Edinburgh Festival Day 2: Sha-la-la-la, wo-o-o-o: Karen Carpenter haunts the Fringe. Mark Wareham discovers it is yesterday once more-ore-ore . . .

It is customary for the Fringe to throw up five versions of Abigail's Party or a dozen Macbeths. But no one honestly expected 1993's strange case of the three Karens. How could they? There are any number of defunct kitsch pop groups that could have attracted Edinburgh show-makers. This year's tributes to Boney M and Gary Glitter are only to be expected. But the Carpenters? They only make the very occasional outing on the Pete Murray Show, and it's been a while since they were piped across the food aisles of Asda, so why would anyone in their right mind sit down to write a show about such long- forgotten purveyors of sha-la-la-la schmaltz?

It's a question Dian Perry, star and co-writer of Yesterday Once More - Growing Up with the Carpenters, isn't about to duck. Hers is the only non-comedy of the three Carpenters shows and the one genuine tribute. The chief reason, it transpires, is that it's 10 years since Karen's death. 'Plus,' she says, 'I'm almost the same age she was when she died. It's time I came out of the closet, dammit. I'm tired of hiding my Carpenters records under the couch.' She might also have mentioned the one other good reason for the show - her uncanny ability to reproduce the crystal-clear tones of the Carpenter voice.

The Carpenters was the first album she bought, aged 12, and it remained her only record for the next five years. 'I liked to hang around in my room and feel really down to the Carpenters.' Then last year, fate intervened. Tomek Bork, the show's director and co-writer, heard her singing a Carpenters song in a karaoke bar in London ('I mean, you can't sing them anywhere else and get away with it,' she says). He suggested a collaboration and, having won the tacit approval of Richard Carpenter, she settled down to rehearse her dooby-doos and shing-a-lings.

Meanwhile, in an altogether sleazier part of town, Graham Norton was working on a less reverential tribute - The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill, an anorexic comedy that takes place at Karen's last birthday party. While admitting that he's on dodgy ground with this one (last year his appearance as a tea-towel-clad Mother Theresa of Calcutta received plenty of flak), Norton says he's had not a single complaint about little ad- libs like 'Why do birds suddenly appear / Every time you are near . . . Well, because I always throw my lunch away.'

'It's surprised me how far I'm able to push it all,' he says. 'Look, you read the title, then you buy a ticket, you know what you're going to get. How stupid do you have to be? You're not going to get a homage.'

Despite the fact that Dian Perry's tragic Karen is proving the more popular in terms of audience sizes, Norton insists on Karen's intrinsic comedy value. 'She's always struck me as slightly amusing because a lot of Carpenters songs are played in supermarkets. I always think 'How inappropriate' and start putting tins back.'

Although you wouldn't think it, Norton now considers himself an avowed Carpenters fan. 'Originally, when I got the idea for the show, I thought, 'Pre-show music? Just shove on The Carpenters album. Very funny.' So I bought it and it's not funny at all. It's very listenable. Like a lot of Glen Campbell. kd lang says she wants to be the Karen Carpenter for the Nineties. 'Goodbye to Love' is spot-on. All I know of love is how to live without it. Fabulous line.'

David Richard Carpenter, creator of the third Karen in Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, is driven more by revenge. 'I've been called David Richard Carpenter since my birth; I was nicknamed Karen at school and it was a bloody nightmare. I absolutely hated the Carpenters. I was very anti-pop. Would never buy a single. Concept albums only.'

The inspiration for his play, a comedy, was the song of the title. ' 'Calling Occupants' is just off the wall. They were losing the plot by then. It was the official anthem of World Contact Day, some acid-inspired nonsense an East Coast hippie dreamed up at about the same time Tuli Kupfenberg of the Fugs was attempting to levitate the White House.'

Carpenter, who co-habits with Arthur Smith in Balham ('It's not a sexual thing') and who writes for comedians Ben Miller, Tony Hawks 'and anyone else who's around', was determined to avoid being nasty. 'It's too easy to take the piss, though they did write some very irritating songs. It's difficult to write a comedy about a tragically dead person. It's a very sad story. They were loners. They never lived apart.'

All three Karens are keen to get at the underlying tragedy behind the Carpenter voice, but it is Norton who has the most interesting theories. He blames Richard Carpenter for not allowing Karen any control over the group. 'There's something sinister about him. In all the photos, he's always the one in front looking stern and manipulating.' In his version, Karen was only in the group because 'the Carpenter' sounded too religious.

Yesterday Once More - Growing Up with the Carpenters, Hill Street Theatre (venue 41), 19 Hill Street (031-226 6522). 9pm to 4 Sept (not 23 Aug, 2 Sept).

The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill, Pleasance (venue 33), 60 The Pleasance (031-556 6550). 6.30pm to 4 Sept (not 2).

Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, Stepping Stones (venue 51), West Bow, Grassmarket (031-225 6520). 1.45pm to 4 Sept (not 31 Aug).

(Photograph omitted)

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