inconspicuous bit of trivia for the enthusiasts and some truly hilarious sidekick audition tapes for the rest of us. And even though I'm not too fond of the slightly soppy - and slightly sloppy - 'moral to the story' ending of the show, multi-talented Bec Hill certainly has a glorious future ahead of her - on stage and off. Duska Radosavljevic

His Ghostly Heart Pleasance
Ben Schiffer's thirty-minute play, performed entirely in the dark, lets us eavesdrop on a young couple making love and then engaging in post-coital chat, the only odd note being her insistence that the lights be kept off. We will soon discover that this is not what is happening at all, but to explain further would be to spoil the play's effect. Suffice to say that we will learn the true nature of the scene and its implications for their lives to come, forcing us to reconsider and reinterpret all that we've heard so far. Schiffer's conclusion, voiced by the girl, is somewhat dubious - that the boy is wrong and in some way cowardly to think of things as happy then or to try to make them happy in retrospect, rather than to accept failure and its consequences as she does. Audiences are likely to exit with more sympathy for his position, both theoretical and emotional, than for her cynicism, though none of that can be blamed on performers James Rose and Marina Niel, who convincingly create a reality and then deconstruct it and create another with their voices alone.
Gerald Berkowitz

Hooked George Square
Every once in a blue moon there pops up an innovative musical that grabs you by the (metaphorical) balls. And, for all its imperfections, Hooked is one of those - and I'll get round to that in a sec. But first the action: demure Angel (Laura Bailey) is a Romanian singer newly arrived in Britain to work in a London nightclub. The hitch, as hard-nut club manager Parnell (Terence Burns) breezily informs her, is that it is a lapdancing club. Trapped, Angel has no choice but to accept the guidance her co-dancers sassy Odette (Manal El-Feitury) and sultry Monique (Lucy Smethurst). Forbidden romance rears its head when she discovers a soulmate in troubled client Ben (Jason Langley) whose visits to the club are at odds with his respectable wife Emma (Jessica Sherman), pressurising him for the baby she so desperately craves. Sex workers, mid-life crisis, biological clocks, it will only end in tragedy... or will it? The strength of characterisation and spot-on dialogue creates a credible contemporary world of dreams and disappointments. The songs neatly reflect this: the rocky lap dancer opener 'You Can Have It All', Angel's slow-burner ballad 'You Come Alive', Emma's torch song 'We're Gonna Find Another Way' and the exquisite 11th-hour trio 'Don't Let Me Down' where Emma and Angel face up to the confused triangle Ben has wrought. With gritty plot and glitzy songs from the team of Nick Hale, Matthew James and Max Kinnings, and impeccably timed direction by Anna Ostergren, Hooked works because it tackles serious issues without losing the intimate quirks of these very human protagonists. And for precisely the same reasons it almost fails, since its scope is so ambitious that it is hard to know whether you are watching a musical or straightahead drama. So tighten up that script, smooth over the styles and arrangements of the numbers and give each of these realistic characters a story (and song) of their own. That should convert this into the theatrical phenomenon that other productions can only dream of. Oh, and kill to keep the ensemble - one of the best cast and hard-working I've seen in a long time. Nick Awde

Horse Underbelly
Following the success of Throat in 2002 and a string of projects on the circus and physical theatre scene, Flick Ferdinando and John-Paul Zaccarini are back with a new show. The roles are reversed with Ferdinando performing and Zaccarini directing, and they appear to swap physical lyricism for slapstick too. This is a shame because Ferdinando's concept of a single woman's hippophilia potentially has a lot of mileage, which she repeatedly undermines with unnecessary flippancy. Good humour and frivolity are all well and good, but sexual innuendo is often taken to extremes for no obvious reason here and, as a result, the eventual sublimation of our heroine's love and loneliness comes across as irrelevant and anti-climactic. There are some interesting visual moments in the show involving hay bales, a gym horse and a trapeze-saddle - many of them short-lived and too quickly discarded. Similarly, Fernando's costumes - combining a satin corset with jodhpurs and stilettos, or a sequined dress emerging from a drinking trough - are inspired to the point of being a cross between haute couture and art installation. Overall though, the show trots along rather than ever being capable of a gallop, and occasionally even loses the rider by the wayside. Duska Radosavljevic

The Hospitable Venue 45
Queen Mary Theatre Company stage a dark, dramatic piece exploring the consequences of war for young people left to fend for themselves without parents, friends and lovers. Unfortunately the young actors, who approach the production with enthusiasm and emotion, are sold short by Rosalyn Smith's script and direction. The futuristic, post-civil war setting is intriguing, but the script is bland, lacking the passion that the actors try so earnestly to inject. There are redeeming features - quietly nostalgic monologues and vignettes define the contrast between pre- and post-war life, referring tenderly to memories of families, holidays and the scent of a mother's perfume. When not speaking, the cast adopt strikingly captivating poses on a row of chairs upstage, more communicative than moments of direct address which tend to bombard the audience with expletives. The play's dramatic peak, where an estranged boyfriend and girlfriend's reunion ends in tragedy, evokes a more uncomfortable than emotional reaction. Smith's defensive direction has isolated the audience and the only tears in the room come from the eyes of the actors, and seem inappropriately melodramatic. Lighting and sound create an eerie, apocalyptic atmosphere, complementing the acting, which is intense and generally of a high quality. With a script more sensitive to the relationship between actor and audience, these young performers would no doubt have created something far more memorable. Ellen Willis

The Hotel Assembly
No detail has been spared to make The Hotel a total experience as the guests are invited proudly by the (mostly) courteous uniformed staff to avail themselves of its many facilities. Created by Mark Watson and The Invisible Dot, the hotel's slogan is “Classic, Modern, Comfort” and takes up an entire New Town building, festooned with corporate logos, tourism board brochures, fully-staffed restaurant, well equipped work-out room and even a masseuse. The meditation guru and the white-walled Kafkaesque admin room appear odd touches at first but you rapidly realise that the whole set-up is odd as you delve further. Could that inebriated individual wandering around in a dressing-gown have anything to do with it? Certainly the guest in the nook under the stairs is a startling discovery (“Please don't feed him, sir,” pleads a hovering bellboy), as is the top guest room, minus occupant but disturbingly cluttered with the detritus of what is a clearly wasted and now obsessive life. Picking your way through these private belongings is strangely voyeuristic. It is an impressive total experience where the seemingly disparate parts are neatly brought together at the very end. I do, however, have reservations over the ability of some of the performers to interact with the audience's unscripted but anticipated questions and attempts at conversation. Nevertheless, this was more than offset by a wonderfully manic improvised response by the two nervous job interviewees in the boardroom after an audience member (I figured he wasn't a plant) suggested a Kylie-Jason sing-off. Nick Awde

Hugh Hughes in 360 Pleasance
Shon Dale-Jones' alter ego as Hugh Hughes was a total delight when he appeared out of the Welsh mists two years ago, and just as much fun in his second show last year. A total naif, Hugh liked to put on shows but wasn't quite sure what shows were, so he repeatedly violated some conventions while being trapped by others of his own imagining, explained things that didn't need explaining while leaving others unexplained, and in general created a delightfully skewed alternative theatrical universe wholly appropriate to the imaginative tales he was telling. But Hugh seems to have grown up and mastered his chosen art form, and so, while he is still as charming, friendly and slightly mad as ever, his new show has become more conventional in form and thus, well, more ordinary. His monologue is about friendship - about how, in a dark moment, he returned to a childhood friend to recreate the warmth and security he remembered from their schooldays, how that almost didn't work, and how it ultimately did. It is a charming monologue, sprinkled through with Hugh's askew humour, and perhaps only those who remember the absolute theatrical magic of the earlier shows will be a bit disappointed. Gerald Berkowitz

Icarus 2.0 Pleasance
This group-created play from the Camden People's Theatre attempts to graft the Icarus myth onto a more realistic and melodramatic story of grief and parental abduction. Some people found the ambitious vision and theatrical imagery exciting, but by midway through the Edinburgh run the production and performances had lost too much precision and coherence to work. We are introduced to a mad scientist who has cloned a boy designed to develop wings, and is in the process of training him to be ready to use them once they appear. It would be wrong to add too much more, but suffice to say that we eventually learn that everything in that previous sentence is incorrect. But the mystification is maintained far too long and, unless they skipped a page of the script near the end, far too much is left unexplained for the conclusion to be satisfying. Meanwhile, if the two performers, Sebastien Lawson and Jamie Wood, had developed characterisations and a chemistry between them at the start of the run, it had all disappeared by the time I saw the show. Neither made me really understand or believe in his character, especially as the plot twists developed, and a series of tightly choreographed sequences of training and medical measurements had lost all their snap. The show may once have had charm, and if director Matt Ball cracks the whip it may regain it, but everyone involved let the level drop too far for me to give them the benefit of the doubt. Gerald Berkowitz

If That's All There Is Traverse
A couple planning to marry hit a wall of last-minute panic. He consults a bored heard-it-all-before shrink and prepares multi-volume power point presentations on his fiancee's good and bad points. She daydreams the day away at work, oblivious to anything around her, or wanders the streets imagining apocalyptic scenarios that might forestall the event. He takes lessons in feeling and expressing emotion while she buries her face in a chopped onion to try to release the tears. They carefully plan out a moment of spontaneous passion that inevitably fails, and can't even make it through a rehearsal of their first dance without panicking. All this is shown with impressive theatrical inventiveness and high spirits by the three writer-performers of Inspector Sands, Lucinka Eisler, Giulia Innocenti and Ben Lewis. And yet one can't escape a sense of overkill, of immense creative energy devoted to insights and theatrical effects that don't require, or warrant, all that work. Because if you take away the razzmatazz this is just standard rom-com sitcom stuff, and might just as well star Jennifer Aniston.
Gerald Berkowitz

Il Ritorno d'Ulisse King's Theatre
The combined appeal of Monteverdi's late masterpiece and the South African Handspring Puppet company of the War Horse fame was bound to draw in a diverse audience for this sell out run. William Kentridge, the director, animator and set designer of the piece certainly offers a truly synaesthetic experience in return. A warmly lit seven piece string orchestra - featuring viola da gamba, a harp as well as the bass, guitar and some period instruments - are positioned centre stage so to envelop the unfolding action. Meanwhile, the singers dressed in elegant but simple evening wear help to manipulate the puppets to whom they lend their voices. All of this is frequently accompanied by animation and film footage mixing internal bodyscapes with urban settings and mythical landscapes in such a way where ultra-sound scans sometimes serve as a background to some shadow puppetry too. Although the puppets' eyes sparkle seductively in the glare of the footlights, the piece seems to be a far more restrained achievement than the Handspring's London show. This might be partly because Kentridge's concept revolves around a hospital bed-bound Ulisse, whose return is ostensibly from an operating theatre. Although the singers create some magnificent performances to breathe life into their characters - Romina Basso's birdlike rendition of tormented Penelope is particularly memorable - there is very little action here until the decisive contest of the final act. This keeps the overall experience closer to a beguiling concert with frills, than an operatic extravaganza we might have expected. Duska Radosavljevic

The Importance of Muffins Spaces at Royal College of Surgeons
Just like the irreverently silly title, The Importance of Muffins is a witty and entertaining show, guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Without descending into preachiness, the play critiques the safe, cosseted and dull existence of many contemporary Westerners. It observes the absurdly cautious and self-disciplined lifestyle of a young businessman as he works in the executive lounge of a Transcomfort International Express Hotel (complete with requisite basket of complimentary mini muffins). After a rather average opening, the show really takes off with an exciting revelation half way through and the arrival of Freddie Bowen to provide a slick, animated and very amusing performance as the celestial 'Manager'. Although Roberta Bellekom's performance as 'The Girl' fails to capture convincingly the caprice of her troubled character, Conor Clarke's portrayal of 'The Man' makes him an engaging and sympathetic character. Jenny Andrew's script, despite treading some well-worn themes, is original, intelligent and highly humorous. It takes a droll and impressively blunt U-turn when it looks to be heading for a rather trite happy ending. A funny and enjoyable show which occasionally lacks polish but is well worth watching. Lana Harper

The Improverts Bedlam
I didn't laugh once during this whole hour-long performance. The five Edinburgh University performers guide the audience through a series of twelve games. Each of these confronts us with boring situations, awkward interactions - which constantly fail to evolve into anything even mildly funny - and unimaginative story lines. Even the inevitable heckling is badly dealt with. Instead of feeding off the shouting that punctuates the show, and thereby showing their audience that they deserve their place on the stage, the Improverts seem to go to an impressive amount of trouble to pretend not to notice any of it. Luckily, the audience is saved from total boredom by the odd one-liner - mainly coming from Martin Heavens - that makes you smile just enough to remind you that you still knew how to. As with Christmas, it is inevitable that the Improverts' show will be back, and as with Christmas, I can only hope it will be better next year. Simon Englert

In A Thousand Pieces Pleasance (Reviewed at a previous Festival)
The subject is the trafficking, exploitation and abuse of women in the sex trade. The company is The Paper Birds, committed to a fluid style that incorporates dance, music and mime with the spoken word. The result is a frequently evocative, sometimes harrowing and sometimes ineffective picture of those unfortunates drawn to Britain by hopes of opportunity and a new life, only to be brutalised and forced into prostitution. The show opens on a light note, as the three performers - Elle Moreton, Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh - read from file cards the words of young women planning trips to Britain, about what they imagine it to be like and what they hope to do there, and then mime and dance the wonder of arrival. But then, as recordings give us the words of the women picked up by the traffickers and repeatedly raped and beaten into submission, the actresses reflect the story in mime and dance. At its best, this mode, while not graphic, does capture the horror of the experience. But at least some of the time it is either too literal to add much to the recorded accounts or, conversely, too distanced from what is being described to resonate with it. Some of the strongest moments have little to do with the company's performance style - a film showing Brits trying to draw a map of Europe, demonstrating how unaware of the world outside they are, and the simple adding up of the number of rapes the typical victim endures in a year. Gerald Berkowitz

The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church Traverse
On a virtually bare stage, without the elaborate sets that accompanied his most recent experiments in storytelling, Daniel Kitson weaves a tale so textured and so fully imagined that many in the audience (and half the reviewers so far) will be convinced was a true story. He tells of finding more than twenty years' worth of a dead man's correspondence and of reading it all, recreating a sense of the man and his life. The hook is that the first few letters in the pile were suicide notes, but the suicide was delayed enough (and the postal service efficient enough) that he actually got replies to some before he got around to killing himself, and so felt the need to reply to the replies, and then to react to the response he got to those letters, forgetting about the suicide as he renewed or began relationships and a richer social life than he had known before. As Kitson reads from selected letters, dating them precisely and cross referencing them to others in the collection, we trace a constant friendship with one writer, an ongoing argument with another, a relationship with a third that changes with the years - and have to keep reminding ourselves that this is all fiction, so fully does Kitson imagine the man and his world. As a performer, Kitson is more relaxed and engaging than he has been in recent shows, creating an informality and rapport with the audience that contribute to the complete believability of his tale. Gerald Berkowitz

Internal Traverse
I knew it wasn't a real date but still I found myself declining the pungent curry lunch in the hour before presenting myself at speed-dating masterpiece Internal. I also made sure I had enough deodorant… oh, wait a minute, that should be the actor's responsibility… hang on, I am the actor. And so I am. And these are the rules: five audience members meet five (attractive) performers and dive immediately into a speed-dating and group therapy session. One guest is going to get a psychological surprise. That much I can reveal, the rest is up to you. The show's outcome depends on how you respond to your date partner and how much you can (or want to) give away about yourself in half an hour. I suppose the worst people to invite are critics (and stalkers) since you need to have to have a relaxed, open mind to step into Ontroerend Goed's daring total experience. It's a compact encounter at 25 minutes but how many shows can you name that guarantee one-to-one attention throughout? And remember to include the time spent in the street afterwards, chatting with your other co-audience members and comparing experiences - the vital, unscheduled second part of a remarkable show that blurs reality and fantasy and breaks down all four walls of theatre. Nick Awde

Jane Austen's Guide to Pornography Zoo Southside
Billed as Australia's longest running gay theatre company, Out Cast theatre is by no means restricted to its chosen niche market. On the other hand, the current show may not be every Austen-enthusiast's cup of tea either. However, Steve Dawson's play about an imaginary encounter between the 'pornographic playwright' Brett and the 18th century author of most beloved romantic English prose will reach a good deal of theatre-goers in between the two extremes. As Austen battles to finish her very last story before her death, and Brett is struggling to overcome a writer's block, both authors are desperate to surpass their own limitations when it comes to writing love scenes. Their characters, being developed before us, gradually begin to receive each other's treatment - even though the pair's duel is not exactly a bed of roses. The main charm of this piece is contained in the very exercise of literary cross-fertalisation between regency-style elegance and the language of the gutter, which is generously seasoned with hilarious and timely one-liners. I also liked Nathan Butler's effortlessly delicate portrayal of Jane, who I'm sure will appeal to the widest possible cross-section of the audience too. Duska Radosavljevic

Janis Gilded Balloon
Born 1943, died 1970. Age 27. Pioneering female singer in the testosterone-fuelled world of sixties rock. Fatal casualty of that same world. That was Janis Joplin. Her legacy is still celebrated and Nicola Haydn's one-woman show gives a fascinating if lurid insight into the private and public personas that created a legend. Plain, dumpy, acne-scarred, insecure, Joplin was an unlikely star. On the eve of her death from an overdose in an LA hotel, she describes her escape from Port Arthur Texas, wild years in San Francisco before moving on to front Big Brother and the Holding Company, where she found fame and more thanks to vigorous heroin use by band members. In fact, all her adult life Joplin would take any substance on offer - the more illicit the better - and seemingly ball anyone who took her fancy. Alternately dippy and hardnosed, Janis reveals how her trademark traits, born out of rebellion against the tedium of the small town values she grew up with, became her undoing as she evolved into a full-time junkie. While Haydn's bubbly script could find more light and shade in what amounts to a straight-ahead biopic format, she shines as the troubled rock diva. Wearing a feather boa a la Pearl - Joplin's posthumous bestselling album - in both speech and song Haydn nails that boozy, deliciously rasping voice and infectious cackle. No mere mimic, she captures Joplin's edgy confidence, in the process allowing us to share some of that magical charisma. Nick Awde

Simon Jenkins Plus One Laughing Horse at the Counting House
Part of the Free Fringe, young comic Simon Jenkins opens with the usual 'Where are you from?' chat with the audience, before passing the mike to guest Matt Brown, who does fifteen minutes or so before Jenkins' main turn. Between them, the show runs barely a half-hour. Both comics are personable but clearly beginners, each telling a string of essentially unrelated jokes, with no continuity or transitions and, partly as a result, each having to rely on notes to remind themselves of the running order. Brown actually hands his notebook to someone in the front row, to prompt him and grade the jokes, and Jenkins ends the show by reading a poem he hasn't gotten around to learning yet. Though Brown affects a hearty drinking-buddy persona and Jenkins is more laid-back, neither has developed a real identity or style of delivery, and so the random selection of stories, about flatmates, dating problems or the differences between Glasgow and Edinburgh, are strictly generic. Jenkins is marginally the stronger of the two, if only because he loses his place less often and screws up fewer punch lines. Gerald Berkowitz

Pete Johansson Underbelly
Comedian Pete Johansson is in his thirties and has discovered that's different from being in his twenties. He is married, and has realised that's different from being single. Other discoveries include the fact that pregnant women go a bit bonkers, that being a bit out of shape at the gym can be embarrassing, that some of the women he dated when he was single were a bit strange, that men have difficulty understanding women, that size-0 fashion models are not most men's idea of beauty or sexiness, that it is dangerous to answer any question a woman asks about how she looks, that men and women have different arguing strategies, and that in fact men and women are different in a lot of ways, including their attitudes toward anal sex. In short, he is a thoroughly generic comic with thoroughly generic material and, while some of his jokes work and he is amiable enough, there is nothing in his act to make him stand out from dozens of other thoroughly generic comics with thoroughly generic material. Gerald Berkowitz

Jumpers Sweet ECA
Focusing on the mentality and motivations of those who commit suicide by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, 'Jumpers' fails to effectively pull off this difficult theme. The central story of two women - one a tourist, the other intending to commit suicide - is scripted rather predictably and too often tends towards clichť.
While both leads demonstrate fair acting ability there is no opportunity to engage or empathise with them. This is perhaps due to the brevity of the scripted character interaction and development, which is frequently interrupted by scenes with masked mimes. The mimed sections - designed to illumine issues raised in the plot - are not objectionable in themselves. The very slight interaction between the realistic characters and the mimes works surprisingly nicely, lending a cohesiveness to the piece, and acknowledging its abstract style. The most effective moments of the play are created physically, particularly the tableau of the bridge, represented by a long piece of material held at intervals to create its iconic shape, and a single piece of rope held in front. Nonetheless, the mimes still lack the precision of movement required to make them wholly engaging and, like the rest of the production, remain unpolished. Lana Harper

Russell Kane's Fakespeare Pleasance
Comedian Russell Kane set himself the challenge of writing a modern comedy in cod-Shakespearean style, and the result is pretty much a technical success though somewhat more hit-and-miss as an hour's entertainment. As a writer, he's got the rhythm and rhymed couplets down, and a few sprinkled 'thees' and 'thous', along with nice coinages like a suicidal 'self-toppage' catch the cod-Elizabethan flavour. For the pedant, a nice touch is his take on Shakespeare's signature extended similes, with something described as being 'as disrupted as a Ryan Air passenger with moderately heavy luggage,' while a suggestion is dismissed as 'less likely than Jim Davidson in a burka'. As those examples suggest, much of Kane's comedy depends on name checks, with the audience laughing pavlovianly to every mention of Piers Morgan, Jeremy Kyle, Ant and Dec or Howard from the Halifax. The plot has something to do with a disgraced banker given the opportunity to regain his fortune by destroying an African country's economy, and the only surprise is that he hesitates. Sadie Hasler provides some comedy as his loyal secretary-mistress, though Kane himself seems more at home in the non-Shakespearean warm-up sequence. Gerald Berkowitz

Kataklo - Love Machines Assembly
Leonardo da Vinci's mechanical and anatomical drawing studies serve as remote inspiration for Kataklo's new show. Not that you'd be able to guess by looking at the ensemble's flourescent costumes, pointless swimming caps and plastic feet, or indeed the set consisting of what looks like six moving sails. To make matters worse this is all accompanied by some mind-numbing electronic music and mostly disappointing choreographies. Much as you may try to attribute some semblance of meaning to this display of vacuity, you'll be repeatedly defeated by the spectacle's persistent refusal to yield any coherence. At times it looks like the piece might be about the difficulties in communication between men and women - but I am not entirely sure that the eight creatures on the stage are indeed envisaged as representatives of the homo sapiens species. This is not helped by the fact that the two main protagonists at first descend onto the stage from a hanging saddle, only to find that by the end of this hour of 'transformation' - there is no going back. I can only say that Leonardo is bound to be turning in his grave. Duska Radosavljevic

Shappi Khorsandi Pleasance
The core of Shappi Khorsandi's show is how ill-equipped she is to be a political activist or even commentator, a role the press and TV keep trying to cast her in, since she's one of the two British Iranian women they've heard of. Her problem is that she either comes at causes from the wrong angle or keeps wandering off the point. Reading Anne Frank's diary as a teenager, all she could think of was what a fourteen-year-old boy's diary might have included. Joining a protest march, she gets lost in the syntax of the chanting, and she can't help feeling that a party with the words National and British in its name must be a good thing. But it is quite likely that Khorsandi will not get all the way through her prepared material on any given night, so happy is she to be diverted into spontaneous digressions and byways of thought. She is particularly adept at working off the audience, on this occasion developing profitably comic lines of thought and even running jokes off the presence of a couple of pre-teens and their half-Iranian mother. Gerald Berkowitz

Killing Alan Underbelly
In the medieval epic Sir Gawain And The Green Knight the hero must undergo a quest within a quest within a quest - to keep a potentially fatal appointment, to live up to a symbolic bargain along the way, and to discover the legitimacy of his claim to honour through the other two. Failing the second threatens the first, but the sobering and maturing experience leads to success in the last. Playwright Phil King has translated that into modern terms, with Alan a shallow prince of the City who must learn whether he is capable of commitment to anything deeper than instant gratifications. But King follows the plot of the original too closely, and most of its elements, including the framing challenge and a surprise revelation of a key character's identity, aren't believable in the modern context. Exactly what self-discovery Alan is striving for is never clear, nor is how his adventure takes him toward it. An expressionistic nightmare sequence and the occasional appearance of puppets clash unfruitfully with the rest of the play, and we are too often told the meanings of events rather than having them dramatised. The cast directed by Simon Pittman and led by Peter Stickney as Alan strive earnestly to make clear and dramatic what is too often static and opaque.
Gerald Berkowitz

King Arthur New Town Theatre
When it comes to epic verse drama, what we usually get nowadays is a struggle of contemporary theatre makers to make it all accessible to today's audiences through considered and exciting design and performance choices. Contemporary writer Lucy Nordberg presents herself with the opposite type of challenge by choosing to render the legend of the liberal Christian ruler King Arthur into a 'renaissance' mode. Illicit love, courtly intrigue and a rustic play within the play are all harnessed here in the interest of exploring the theme of kingly hubris, and Nordberg's wordy script is duly set by director Andy Corelli on a decidedly stylish contemporary stage. Many playwrights and poets have succumbed to the challenge of rewriting classical themes, texts and characters and giving them a deeper, more playable, more contemporary voice. However, they often had a formal reason that was more significant than just being an imitative exercise in style. Nordberg's iambic pentameter play does not appear to carry any such reason at all, but at least her exercise achieves an adequate imitation. Duska Radosavljevic

King of the Gypsies Pleasance
Pauline Lynch's monologue play is based on interviews, and verbatim excerpts in various voices are heard throughout, almost like inter-scene music. But the bulk is an invented monologue by actor Paul McCleary, not as king of the gypsies but as an ordinary modern member of the tribe who intermittently channels ancient voices or racial memories. Those sections are the weakest, as the little information they give, such as the theory that the Romani were originally natives of India enslaved by the Turks, is not especially important to the play, and they do not successfully evoke either mysticism, poetry or a sense of cultural history. Somewhat more successful are the speaker's own stories, from his amiable telling of the legend that the Romani are cursed because it was a Gypsy who made the nails for the Crucifixion to a schoolroom sequence in which the child's innocent questions betray the teacher's - and, by extension, the whole larger society's - complete ignorance of Romani history. But the strongest effect of the monologue lies in the total ordinary guy-ness of the speaker, communicating better than anything he says that modern Gypsies are just people trying to get along.
Gerald Berkowitz

King Ubu Zoo
At just 50 minutes long, UCLU Runaground's is a heavily edited version of absurdist Alfred Jarry's controversial Ubu Roi, but a highly successful one nonetheless. Brilliantly adapted from the original by Luke Davies - who also directs - the script keeps the plot essentials, throws in modern references, then frames the whole thing with twisted vaudeville. Telling of the rise and fall of the eponymous character and his wife - played superbly by Evan Milton and Hannah Berry- this production gives the ridiculous a hearty embrace. The gallery of bizarre grotesques parade before us in what is a highly charged and highly amusing piece of absurdity that condenses and updates a classic, making it fresh, exciting, and most importantly, brilliantly funny. The staging is simple but effective - it never tries to do more than is necessary. Likewise with the performances; there is little room here for serious character development, but the cast present the story in a highly engaging and entertaining fashion very much in keeping with the exaggerated absurdity of the original. One leaves the theatre with the very strong feeling that here is a production that really understands what and why it is, and that delivers precisely its intended result. Joseph Ronan

Kit and the Widow Edinburgh Academy
The veteran cabaret duo have been playing the Festival for almost 30 years, and continue to produce an hour of guaranteed pleasure for those who like their entertainment witty, musical and ever-so-mildly risque. As always, Kit Hesketh-Harvey does most of the singing while Richard Sisson plays the piano to self-penned comic songs ranging from the topical - a calypso number about Obama - through the not-so-topical - a mock Schubert lieder about cosmetic surgery. There's a jolly song about economic doom and gloom, a sweet one about the end of an affair, and a salute to TV competition winner Susan Boyle that manages to rhyme 'Les Miserables' with 'lost my marbles.' This year's show is a little lighter on political satire than recent years, which is fine with me, as I and most of their fans would much rather hear them sing songs like 'Get a Room', '27 Reasons to be Gay', and their unique take on 'Scotland the Brave'. This is hardly cutting-edge stuff, and the K&W audience is notably older and more settled-looking than the typical fringe house - Kit calls them the Edinbourgoisie - but only Fascinating Aida come close to the urbane wit and polish of this always-reliable pair. Gerald Berkowitz

Knuckleball St George's West
In baseball a knuckleball is an unpredictable pitch designed to rattle a batter. One of the characters in William Whitehurst's two-hander is a working-class guy whose days of glory with a best buddy on the high school baseball team are behind him, and who can't believe his luck in catching the beautiful, sexy, high-class girl who loves him. But the girl has a couple of secrets that are going to be the emotional equivalents of a knuckleball. The play footnotes Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny, Ed Graczyk's Come Back To The Five And Dime and Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on its way to finding its own voice and focus. The fact that the big revelations are telegraphed so long in advance that we can't be as rattled as the guy is doesn't weaken it as much as you might fear, because it isn't about the surprises but about what happens to both characters, and to their relationship, once the secrets are out. Judy Merrick and Bryan Kaplan convincingly play two people attempting to deal with thoughts and emotions they've never had to exercise before, and as extremely unlikely as their situation is, they create and sustain a reality that makes you believe and care about their struggle to find a way toward an ending. Gerald Berkowitz

Lady Bug Warrior Spaces@ The Royal College of Physicians
More of an inspirational talk on a children's theatre set than a conventional stand up comedy, Vicky Ferentino's show is certainly one of a kind. Not least because she is doing it so to tick it off her to do list. She personally greets everyone on their way in and out of her quirky world in which she is the superhero named Lady Bug Warrior and whose mission it is to ensure some common courtesy in this world, as well not taking things personally and telling the truth to herself. There are real pearls of wisdom here mixed in with some crafty punchlines and lots of character sketches. Often they are the kind of portrayals done in child's hand - good natured but revealing, and she doesn't shy away from some dark undertones either. In any case, one can't help but admire her as she shares her tale of rescuing her self esteem from the pits of loveless, hopeless suburbia and going off to New York to find her own voice. And there's nothing mind-blowing about it - it is just a simple feel good heroic piece.Duska Radosavljevic

Land Without Words Caves
In Dea Loher's monologue play an artist already suffering from a creative block and crisis of confidence goes to Kabul, where the horrors, particularly the sight of one badly wounded child, paralyse her creativity even further - and have you spotted the problems already? First of all, the two halves of the text don't hang together logically - you don't have to be an artist to be horrified by war, and you don't need war to create artistic self-doubt. Indeed, I'm not even sure the script ever explains why the speaker went to Kabul (My mind may have wandered for a few seconds), so the connection between the two seems arbitrary rather than organic. And remember that wounded child? The whole focus of her description is not the horror of war, but the emotional pain of the artist on seeing her, and that is patronising at best and offensive at worst. There is some interest in the first half of the monologue, as the artist explains how each style and approach to her art proved disappointing, but even there the play has a structural problem. The internal logic of the plot requires the artist either to return from Kabul ready to create a masterpiece or driven to suicidal despair, but all Loher gives us is despair-once-removed in the mention of another artist (not named in the play, though the programme says it's Mark Rothko) who did kill himself when he reached an artistic dead end. As the speaker Lucy Ellinson writhes around a lot to indicate internal agonies, and covers her face in clay, sand, dirty water and anything else she has lying around, to show self-abasement. Gerald Berkowitz

Last Night Things Happened... Underbelly
This play tells the story of a boy's journey home and his encounter with numerous captivating characters, each with their own touching and hilarious story. There is an air of fantasy and the absurd, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, except that it is a darker rendering of Lewis Carroll's celebrated tale. SUDS exercise an imaginative approach to costume. A large piece of cloth, for example, hangs over an umbrella to create the illusion of a larger-than-life obese man, played with gusto by Beth Cannon. The piece, written by Chris Harrisson and directed by Alex Sayer, is visually enchanting, thanks to its vibrant physicality and sometimes disturbing imagery. Definitely worth seeing, if only to witness the actors transform themselves into the many weird and wonderful characters. In particular, Mildred (Lily Pollard) and Mitch (Sam Caseley) - a couple who have been fused together by lightning - whose constant bickering and maddening behaviour suggest the influence of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. There are moments in the play which had me speechless with laughter, particularly the 'mime' who is imprisoned for 'silent anarchy'. Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable experience, which has the audience engrossed from start to finish. Sophie Robins

The Last Witch Royal Lyceum Theatre
Rona Munro's speculations on the half-legendary story of the last woman to be burned as a witch in Scotland unsurprisingly gives a twenty-first century colour to the eighteenth-century events. She imagines Janet Horne as a woman with an almost Falsaffian love of life, and the imagination to believe that magic would be possible if she only knew the words, or at least that it is fun to believe it might. Her vitality gives her an authority that makes the villagers half-believe in her, and that, along with his fear of her sexual energy, is enough to move the ambitious new sheriff to push through a prosecution, conviction and execution. So, while Munro does leave the door slightly ajar for supernatural and demonic forces to be at work, the play becomes about the clash between a large woman and a small world frightened by her. This puts a lot of weight on actors Kathryn Howden as Janet and Andy Clark as the sheriff. Howden strides the stage with a natural energy and authority that are as theatrically appealing as they are clearly life-affirming and not demonic, and even in the prosecution and torture scenes it is Janet who clearly holds the power. Clark turns what could be a stock villain into a small man frightened by the passion the witch inspires in him and fighting to repress that as much as to prosecute her. Strong support comes from Hannah Donaldson as the witch's daughter, who may ironically be pushed toward her own Satanic pact by her mother's fate, and by Vicki Liddelle as a particularly brave neighbour. Gerald Berkowitz

Andrew Lawrence Pleasance Dome
Andrew Lawrence is a miserable git. That's his stock in trade, complaining about just about everything. He hates critics, shop clerks, policemen, waiters, cheese, Coldplay, Gordon Ramsay, anyone ahead of him in a queue, the latest Star Trek film and anyone who likes it, and sometimes even his girlfriend. What carries the hour is the sheer force and eloquence of his invective, as any one of these topics is likely to set off a motormouth string of excoriating adjectives gradually building in violence and obscenity and more likely than not to end with the word vagina or one of its shorter synonyms. The sheer eloquence and invention of these rants is awe-inspiring, and if they're not always exactly what you could call funny, they generate an exhilaration closely akin to pleasure. Even when Lawrence is being relatively calm and unruffled, a seemingly innocent sentence is likely to take a surprisingly grotesque or obscene turn, and his repeated assertion that he doesn't particularly care whether we laugh only encourages further naughty delight and laughter. On the other hand, those who have seen Lawrence in past years will recognise some stories and rants being recycled from earlier shows, and it may be time to retire the older material. Gerald Berkowitz

Micaela Leon - Kabaret Berlin C
German chanteuse Micaela Leon dedicates her current act to eight of what she calls Weimar Girls, heroines in various ways of 1920s Berlin culture. The list is eclectic, ranging from Marlene Dietrich to revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, each introduced with some background, a moment in character and a song from the period appropriate to the individual image, though little attempt is made to imitate the styles of the performers in the group. The spoken sequences are the weakest parts of the hour, much of what is said, including the names themselves, lost in Leon's accent and the impersonations are generally poor. The songs, ranging from the trivial to the dramatic, are stronger, and Leon might profitably discard the concept in favour of a simple recital. Appropriately, her singing is strongest in the best-written songs, including the Eisler-Brecht Supply and Demand, the Hollander Liar Liar and the Weill-Brecht Threepenny Opera finale. Though performing in a small space with a single muted piano accompaniment, Leon is miked in a manner that exaggerates her occasional shrillness and produces the disorienting effect of the singer being over here while her voice comes from somewhere over there. Gerald Berkowitz

Lilly Through The Dark Bedlam
This offering from the young River People is part live performance, part puppetry, part story theatre, and almost uninterruptedly touching and delightful. Its dark fairy tale is about a girl so saddened by her father's death that she chooses to die to be with him. But the journey to death passes through a kind of limbo where she literally jumps ship to search for her father, meeting instead a string of comic, threatening and comforting figures who guide her toward a decision of whether to go forward or back. Lilly is a small puppet, with the four live performers taking turns narrating, operating her and playing the other characters, who include the impatient ferryman, a girl lost in limbo, a tree that takes away memories, and the moon who rules over all. I think that quite young children could understand this story and even explain Lilly's decision to their parents, and I know that children and adults would both respond to the story's delicate beauty, the skill and invention of the telling, and the moments of pure theatrical magic.
Gerald Berkowitz

Little Gem Traverse
There's enough plot in Elaine Murphy's portrait of three Dublin women to carry a soap opera through an entire season, but what dominates the play is not the over-abundance of melodramatic incident (some of which we might have lived without) but a growing admiration and empathy for characters stronger than they themselves realise. Grandma Kay is tending her dying husband and considering her first vibrator; mother Lorraine, who hasn't felt human contact since she threw her junkie husband out years ago, puts a tentative toe into the dating pool; and young Amber is up the duff by a guy inconveniently off to Australia. In the course of a year or so there will be a birth and a death and a new suitor for Lorraine, and each of the women will prove more adaptable and resilient and capable of happiness than they might have guessed, and we will have been carried along on their emotional journeys. The play is structured as interlocking monologues, with none of the actresses ever interacting with each other, but Sara Greene (Amber), Hilda Fay (Lorraine) and especially Anita Reeves as Kay create a reality and draw us into it, guiding us to see their world and engage fully with their emotional adventure.
Gerald Berkowitz

The Lost Letters of Mr. Corrigan Quaker Meeting House
The Newbury Youth Theatre has produced a wonderful show for this year's Fringe. Amongst a beautifully crafted set - dozens of mounted letterboxes, walls with yellowing maps, a floor carpeted with letters and piles of old mouldering boxes - the imaginings of a tired, lonely clerk are brought to life on stage. Mr. Corrigan reads undelivered letters, hoping to restore them to their rightful owners, or failing that, to the person who would benefit most from receiving them. Directed with imagination and pathos, the show reminds us of the romance of writing and receiving letters. The sizeable cast all deliver committed and skilled performances with professionalism, energy and exuberant dedication. The performance also has a live musical accompaniment, adding a cinematic feel to the scenes forming in the mind of Mr. Corrigan. With charming characterisation and effective touches of physical theatre, this is one of the best pieces of youth theatre I have seen in a long time. Oliver Kassman

Love Letters on Blue Paper Spaces at the Radison
Arnold Wesker's very minor play might have the potential of being a quietly moving study in the ways British reticence and emotional closedness are subverted by true feelings, but it would require a more skillful production than this attempt by the Up In Smoke Theatre, which just underlines all the script's weaknesses. Wesker imagines a dying old man whose wife can only communicate her feelings through letters, even though they're in the same house, letters that he not only does not acknowledge, but shows to a friend. So dying man and friend talk about dying but not about the letters, man and wife are rarely in the same room, wife and friend barely notice each other, and the wife is heard mainly in recorded voiceovers of her letters. At best, the play comes across at a heavy-handed attempt at pathos and irony, and the production has all the earmarks, including uneven acting and discrepancies in the apparent ages of the performers, of well-meaning amateur theatricals.
Gerald Berkowitz

 

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

Reviews - Edinburgh Festival - 2009