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Less Is More But Not a Happy Medium

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First day of press launches yesterday (4 August) with half of the "Big Four", as they be known, vying for attention. In the afternoon, young upstarts (only 11 notches on the Fringe bedpost) Underbelly offered highlights from their programme in a tightly produced show in the upside down purple cow known as the Udderbelly, which always makes me think of Ben and Jerry (apologies to Ed & Charlie) for some reason.

The entertainment began alfresco with sequin-encrusted drag queens and the wonderfully energetic Brazil! Brazil!, so good they named them twice. Inside, the show was a palatable and entertaining hour of highlights. Underbelly directors, the aforementioned Ben and Jerry (bring on the Chunky Monkey!), in reality the also aforementioned Ed and Charlie, flawlessly emerged from the midst of dance group Flawless, like Marilyn Monroe from a cake. Flawless, like the drag queens - well, actually nothing like the drag queens - were also sequin-encrusted but E & C opted for safer white tees and jackets (think Miami Vice), looked lovely and gave very short speeches. Good boys.

The second big launch of the day started later as the old man of the Fringe, Assembly, launched their wares and celebrated 30 years, which is only about twice as long as the welcoming speech by founder William Burdett-Coutts. I wouldn't say it was exactly boring, though compere for the evening the loveable and quick-witted Adam Hills, did. We could have done without the where-are-they-now update on Assembly alumni. We know where Fry, Laurie, Thompson, Norton and Ferguson et al are now - that's the point, isn't it?

Good-natured joshing aside (for that is all it is!), Burdett-Coutts deserved his 22 minutes in the spotlight. Thirty years is an incredible achievement and Assembly paved the way for the other super-venues. Over the years, Burdett-Coutts has presented some wonderful theatre, which wouldn't have worked in the 32-seater masonic hall with Mrs McTavish on interval teas. He began to introduce a level of professionalism, which, 30 years ago, he envisioned 21st-century audiences would demand. Some might churlishly say they have ruined the spirit of the Fringe but certainly not me. Well done that man, Bill, and thanks for the memories.

Speaking of spirits, the lowlight of the Assembly launch was the appearance of medium Joe Power - The Man Who Sees Dead People. Well, the poor man also saw a hot and less than captivated audience of cynical journos turn against him in a scene reminiscent of a Roman amphitheatre baying for blood. He was hearing noises but not from the other side. 'Twas the sound of several hundred thirsty audience members shifting uncomfortably in their Assembly Hall pews. I'm sure his show will do well - there is an enormous appetite for such things - but here it was a case of the wrong act for the wrong audience.

Still, it provided Adam Hills - did I mention how lovable he is? - with some great material. The three-act (sadly no intervals) show continued apace (sic) with what seemed like appearances by the entire Assembly line-up. We oohed at an incredible performer in a bath full of water from Soap (no safety rope!). We laughed along with the charming and surreal Charlyn Yi and were hugely entertained by Julien Cottereau, a man giving mime a good name. The warmest reaction of the night was for Fringe veterans (I could have cliched favourites or perennials but they really are all of those things in a good way) Fascinating Aida. The girls gave us a sparkling new song about flying with a budget airline, though I imagine, for legal reasons (sweet FA may be biting but they ain't stupid), Ryan O'Leary is never actually mentioned in the song.

So, thank you, Assembly and Underbelly for showing us what you've got. To borrow some Sondheim (big Edinburgh shout out for your 80th, Steve!): Something familiar, Something peculiar, Something for everyone: A comedy tonight! Something aesthetic, Something frenetic, Something erratic, Something dramatic, Something for everyone. Ladies and Gentlemen, can we have your attention purlease, the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

- Keith Paterson


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