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Theatre: Freak out, c'est chic

Roll up, roll up: the freak show is back. It doesn't get more dangerous and politically incorrect than this. But what if the actors are disabled, dictating the terms, and making you laugh?
At the entrance to the tent, Gustav, the Ringmaster, surveys the assembled punters with a wickedly genial leer and congratulates them on being "a small but perfectly formed" audience. There's an edge to that compliment, for the members of the cast are far from "perfectly formed". The bold fishnet stockings of Garry Robson's Gustav - louchely attired, waist up, in a gender-bending outfit of bowler hat and pervy PVC basque - lead down to withered legs and callipers. There's a bird-woman with diminutive limbs; a blind mermaid; a "Wobbly Man" who flails in tortuous uncoordinated motion, and a profoundly deaf signer.

Fittings: The Last Freak Show - the new piece from Graeae, the UK's leading theatre company for disabled people - reclaims this least politically correct genre of entertainment (and one of the most controversial features of disability history) for its own subversive ends. Alive with raunchy, taboo-shattering wit, the piece challenges the able-bodied to "glimpse your perfect world in the mirror of our imperfections", while exuberantly unsettling such neat category distinctions.

With an implied swipe at those giant "body beautiful" figures that will symbolise the human race in the Dome at Greenwich, Fittings is set in a tent on the eve of the millennium, a date which allows it to be the ultimate freak show in more senses than one. Performed with huge flair, the characters are shown as struggling against the tide of history.

How can such entertainments survive in a world where, on the one hand (as the script puts it) "You can get midget porn and people fucking amputees on the Net" (to say nothing of watching Jerry Springer) and on the other, genetic engineering threatens the self-respect of the disabled by screening out, as undesirable, their potential successes. As the chimes of midnight strike, and the company reflect on whether the Virgin Mary, mother of the last, somewhat freaky millennial baby, would have had a scan and termination if they had been "available to her", the mood is highly ambivalent.

The decision to tour the piece in a tent arose, the cast told me, from the desire to spread the company's nets wider than the reliably liberal- minded ghetto audiences to whom they normally play. When we met, they had just had the educative experience of mounting the show at the Glastonbury Festival where the price of admission was included in the cost of the overall ticket. This resulted in stoned punters wandering in and out - some disappointed that it wasn't a "real" freak show ("which is ironic because, of course, it is a real freak show", laughs Robson), others hovering outside in scandalised disbelief that such events were still legal - but most compelled to stay by the mordant games the show plays with our impulse towards voyeurism and Schadenfreude. This coming Friday, Fittings pitches camp at the Edinburgh Festival for a run at the Pleasance.

The performers talk of how the disabled live in "a one-way mirror world". Walking down a street, there's the doubly estranging sensation that everyone is watching you and yet no one is prepared to catch your eye. Hence, as one of the characters declares in the piece, a post-modern freak show is, ironically enough, the safest context these days for a freak. The public would gawp even if they hadn't paid for the privilege, so why not dictate the terms of their voyeurism? The show floats the traffic-reversing concept of the "Medusa stare". "I maybe ugly, but I'm not stupid," argues the birdwoman, "and I know what people come here for. They don't come to look at me, they come for me to look at them. It's the Medusa stare. They want to survive it."

The idea of freaks exploiting the power of their position rather than themselves being exploited may seem a bit of a paradox to people whose perceptions have been formed by the heartrending story of poor, abused John Merrick, the eponymous Elephant Man. "But while we were researching the history of these shows," reveals Garry Robson, "we discovered that star freaks were, in fact, often major players in the entertainment industry, calling the shots and commanding massive sums. Many retired as very wealthy people to specially established freak communities." Two of these Victorian- era superstars - Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins - are invoked in the show. Joined at the stomach, though very much not of one mind (Chang was a teetotaller, while Eng adored his beer and fags, which led to murderous fights), the pair became a major attraction in Barnham's circus, and amassed a fortune by going independent. Marrying a pair of sisters on whom they fathered a dozen kids, they divided their week between neighbouring ranches.

Dramatist Mike Kenny won the Writers' Guild best play award for Stuck, his drama for teenagers about the twins. It was this piece, plus the fact that he had worked with Graeae's artistic director Jenny Sealey before, that led to his being brought in to develop and author the very funny and near-the-knuckle script for Fittings. The experience of writing Stuck was enormously helpful, Kenny reveals. For example, his original intention with that play had been to write about the dual sides of the personality, to use disability as a metaphor in precisely the way that is caustically mocked by the characters in Fittings.

Another thing he learned about was form. Instead of pretending that you can tell such a mind-boggling real-life story straight, he put it in the mouth of a bearded lady who really wants to be talking about herself, and uses the twins to smuggle in her own preoccupation. That character was, in a sense, a surrogate for Kenny and an honest acknowledgement of our impulse to project ourselves on to any situation. "The process tends to become the play in my work," he laughed.

This spirit gives Fittings a marvellously free-wheeling and uncensored feel: it takes on board objections and contradictions as it goes along, bringing out the animosities between the freaks and baiting the audience in teasingly provocative numbers such as "Schadenfreude" - a ditty which cheekily turns the tables on voyeuristic smugness in the final verse: "We have never ending stocks/ Leave when you like, there are no locks/ You won't offend us./ Look at me, I've got two cocks./ Whoops, I think I've just enjoyed a/ Little bit of Schadenfreude."

As one of the lines in the song points out, there's no single word that means the opposite of this feeling. Turn the concept of Schadenfreude inside out, and you come up with something that could perhaps be distinguished as a covetous and unmerited identification with the place of others. Do the disabled also find themselves on the receiving end of that? To roars of delighted laughter from the cast, I find that I've launched into a shamefaced confession, recalling how, as an industriously self-pitying child, I consciously envied people with disabilities. How I wished that I had some clearly defined physical handicap that I could get moral credit for, instead of a diffuse sense of grievance that rules out Brownie points.

An amused Garry Robson reassures me that I'm not on my own where this syndrome is concerned. "When we were researching Fittings, we came across an article about a guy who wears callipers at the weekend for that very reason. He likes the attention, the focus and the fuss... The Man Who Pretends to be a Crip". It sounds like a play. Indeed, with the insight it would afford into those areas of human nature which are thrown into relief at the tricky points of contact between the abled and disabled world, it sounds like prime material for Graeae.

6-21 Aug, Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-556 6550)