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Michael Coveney: Off and running in Edinburgh

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The train was chokka to Edinburgh yesterday morning and among all the rucksacks, hula-hoops, tattoos, dogs and coloured hairstyles - I was in the absolute opposite of the quiet carriage - I found the television producer Charlie Hanson who marked my card on the Slightly Fat Features front.

Slightly Fat Features
They were, he said, a coming thing and, as a close colleague of Ricky Gervais, he should know. Luckily, Slightly Fat Features were my second show of the afternoon off the train, and I could not have been more delighted: they're a bunch of madcap vaudevillians with a touch of Spike Milligan, the Goons and Monty Python, and if you've ever wanted to see a version of "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" played with hammers on a row of cuddly toy canines, now's your moment.

It was a glorious afternoon - the forecast is set pretty fair for the first fringe weekend - and it was almost pleasurable to be assailed by the first batch of flyer distributors in Bristo Square, the bloom still on, the smiles new hatched and full of hope, fun and high spirits. How all this will change after three weeks and a week of rain...

Meanwhile, I joined a merry throng for my first show, Pirates of the Carabina, dangerously situated next to a pop-up Drambuie (of all things) bar where the producer reminded me of a night we once spent together at a Madonna concert in Leeds.

As I've never been to a Madonna concert in Leeds or anywhere else, this came as a pleasant surprise, until she added that we shared a taxi after the concert back to the hotel... and then I wondered how much else in my life I hadn't actually experienced or, even more worryingly, deliberately forgotten. Or was I in the middle of an out of body fringe happening within two hours of arriving in Edinburgh? Was this a re-run, or a preview of something I was going to see later or, even worse, never going to see at all?

Slightly Fat Features were the most unexpected treat, and as I write this I've just emerged from my first Traverse play, David Leddy's Long Live the Little Knife, which is so surreal and Pirandellian it almost hurts, with the actors who play a couple of bizarre art forgers cruelly deprived of their bid for normality and decency in life just as I am having a scenario with a conically-breasted Madonna (it was that version, apparently) foisted upon me from my own past.

More familiar friends and colleagues were soon crowding around to improve my sense of worth and well-being. With Giles Cooper and Nicola Lamb of Mark Borkowski I renewed my fascination with their brilliant joint impersonation of Janet Street-Porter in which, for some reason, I become known as Janet herself; perhaps it was in her disguise I went to that concert in Leeds after all?

Naturally, I found Peter Straker - reprising his unmissable cabaret of Jacques Brel songs in the Assembly Checkpoint this year - in our home from home of Ciao Roma on Nicolson Street, where that fine Irish actor Patrick O'Kane (appearing with the Abbey in Owen McCafferty's new play Quietly at the Traverse) entertaining his family at a large table in the corner.

And then a chorus of critics emerging from every corner, still talking about the disbandment of the Independent on Sunday arts desk, though the editor has since rallied to suggest there will be arts features and some of those recently despatched will be returning to write them.

For the whole joy of Edinburgh, as much as the programme itself, is the crack, the rushing around, the renewal of old friendships and the discovery of new ones, obviously, that you never knew you had.

Some things don't change, though. There's still a bitterness in the air over the decampment of Bill Burdett-Coutts with the Assembly logo to George Square leaving the city council-backed Assembly Productions in George Street: the confusion is ridiculous and only fuelled by another outburst in this morning's Scotsman newspaper.

Talking of which, the Scotsman's old offices on North Bridge are now the Scotsman hotel where two bodies were found in a bedroom yesterday afternoon as a result, it has been suggested, of some sort of chemical accident.

Anyway, I've never known such a dramatic arrival in the city, with ambulances, police and fire engines closing off the area around the hotel, people being interviewed and an air of mystery and shock descending like a fog in the very centre of the fringe theatre nexus.

Let's hope the shows live up to this real life tragedy and excitement, with no more consequences for the participants, artists and audiences alike, than satisfaction, stimulation, exhilaration and exhaustion.