Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Apocalypse not-quite-yet

It's Not the End of the World Pleasance, Edinburgh The Bigger Issue Hill Street Theatre, Edinburgh dream.2000 Chaplaincy Centre, Edinburgh The Parting Glass Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

In the programme for It's Not the End of the World, Richard Herring, its writer and star, admits that, like the play's "make-believe character Ian Nathan," he first found out about Nostradamus in Weston-Super- Mare in 1984. On reading about the predicted apocalypse, 16-year-old Herring convinced himself that, to survive, he'd have to escape somewhere remote in July 1999. Even though he's now a "rational atheist", Herring made sure he had his just-in-case cake and ate it when he escaped to Fiji last month with "the convenient excuse of researching and writing this play".

I wouldn't have thought Fiji was the obvious place for researching sitcom-style white, middle-class relationships or writing arguments about why Sliding Doors is a terrible film. But it certainly allowed Herring to indulge his self-referential approach to playwrighting further. In It's Not the End of the World, the "make-believe" Ian (Herring) pretends that he's won a holiday to Fiji in order to save the people he cares about - his long-term partner Annie and his older brother Chris - from the potential fulfilment of Nostradamus's prophecy. If the womanising, emotionally-stunted Chris (played with unashamed abandon by Paul Bown) was representative of all mankind, then the end of the world couldn't come soon enough. Likewise the patronising, judgmental and upright Annie (Rebecca Lacey), who doesn't like swearing, smoking, meat-eaters or Chris's young, pretty travelling companion, Holly (Ruth Grey). Ian is decent, well-meaning and likeable; he is Richard Herring. As the butt of (self-penned) jibes about his weight, he can enjoy the audience's sympathetic indulgence; as Chris gets more and more sexist and Annie more and more sarcastic, Herring can also smirk at his own comic indulgence at a distance.

It's an enjoyable enough diversion - pleasantly tropical, if no longer topical (we are, after all, still here). But Herring wouldn't get away with most of the observational material as a stand-up and barely gets away with the plot as a playwright: Holly reads lots of disaster-in-paradise novels but the others fail to notice she's the fly in the suncream. Chris and Annie learn a little about themselves. The world doesn't end.

In the programme, there's a photo of Herring snorkelling in Fiji; if nothing else, Nostradamus provided a "convenient excuse" for a talented comedian to take a holiday.

Having survived the end of the world - twice, if you include the eclipse - millennial doom-mongerers on the Fringe now have the last throw of the dice. While the Reduced Shakespeare Company go for the look-back-and- laugh historical approach, two other small-scale productions were looking forward to the moment of judgement. In Reservoir Swans's The Bigger Issue, an upper-class white couple are disturbed by the intrusion into their swanky pad of a homeless black man and a prostitute on New Year's Eve. Caustic arrogance meets social conscience and, though the proselytising was rather heavy-handed, the production was well served by the actors, particularly the graceful RSC and Theatre de Complicite member, Patrice Naiambana. In dream.2000, five volunteers appear on a TV game show on New Year's Eve to have their dreams broadcast to the world. Activated Image's multi-media production was bright, slick and ambitious. But, by the time the second dreamer - hippy student Stella - was stumbling through Alice's wonderland, the novelty had worn off and its promise had disappeared. From then on, it was the nightmarish equivalent of, well, having someone enthusiastically regale you with their "like, really weird dreams" in intricate detail. And on a loop.

In The Parting Glass, comedian Michael Smiley limits his musings to the end of his world as he knows it. He doesn't feel fine and, by the end of it, nobody else could. The last in a semi-autobiographical trilogy, this piece begins with a raw rendition of "I'm Nobody's Child" and seems to be getting ready for a wake. He starts to reminisce about his relationship with his father - as Irish comics do - then unravels his own life story, from emigration, marriage and kids to divorce and a bedsit in north London. It could be a pitiful tale. But Smiley, a hard man with a raw soul, is pitiless - both with himself and his audience.

There's little at first to formally distinguish the monologue from an uninterrupted stand-up routine. But as bittersweet storytelling slides into rancorous confessionalism - and ghoul-like talking heads offer their verdicts on the deceased - the laughs are unsettling. It's uncompromising writing that grabs you by the scruff of the neck, delivered by a man capable of doing the same.

'It's Not the End of the World': Pleasance, to 30 August; 'The Parting Glass': Assembly, to 30 August. Fringe Box Office: 0131 226 5138

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