The Fringe, as seen in black and white

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The Independent Online
Two weeks ago someone at The Independent gave as one of his golden rules on Fringe-going, "Don't go to any student drama".

Thanks a lot, buddy. Ever since then I have been attacked by hordes of students asking me to justify my paper's stance, which of course I have not even tried to do. Student, amateur, hopeful, ambitious productions are the seedbed for the future, yet journalists who have just enjoyed a good (free) slick show at a popular venue will always write off the fringe of the Fringe.

It happened again in The Observer last Sunday when someone called Carol Sarler wrote a diary from Edinburgh saying that the only good things at the Fringe were at the three big venues, the Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and Assembly Rooms. Stick with them, and you'll be safe, she says. The artistic directors of these places know what they are doing and have already picked the best. "It is years now since I have made an unfortunate mistake and ended up in a draughty church hall watching earnest, callow youths struggle with Ayckbourn."

Well, bully for you, Carol Sarler. Going out with someone with your sense of adventure and curiosity must be as exciting as going to Knightsbridge to do your shopping, or going on holiday in the Dordogne. Someone who thinks earnest, callow youths will opt for Ayckbourn, not Kafka or Camus, someone who thinks if a thing is not on at the Assembly Rooms it must be student drama, is not my idea of a trusty companion on the Fringe.

Actually, the main point of the Fringe is not for the pros to strut their stuff at the big three venues, but for new stuff to come up for air, whether experimental or traditional, at whatever address. Of the best shows I have seen so far, only one, the wonderfully inventive Let The Donkey Go, was at a big venue, the Pleasance. The others have all been on the periphery. In fact, one was in a shop. Valvona and Crolla is the best Italian food shop in Edinburgh, and every year one of the owners, Philip Contini, has teamed up with singer/storyteller Mike Maran and several musicians to do an hour's show at lunchtime in a tiny theatre space at the back. This year they have come up with an utterly engrossing and enchanting version of Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli, which is the only show in town which gets the audience stomping along with Italian Fascist anthems from the Thirties.

I am not quite sure how a local jazz group gets to be part of the Fringe, but if the John Rae Collective had not been listed as a Fringe attraction at the Tron Cafe I would not have gone along on Monday to hear them, and to gasp at how good they are - especially, on the night, a guitarist with flying fingers, Kevin McKenzie, and pianist Brian Kelloch, who does frightening things to the keyboard.

And if I had not got chatting to a young American called Alex Carney at the Assembly Rooms, who was handing out leaflets for the show he had stage managed, I would not have gone along to the French Institute on a whim to see Slippery When Wet, a La Mama Theatre production. It was stunning. It is a piece written by the American writer Suzen Murakoshi, featuring just two wonderful actors, herself as a young Japanese American girl and Leland Gantt as the black American man who calls to take her out.

For an hour the air between them crackles with mistrust, and hostility, and mutual mockery, and sexual chemistry going wrong, and the sound of racial stereotypes melting and reforming, until you feel quite exhausted yet uplifted. She is happy to be American. He feels drawn to his roots. "Do you speak Japanese?" he sneers. "Do you speak African?" she counters, and on it goes, the dance of love/hate. There is even an extraordinary nude scene, extraordinary not just because they both have enviable bodies, but because it was the only part of the pay where aggression gave way to a kind of tenderness, as if they had shed their attitudes with their clothes.

The whole thing was accompanied by a nearly-on-stage musician, Fred Carl, whose myriad one-man noises were as good as many a complex film score. The acting was wonderful, and even if some of the racial implications are lost on a Briton, I am grateful that I had the unaccountable good sense to go and see it. This is its last week on the Fringe. Go and see it. Unless you are Carol Sarler, in which case you wouldn't bother. But I guess that is no loss.

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