Edinburgh Festival 97 / On the Fringe: reviews

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Swan Song

The latest play from Jonathan Harvey is no Beautiful Thing. In fact, despite an impressive solo performance by Rebecca Front, it's not even a very interesting thing.

The comedy centres on Front's socialist South London teacher, Di Titswell, who's been "in the game" since 1986.

Strong on professionalism but weak on self-knowledge, Di gives good "empathy" while judging those around her. Snide and self-satisfied she's endlessly trotting out PC platitudes such as "arms are designed to hug not punch".

Although the full act monologue calls to mind Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, there's no affection in Harvey's portrait of his character, and it's hard to see what he hopes to achieve by serving up such a dreary- mouthed staffroom stereotype.

If his target was satire, then he's way off the mark. Digs at modern education and New Labour are as flat as they are old, while the image of a sad thirtysomething career woman whose personal life stretches no further than the obligatory cat is simply insulting.

Pleasance (Venue 33) to Sat (0131-556 6550).

Liese Spencer

The Bloody Chamber

In an overcrowded Edinburgh, this adaptation of Angela Carter's short story has a unique selling point: it is staged in the eerie underground street beneath City Chambers where 300 plague victims were bricked up overnight and left to starve to death in 1645.

A virgin bride stumbles headlong into a frightening and deadly world when her groom deserts her in his lonely castle on their honeymoon.

Told in the style of an adult fairy-tale, the electrifying production is superbly serviced not only by the haunting venue, but by a well-chosen score and superb stage cast.

Ralph Bollands's groom is played with gratifying menace, while there is a fine performance from Claire Cochrane as the Storyteller, documenting the bride's journey from blind innocence to terrifying revelation and beyond.

The Grid Iron Company have successfully produced an enthralling play that lives up to the enormous potential of the venue.

The Haunted Vaults (Venue 61) to Sat (0131-226 5138).

Anthony Thornton


Bill Bailey

Whenever Victoria Wood goes to the piano or Billy Connolly picks up his banjo, the heart sinks. They're now comedians as opposed to musicians, you think, and they should stick to what they do best.

No such feelings of dread enter the mind when Bill Bailey turns to a musical instrument for company. Rather, you are thrilled that here at last is someone who can incorporate comedy and music in the same act without having audiences reach for the snooze button.

Warmly self-deprecating, the bearded wonder introduces himself as "the 1982 Meatloaf Stars in their Eyes Regional Winner. All gone downhill a bit since then". The act, though, goes in the opposite direction, as Bailey seamlessly interweaves silliness and songs. "Three women walk into a pub and say, `Hooray, we've colonised a male-dominated joke format'," he cracks, before strumming a wicked spoof of Billy Bragg buying French Fries: "I used to buy my chips from an oppressive chip-shop routine."

He goes on to parody music from The Professionals, Chris De Burgh, progressive rockers and Cockneys. And what sort of mind thinks up a smoky 1960s Belgian jazz version of the theme from Dr Who?

This man should be beamed out of Space Cadets and into his own TV series without further delays in the space-time continuum. After 30-odd shows in six days, I thought I never again wanted to set foot inside a comedy venue in my life. In one short hour, Bailey managed to make me a born- again comedy fan.

George Square (0131 650 2001) to Fri.

James Rampton


Gregg Fleet's Underwater World

The man who kidnapped Bronwyn in Neighbours is stalking a stage in Edinburgh. But with his stand-up act, as one of the sharpest wits around, Gregg Fleet takes no prisoners.

Last year the Australian with the serial killer face brought up a show about how he kicked Neighbours. Oh, and also heroin. This year he's gone a bit aquatic, but not enough to submerge the hilarious tales of the sometimes cruel tides of his life.

The magnificent stand-up is interspersed with the life story of a man living in a towering hotel as floodwaters rise to cover the earth. Fleet's impressive acting ability makes this interlude incredibly moving as well as extremely funny, as he rattles off details of Scary Milk and his lost love.

Like Sean Hughes, Gregg Fleet wants to bulldoze the narrow limitations of stand-up comedy. In one hour he succeeds in dragging us to extremes of laughter, embarrassment and pity, but mainly laughter, as he takes us on the emotional rollercoaster journey of our lives. He deserves to be massive.

Gilded Balloon (Venue 38) to Sat (0131-226 2151).

Anthony Thornton

Heavy Breathing

Exasperated with popular culture and its endless barrage of sex and violence? Longing for those halcyon, pre-technicolour days of romance? Look no further.

Heavy Breathing brings forth sighs usually reserved for soppy afternoon movies: its depiction of two irresistibly charming people falling in love while working together as film extras emulates 1940s Hollywood. And, like all the best heroines, Francesca Beauman steals the show as Scarlett, the absurdly serious ingenue who listens to lascivious men on the telephone for a living, and is sleeping her way into talking parts in films.

But this is only half the story. The couple are working on an overwrought B-movie variant of King Kong, and their conversations alternate with hilarious excerpts from the film in progress. Writer/director Dylan Ritson handles the changes in tone with aplomb, and a restrained style reminiscent of Hal Hartley. His play may be inspired by film, but his heart is firmly in the theatre.

C cubed (Venue 126) to Sat (0131-225 1505).

Maddy Costa