Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008, Various, Edinburgh

Chilling secrets of the black box recorder leave you on the edge of your seat

Talk about starting the Edinburgh Fringe on a high. Charlie Victor Romeo at the Udderbelly's Pasture is the most hair-raising piece of verbatim theatre I've ever seen: a re-creation of six real-life airflight emergencies, transcribed from their black box recorders. It's such a white-knuckle ride that I found myself on the edge of my seat. At the end, you stagger away feeling like an exhausted survivor.

I've made it sound like a melodrama. What is truly extraordinary about this production – safely transported from Off-Broadway's Collective: Unconscious Theater – is how restrained its protagonists are and how scrupulously authentic the acting is. No histrionics here.

You're looking over the nose of the plane into a small grey cockpit and, whether it's over Iowa or Peru, each flight is running smoothly at first. A pilot and a first officer – white shirts, black epaulettes – sit behind the controls. They're quietly concentrated in the main, having a little humorous chat if a flight attendant pops in, but mostly just confirming technical stuff, talking about "rudder ratio" or "flaps 15". There may be an inkling of trouble, an observation accompanied by a small frown, giving you that sinking feeling: "Lotta birds here", or "I'm showing some ice". Then suddenly it all goes horribly awry.

In two cases, the crash into darkness is chillingly fast, with just the facts slide-projected in the ensuing silence: the flight, date, the number of fatalities and the cause. Elsewhere the nightmare seems to last an eternity as the crew members – desperately seeking guidance from air traffic control – struggle to save the situation. They're faced with altimeters gone haywire, uncontrollable surges in speed, or steering that allows only right turns – and that last plane, incredibly, manages to make it to a runway. One pilot grips the joystick, his arms juddering with the strain, sweat streaming over his eyelashes. A first officer, with gritted teeth, thumbs through a manual, trying to work out what the hell has gone wrong. Help!

One of my colleagues condemned this show as the equivalent of rubbernecking at car accidents. But all theatre, from Oedipus Rex onwards, is rubbernecking of a sort, with fear and sympathy in the mix. Moreover, what Charlie Victor Romeo becomes is a fascinating microscopic study of teamwork under phenomenal pressure – one so revealing it has been filmed by the US air force as a training video. This is also a profoundly moving depiction of determined bravery. In fact, like an alternative to the medieval Ship of Fools, this cockpit ultimately seems like an allegory for mortal life: people destroyed, time and again, by human error, ill-chance and forces greater than themselves, but going down fighting against that fate.

Verbatim theatre gets my vote for best bet at this year's festival for the excellent Motherland at the Underbelly: a collage of women's voices from the North-east of England, specifically of the mothers, sisters and partners of servicemen and women who are posted to or, indeed, killed in Iraq. Four young actresses (Helen Embleton, Rachel Adamson, Eleanor Clarke and Charlie Binns) switch roles, playing all the interviewees recorded by director Steve Gilroy. They do this with superb sensitivity, seeming to become younger or older before your eyes.

Over at the Traverse, The New Electric Ballroom by Ireland's acclaimed Enda Walsh proves somewhat tiresome. Three reclusive sisters rabbit obsessively, replaying amorous memories of a small-town dance hall. Finally they invite the fishmonger in, hoping he'll be their romantic saviour. Druid's production is polished and Walsh can be explosively funny as well as lyrical. However, he's wearisomely indebted to Beckett, with a twee touch of Under Milk Wood.

Also at the Traverse, Zinnie Harris's Fall – where a war criminal's wife is roped into political shenanigans – seems lumpen and low on insights, even with Geraldine Alexander's fragrant delicacy and Darrell D'Silva's muscular urgency as the nameless state's PM. Simon Stephens's Pornography is more intriguing, a kaleidoscopic glimpse of Londoners crossing the city on the day of the 7/7 bombings. Their private obsessions are intercut with the imagined interior monologue of one of the Tube bombers.

'Charlie Victor Romeo' to 25 Aug; 'Motherland' to 24 Aug; 'New Electric Ballroom', 'Fall' and 'Pornography', all to 24 Aug (Fringe box office 0131-226 0000)

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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