On a wing and a prayer

Edinburgh's oddest, most electrifying work is produced far from the Fringe

<strong>Edinburgh Inter

On the first night of the Edinburgh International Festival I told a couple of friends that I was on my way to the opening concert. "What opening? What concert?" was their incredulous reaction. This is one of the big problems facing Jonathan Mills, the incoming director of the EIF: the three-week international programme is left floundering at the fag end of August when the Fringe caravans, and most of the tourists, have already left town.

That Usher Hall concert was, by any standards, a dramatic highlight of the entire jamboree: an electrifying performance of Richard Strauss's Elektra, conducted by Edward Gardner, the newly appointed music director at English National Opera, and with a highly wrought performance from the voluptuous American soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in the title role.

It was followed by an irresistibly beautiful production at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre of a Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht double bill, directed by François Girard for the Opéra de Lyon. The Lindbergh Flight (1929) is a radio cantata, seldom seen in the theatre, celebrating Charles Lindbergh's solo flight from America to Europe in 1927; the better-known Seven Deadly Sins (1933) charts another journey, but across America, as twin sisters, both called Anna, discover the low life while dreaming of an ideal home on the Mississippi.

In the first, Lindbergh (Charles Workman) is a workmanlike hero in a monoplane (complete with big propeller) that slowly traverses the stage through choruses of singing snowstorms, singing fog and even singing Scottish fishermen, before landing in Paris to a ticker-tape reception of fluttering dollar bills. The chill, metronomic nature of the prophetic space-age triumph - acclaimed by earthbound singers on chairs and described by a radio announcer - is reflected in the music, which has hints of The Threepenny Opera but some unusual raw jazz elements, too.

The Seven Deadly Sins is also severely presented, one Anna trying to keep the second Anna (given a sensational, multi-character identity by seven sexy dancers) on the straight and narrow road to human prosperity. So, both pieces are highly charged fables of capitalist enterprise: the good, the bad and the cuddly. And both prove highly susceptible to the imaginative, revelatory production style they receive here.

Brian McMaster's international programme has been notable for bringing Scottish dramatists on to the larger stages, and Anthony Neilson's filthy, funny Realism, co-presented with the National Theatre of Scotland at the Royal Lyceum, rose to the challenge of thinking outside the small Fringe box. A bespectacled, fat slob called Stuart (played by a bespectacled, fat actor called Stuart McQuarrie) decides to dream the boring day he might have instead of the boring one he is due.

The Lyceum stage is a sandpit mysteriously assailed by the sound of Israeli bombers. An argument about the smoking ban in Scotland develops into a fantasy session of Question Time where Stu has all the irrefutable arguments. And an impertinent BT cold call prompts a withering torrent of abuse only to result in the BT caller turning up on the doorstep - in a wheelchair, on a drip.

After attending his own wake, participating in a grandiose finale and waking up in bed once more, Stu is seen in a tiny kitchen, ready for the day he would have had without the show. Nothing happens. The lights come up. The audience leaves. Neilson directs his own work as he writes it. The play, and the brilliantly surreal design of Miriam Buether, have the freshness of a genuine artistic adventure.

Meanwhile, my favourite Fringe comedy show was 73-year-old Dudley Sutton (the first Mr Sloane in Joe Orton's play) sticking up for bohemianism in Pandora's Lunch Box at the Pleasance. A denizen of London's Soho since 1949, Sutton reveals that his father was a bigot, the only man to participate in the relief of Belsen yet remain an anti-Semite for the rest of his life. And the Rt Hon Anthony Charles Lynton Blair? "He's Scotland's revenge for Culloden!"

For further info and booking details visit www.eif.co.uk

Pick of the week

The Overwhelming
Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
Gripping thriller set in 1994, in a Rwanda about to collapse into chaos and genocide.

Donkeys' Years
Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Thirty years on, Michael Frayn's Oxbridge college reunion farce is as funny as ever.

Avenue Q
Noë Coward Theatre, London WC2
Sesame Street meets The Muppets with rude bits and funny songs in this enjoyably bad-taste romp.

12 issues for £12