THE CRITICS : The return of the living dead

EDINBURGH FESTIVAL : FRINGE
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This week, Edinburgh hugger-muggered over international stand- up star George Steiner's suggestion that the Festival should pack its bags and go home. The only person who took the idea to heart was Robert Lepage, whose multi-media Elsinore was brought ignominiously to a halt by a technical failure. Ironically, one of the key themes of Steiner's lecture concerned the role of new technologies in a radical rethink of the Edinburgh concept. But while Elsinore's stage engines are silent, the wires of the Fringe's comedy Internet web site will soon be buzzing like a jam jar full of virtual wasps. The Comedy Web offers listings, gossip, reviews and news, but so far I've only seen one person using it: comic Ben Moor looking up the details of his own show. However, its compilers claim that the site is receiving regular visitors, and are confident that from today, the cyber-spatial grazer will have access to a range of downloadable clips and live broadcasts.

It's become a cliche to remark that comedy is colonising the Edinburgh Fringe at the expense of other performing arts. The city is thick not just with living comics scrambling after awards and contracts from BBC2, but dead ones resuscitated by faithful acolytes. In She Knows You Know! (Pleasance), Jean Fergusson is moved by the spirit of Hylda Baker, half- remembered queen of the vibrato double entendre. Here's a memory-jogging sample joke - Greengrocer (to customer buying onions): "Are you pickling?" Hylda: "No, it's my umbrella." Fergusson, who apparently received a paranormal good-luck message from her heroine before the opening night, brings Baker back to caustic life with formidable energy. Her performance is a pyrotechnic display of music-hall monstrosity and back-stage venom: "I'm a star," she roars, "I've got a phone in me lavvy!" Although the play sometimes lacks focus and is over-stuffed with factual detail, Fergusson illustrates Baker's desperate descent with honest, unsentimental clarity.

This story of how a comic fought fear with fear and consigned herself to friendless dotage, finds resonance with Heathcote Williams's portrait of a similarly troubled performer in Hancock's Last Half Hour (Cafe Royal). The monologue is set in the Australian hotel room in which Anthony Aloysius St John drowned himself with more than an armful of vodka and pills. Plastered in grey and black make-up, actor-resurrectionist Pip Utton has monochromed himself into the trademark hang-dog expression, but it's a process that seems more forced than Fergusson's transformation into Baker, and leaves the essence of the man unconveyed: like a Tussaud's replica, something about Utton's Tone is too waxily corporeal.

There are two shows in town that stage the similarly pill-popping final moments of Kenneth Williams, united with ex-colleague Hancock in eventual suicide and an aggressive contempt for Sid James. Aidan Steer's Kenny Carries On (Diverse Attractions) is a thoughtful, sparky piece that approaches its subject with affection and precision. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the power or the emotional complexity of its competitor, David Benson's exhilarating one-man tour de force, Think No Evil of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams (St John's Church Hall, Princes Street). Benson never met his idol, but at the age of 13, won a story-writing competition and watched Williams read his work on Jackanory. Benson's mastery of his subject's every mannered nuance and inflection ensures that the performance administers a multitude of tender, familiar shocks. Here, Williams lives and breathes in all his camply pompous tragedy, but the piece is not just artful bootlegging. As Benson inter-weaves uncanny re-creation with confessional autobiography Think No Evil of Us gains a startling intensity unmatched by anything on the Fringe. It is unforgettable and inspirational theatre that has the audience cheering in admiration.

A magnet for Festival scenester and hungover hack alike, the Pleasance has Edinburgh's most comprehensive complement of living comedians: its house-style encompasses the cheeky charnelry of The Bastard Son of Tommy Cooper, the discontinous raconteuring of Malcolm Hardee, and the dazzlingly spontaneous Ross Noble. However, the venue's most challenging offering is a straightish play: Stephen Sharkey's highly original reworking of Oblomov, Gomcharov's tale of under-achievement in 19th-century Russia. With the action transposed to present-day Hounslow, the strength of Sharkey's adaptation is its effortless command of many different dramatic tones: the script slips elegantly between sharp, sly satire and gently generated joy. His words get a sensitive workover by a celebrity-sprinkled dream cast headed by Dan O'Brien, who plays Oblomov as an indolent Trekkie mooning over his model spacecraft, and who - momentarily - escapes the gravitational pull of his bed. Highly recommended, not least by Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley, who was an enthusiastic member of Monday afternoon's audience. Doubtless she noted the names of the play's do-nothing dollie characters and got straight on the phone to Peter Lilley's cheat line.

Correction: we've been asked to point out that contrary to last week's Fringe Diary the USC School of Theatre's production of 'Reservoir Dogs' (Drummond Community Theatre) is indeed authorised, and has the blessing of Quentin Tarantino himself.

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