Edinburgh Festival `98: From Russia for fun

ANYONE who saw Derevo's award-winning Red Zone last year might be forgiven for thinking that the Russian clown troupe was more concerned with lowering its audience's endorphin levels to the point of clinical depression than giving people something to smile about. After that saturnine antishow, with its flickering shadows, sour white faces and malevolent posturing, Once - billed as "a tragic unhappy love"- comes as something of a surprise. It could even be called audience-friendly.

For one thing, there's a fairy-tale narrative, involving a battle between a beak-nosed janitor and a suave tycoon-type for the heart of a beautiful waitress, that rages across fantastical landscapes. The tale heads inexorably towards a melancholic, cynical conclusion, but in uncorking its mute characters' fateful desires, it allows for the kind of warm-hearted clowning that Red Zone lacked. Above all, Once shows Derevo's head honcho, Anton Adassinski, and his four other performers, to be as possessed of traditional slapstick skills as they are of a macabre, absurdist imagination.

Each scene is so carefully choreographed that the mood can alter with the volatility of a dream: the skittish waitress and refined suitor dance with automaton precision; suddenly, the envious janitor is being chased around the auditorium by a fascistic pair of knockabout cops. There are enough coups de theatre here to fill a dozen shows, ranging from the sight of a near-naked Cupid (pure Caravaggio), disconsolately retrieving his misdirected arrows, and a Dal-esque riot scene, in which manic fire-eating and flag-waving are conducted to the hellish cuckoo-calls of a double- headed pierrot on stilts. It's kitsch, it's clever. Go at least once.

Runs at the Pleasance, Venue 33 until 31 August (0131-556 6550)