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Michael Coveney: No laughing matters, with jokes, in Edinburgh

There are five star reviews all round for Grounded at the Traverse, Nirbhaya at the Assembly Hall - and for my old friend Gyles Brandreth at the PLeasance Courtyard. Which only goes to show that you don't have to be miserable about the state of the world all the time to get on the right side of the critics.

Grounded, which is about how we fight today's wars and features a pregnant F-16 pilot sounds not only fabulous, but also important, not least in the WOS review by Andrew Haydon. Nirbhaya, based on the true story of the young woman who went through hell after boarding a bus in Delhi, sounds even more draining as a spectacle.

I bumped into former Royal Court literary manager Graham Whybrow - Whybrow the Highbrow, I call him - who was visibly shaken by the experience he'd just gone through. He said Nirbhaya reminded him of those extraordinary Grassmarket Projects instigated a few years back in Edinburgh by Jeremy Weller; they were the first of the "new wave" hyper realist, no holds barred, street level verbatim docudramas and they decisively influenced, Whybrow tells me, the late Sarah Kane. When she saw one, she decided to write for the theatre.

Mind you, according to Kate Copstick in the Scotsman, who fell under the Brandreth spell when Gyles's son, Benet - a highly successful barrister and rhetoric coach at the RSC - scored a stand-up hit on the fringe, there are no mealy-mouthed flies on Gyles, either.

In the course of his Cooking for Happiness stand-up in the Pleasance, he apparently discusses the sex lives (in some detail) of both Frank Sinatra and his own father (Gyles's, not Frank's), deals with necrophilia and obviates the need to see Steven Berkoff altogether.

But who constitutes Gyles's audience? Fans of Just a Minute and The One Show, no doubt, with a fair showing for the grey pound. As Kate says, this lot are much more gaga than Lady Gaga. And he's probably the only performer in town singing the praises of Prince Philip in the same breath as bracketing Samuel Beckett with Noel Coward.

Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks
It's a great feature of the Fringe that the audiences are so diverse once you escape the hothouse of the Traverse. Not a single one of the crowd at Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks in the Assembly George Square would be seen even half dead at a play about rape, political oppression, sexual politics or child abuse.

So how refreshing, how very Brandrethian, perhaps, it was, to join them for a sharp and funny sketch show about the heyday (and Haystacks) of television wrestling, with some astute popular cultural referencing and more physical theatre than the entire dance programme at Summerhall (this year's seriously trending, and trendy, venue).

Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks almost certainly won't win any Fringe First awards, any more than Gyles Brandreth is going to be acclaimed as a Glasgow Herald Angel. But it's good to be reminded that there is a theatrical world, and an audience, beyond the confines of the regular critical beat and the serious new writing agenda.

In that latter category, last night's announcement - at the Traverse, natch - of the winner of the new drama category in the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (which already runs Britain's oldest literary contest) wasn't too surprising.

Welsh playwright Tim Price takes the gong, and £10,000, for his play about a convicted American spy, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. The play is currently in Edinburgh under the auspices of the National Theatre of Wales, for whom it was written, and runs in tandem with Price's more critically divisive rock music metaphor of independent nationalism in I'm With the Band... at, needless to say, the Traverse.