EDINBURGH 98; Hack comes back to take an axe to the Fringe

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The Independent Culture
IAN SHUTTLEWORTH and Richard Hurst can't buy my approval. I am deaf to their repeated references to days in the past spent tirelessly covering the festival for this paper. Their having presented me on stage with the Critical Mass Award - a boxed vitamin C pill - makes no odds. Anyone who saw the first instalment of Critical Condition last week will trust these assurances about as much as refugees would a UN-maintained safe haven.

But for what it's worth, Shuttleworth, the comedy critic of the Financial Times, has more reason to quake in his loafers than put his feet up when it comes to this review: the wound inflicted by his dismissal of my portrayal of Claudius at the 1990 National Student Drama Festival still suppurates.

Irrespective of amity or animosity between critics, though, it's impossible for anyone attending the Fringe - whether they're writing about it, performing in it, or genuine punters - to show a Rhadamanthine aspect towards the sequel to the now notorious solo show "Critical Mass". "Return of the Hack" (which should strictly be called "Return with Another Hack") thrives on the fact that those who visit Edinburgh at this time of year are privy to a sort of collective in-joke, one which may be of little amusement to the rest of the country. The idea that it would win the Perrier is laughable, not because it is bad, but because the material wouldn't survive a minute outside this hot-house of self-gratification.

The task of surviving the next four weeks is all that Shuttleworth and Hurst [a Scotsman Fringe veteran] want their audience to concern itself with. Claiming to have evaluated 984 shows between them in their time (judging by appearances, the slouching, chain-smoking Shuttleworth seems to have endured more), they promise to "hold a mirror up to the Fringe programme". More like a lighter. There are recommendations, but the emphasis, through neat one-liners and wonderfully hackish metaphors, is on how to avoid wasting time that could be spent in a pub. A discriminating mind is essential, we are told: discriminate against students, certain venues , leafleteers and, above all, companies using Robbie Williams' "Let Me Entertain You" as a soundtrack ("Leave immediately. Do not stop to pick up any personal belongings").

"Return of the Hack" is faithful to the self-promoting essence of the Fringe - Hurst exhorts the audience to rig a phone poll in their favour and attempts to distribute fliers for his own show. It also gently mocks its own recommendation to err on the side of prejudice.

They might not be the new Lee and Herring (they're twice as schoolboyishly self-referential), but they're not out of their depth, either. Catch them early before their self-imposed diet of multivitamins and neo-Garlic tablets, Nurofen, Prozac (optional) and Vitamin C, washed down with lager, take its inevitable toll.

Runs until 31 August (0131-226 2151)

Dominic Cavendish