THEATRE / Dark nights of the soul: The London fringe can be a daunting place for the uninitiated. Robert Hanks, the Independent's radio critic, reports on five months of cushioned torture, pleasant surprises, near-empty theatres and some quite nice pubs

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There ought to be a review in this space of A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, Iain Heggie's health- club set comedy, revived by Peter Mackie Burns at the Old Red Lion. Sadly, since nobody turned up on Sunday night except me and a couple of friends of the cast, the performance was cancelled. Still, even if I didn't actually see the show, and this isn't the kind of thing a critic should make a habit of, I can nevertheless sincerely recommend that you go and see it on the grounds that the Old Red Lion is quite a nice pub, Paul Taylor says the play is very funny, and the cast generously bought me a drink to make up for my trouble. If you do go, you can at least be sure that your money will be going to people with a basic sense of decency.

The public lack of interest in the performance shouldn't have come as a surprise - this was a warm, sunny evening with several good films on television, after all (and if anybody has The Professionals on video could they please write to me c/o the Independent?). More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that in five months covering the fringe (plus a few other theatrical odds and sods) for this page, this was the first time I have had a show cancelled on me. The conviction that the show must go on has left me a couple of times in near-empty theatres where actors and audience are exposed to each other in a way that isn't healthy or comfortable - I still brood over a matinee of John Quentin's one-man show Barnaby Downing at the New End, a shrewd, chilling play that seemed to have everything except the ability to engage the emotions. It might even have had that if there had been more than four of us to share the experience.

The unfortunate truth is that very few people ever even think about visiting London fringe theatres. This can make fringe reviewing seem a particularly esoteric activity - given the small space this paper can devote to high quality theatre outside London, documenting the low-budget antics of a few drama school graduates and resting thespians seems like an indulgence.

But there are good grounds for saying that the fringe is more than a luxury, and that more people ought to give the fringe a chance - not just because it's a valuable testing ground for new talent. To be sure, there are venues, like the Bush and the Finborough, that take it as their duty to concentrate on new writing; and it's very sad to report that Graham White's first play, Bleat, a lumpily entertaining tragicomedy, will probably be the Finborough's last production unless they can raise pounds 30,000 over this summer.

But as animal rights campaigners know, experiments can be painful things to undergo. One problem for the fringe is, I suspect, that people go in the expectation of suffering. Up to a point, this is realistic: an evening of tentative liaison with the knees of the row behind on the lightly cushioned torture platforms of the Bush, or with your own knees jammed up into your solar plexus in the back row of the White Bear in Kennington, can reveal dimensions of discomfort that you wouldn't normally expect to stand without anaesthetic. And it can be tiresome, as a non-smoker, to find yourself stuck in a tiny room while four actors puff away at their Silk Cut in an effort to add an air of naturalism.

Bearing in mind all the risks and all the pain, though, the main reason for going to the fringe is not that you're doing a bit of good to the world of theatre, but that so much of it is just plain good. Having done fringe reviewing on and off for six or seven years, I have had my share of downers - a personal low, about five years ago, was being one of four people watching an improvised one- woman mime / dance / music show at the Finborough, and having the other three between me and the door. So taking over the fringe slot at the beginning of this year, I was torn between a basic enthusiasm for theatre in general and a deep-rooted scepticism about the chances of actually seeing anything worthwhile.

On the whole, the job has turned out a pleasant surprise. The main point about the fringe is that it provides actors, writers and directors with the chance to do things they want to do, and the enthusiasm shows. I don't want to oversell it - enthusiasm can easily descend into pretension, or fail to disguise incompetence. Fortunately you can usually weed out the dross - words to look out for in the publicity include: 'physical', 'devised', 'black comedy', 'German comedy', 'neglected', 'Polish', 'using mime'. But part of the pleasure is that you never know quite what to expect - a cabaret called Dark Fruit by a group called Pomo Afro Homos seems to give itself away pretty thoroughly; but seeing it at the Drill Hall last week, I was struck by how parts of it moved beyond camp in-jokes for the gay community into moving autobiographical vignettes that easily transcended sexual categories.

I'm now vacating this slot, after more than 60 shows in five months. My hope is that I've done my bit to warn readers off some of the atrocities that are committed in the name of art. But it would be nice to think that at least one or two performances of something worthwhile have been saved from being cancelled due to lack

of interest.

'Bleat' is at the Finborough (071-373 3842). 'Dark Fruit', Drill Hall (071-637 8270)